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Gustine football star plays on in spite of recent tragedy
Zander Leyva
Zander Leyva breaks free to score Gustine’s lone touchdown with 45 seconds left in the game for the Chiefs against Orestimba (COLBY GOMES/The Journal).

NEWMAN — This wasn’t the way it was supposed to end.

Gustine High senior Zander Leyva stood near the east end zone of Orestimba High’s Roger Pauletto Stadium, his team trailing 49-0 in the annual Battle for the Chief — the season-ending showdown between the archrivals that determines possession of a 6-foot, wooden statue of a Native American in full headdress. 

On the first really cold night of the football season, when temperatures dipped into the 40s before the game’s conclusion, Leyva had been so full of hope and promise just hours before, only to be knocked down and bloodied before he ever had a chance to get going.

Leyva’s final Battle for the Chief was a metaphor for the 18-year-old’s life recently.

On Oct. 13, just after 11 p.m., Leyva’s grandparents, Nick and Marie Leyva, and his 3-month-old daughter, Celeste Eliana Leyva, were killed when their 2001 Ford Expedition was struck by a suspected drunk driver on Highway 140 east of Kniebes Road, about a mile outside of Gustine. Four other passengers in the car, three of whom suffered major injuries, survived.

The group was driving home from Le Grand after watching Leyva play a Southern League game against the Bulldogs.

Leyva played football the following Friday night against Ripon Christian and he played again Friday against rival Gustine. He had hoped to honor the memory of his loved ones by playing the game of his life and helping the Reds deliver an upset of the heavily favored Warriors.

"Obviously, that’s going to be there,” said Leyva, wearing a specially made black and red “Leyva Strong” bracelet on his wrist. “You want to have the game of your life, you want to have a storybook ending. But, regardless of your circumstances, you’re not going to win ’em all, even if you want that fairytale ending. And I knew that. And I knew my grandparents and my baby would understand.”

Levya, 5-11, 175-pound running back, is a 1,000-yard rusher with multiple 200-yard rushing games in his career. On Friday, against Orestimba, he carried the ball 14 times for just 49 yards.

In fact, up until Gustine’s final drive of the night, Leyva had carried the ball just eight times for a total of 7 yards.

After the Warriors had scored to make it 49-0, the Reds got the ball on their own 19 with eight and a half minutes remaining. With a running clock, that’s barely enough time to run a dozen plays from scrimmage.

Leyva carried the ball six times for 42 yards on that final drive — the last coming from Orestimba’s 3-yard line. 

Leyva took the ball and sliced through the Warriors’ defense, falling onto his stomach, just inside the goal line just seconds before time expired

He lied there on the cold, wet grass enjoying the relative peace and calm for a brief moment. Moments later, he made his way to midfield as a wild celebration erupted along the home sideline.

“I was ready to play,” said Levya, who turned 18 two days after the accident. “I was ready to fight, and that’s what I did. I fought to the end.”

Perhaps that, too, will become a metaphor for Leyva as he moves forward.