Beto Mejia, whose skyrocketing coaching career in football at tiny Mendota High found national fame before suddenly hitting a wall with an auto insurance fraud arrest nearly a year ago, has returned in charge of the Aztecs.
The 2012 Bee Coach of the Year, whose impact on the program and impoverished community inspired an ESPN documentary, was placed on administrative leave last September facing criminal charges of three felony counts of insurance fraud and one misdemeanor charge of filing a false report of a theft of his all-terrain vehicle in order to collect insurance on it.
He would plead not guilty soon after in Fresno County Superior Court and the case remains pending, according to his lawyer, Erin Ormonde.
Mejia was allowed by Mendota Unified School District to return as a special education teacher in January and this summer was reinstated as football coach.
“While there are allegations, there’s nothing indicating we should not go forward with him because he hasn’t been convicted in the court of law,” said Superintendent Paul Lopez, a near 20-year district employee and former teacher of Mejia who replaced Mike Crass as district superintendent four months ago. “It made no sense, in my opinion, to bring him back as a teacher and not a coach.
“I do really believe Beto Mejia has done a lot of good things for our community, that he was responsible for packing the (football) stadium like never before and that this is the right decision. We’ve made a decision collectively to bring back the coach and we have faith he’ll do the best for kids. He brought joy and pride in the community, and I believe he can still bring that.
There’s nothing indicating we should not go forward with him because he hasn’t been convicted in the court of law.
Mendota Unified Superintendent Paul Lopez, on the reinstatement of football coach Beto Mejia
“If convicted, we’ll revisit the issue.”
Arturo Andrade – a co-defendant in the case who once played for Mejia at Mendota – has pleaded no contest to misdemeanor insurance fraud and was sentenced to two years probation and 50 hours of community service.
Lopez, asked for his opinion of retaining Mejia as teacher/coach should his case also be settled out of court and result in a misdemeanor, said: “I can’t speculate, to be honest; I can’t predict the future. I’d hate to say we’re headed in one direction and that not be the case. A (final legal ruling) will give us more clarity and help us determine what our long-term plans will be.”
Mejia, 33 and a graduate of Mendota, stopped just short of establishing a preferred case-ending timeline: “Sooner the better. However, that might not be the best thing.”
He said part of his reinstatement at the school was contingent on “completing courses of sportsmanship,” as mandated by school principal Carlos Arredondo.
34-5 Mejia’s record in three-plus seasons at Mendota in addition to two Central Section titles
While admitting a return under a darkened cloud, Mejia said he’s been received by players with no less trust and that participation numbers have actually reached an unprecedented level in a career that enters his fifth season with a 34-5 record (not including 7-3 in his 2014 absence), two Central Section titles and a runner-up at a 750-student, 21-year school with modest football achievement previously.
Mendota, defending champion Immanuel and Bishop appear to be top contenders for this season’s Division V crown.
“The players respect me – they don’t judge me and they know I’m giving 1,000 percent, which is up from 100 percent,” Mejia said following a practice this week. “The kids still look to me for guidance and advice to put them in a position to succeed.
“This program is bigger than me; the community is bigger than me. This is about inspiring people and giving a lot of hope in a community of poverty. That’s the real story, and I’m blessed to be a part of it.”
The story was produced by ESPN in a documentary in February 2014.
ESPN’s SportsCenter Featured crew, led by producer Scott Harves, made several trips in six months to Mendota from the cable giant’s headquarters in Bristol, Connecticut. In addition, Mejia was flown there for an ESPN “Front Row” interview with Lindsay Czarniak.
“I’ve seen Beto develop and grow as a young man, and now as a teacher,” Lopez said. “I trust he’ll be more careful as he presents himself to the public and realizes how much influence he has.”