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20110930_WEB_ProgressTimes_001MISSION — In four years, high school athletes scrape the ceiling of glory and plumb the depths of defeat. High school football, as well as baseball, basketball and volleyball, are more than diversions, more than simply a thing to do on Friday night. For many athletes, they represent the apex of their sporting careers. However, once the lights are snuffed and the diplomas disseminated, what becomes of the local hero? Where do high school athletes turn when their time at glory reaches its inevitable end? For Mission native Ben Lopez, this is the moment he steps into a valuable role of helping athletes take that next step.

Lopez, a recruiter for Lindenwood University in St. Charles, MO., has made it his mission to share the gifts of Rio Grande Valley athletes with the rest of the nation and, more importantly, give local athletes a chance to continue their education.

“I do a lot of things people don’t understand,” said Lopez. “I help the kids with their admission paperwork, including financial aid and letters of recommendation. I get all the paperwork together and take it to my boss and we look it over to see what we can do for these kids.”

In 1995, Lopez’s son, Joe, was accepted at Lindenwood on an academic scholarship, and played basketball as a walk-on. Lopez said Joe impressed the faculty and coaches so much so that they asked if he would serve as a conduit to other Valley student athletes like himself. Lopez, who at the time was working for an airline in St. Louis, volunteered his time to help his son introduce Valley student athletes to the world of higher learning.

“I was just trying to help my son,” said Lopez. “The St. Louis airport is very close to the school, so I would fly the kids in and Joe would take them to the university and if everything was fine, we’d give them a scholarship right then and there.”

For the next eight years, Lopez and his son acted as a two-man guide for Valley students who showed enough athletic aptitude to play at the next level.

“When I retired from the airlines is when the president of Lindenwood called me in to his office and offered me a job in 2003,” said Lopez. “Since then I’ve had the full range of South Texas. I serve in Midland, Houston, San Antonio and Eagle Pass, but my main focus is South Texas because I really know the Valley.”

Lopez now spends his time in perpetual commute from the Rio Grande Valley to Missouri, logging over 25,000 miles per year. While in the Valley, he spends his time meeting with students, going to games and organizing meetings with students and Lindenwood coaches. It is an exhaustive process, and one that Lopez takes seriously. For him, it is not simply an athlete’s ability that makes its mark.

“I read a lot on these kids from the newspapers and I go to different games and I scout for one or two games to make sure that they are what I’m looking for,” said Lopez. “I look for something special, not just how they play. I want to see if they pay attention to the coach or how hungry they are. Lindenwood trusts me and they know I will bring them good kids.”

Lopez knows a thing or two about “good kids.” His son, Joe, is now the principal of Mission High School. For Lopez, each and every student he recruits that graduates gives him the same satisfaction as watching his own son succeed.

“It’s very rewarding,” said Lopez. “When they finish school, I’m there for the graduation. I’ll take pictures with them and talk to the parents. The most important thing is when the parents look at me and tell me that this was the right school for their child.”

That sense of satisfaction is what keeps Lopez motivated, and why he can’t see himself retiring any time soon.

“I’ll keep doing this until they tell me they don’t need me anymore,” said Lopez. “My health is good. Wherever they call me, in any part of the state, I’ll go. My main goal is for these kids to get an education. I know they’re good players but I want them to have an education.”

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