When former Lodi High School football star George Duenas was named the head football coach at Berthold High School in North Dakota in April at age 23, he realized a lifelong dream.
Eight weeks later, a 15-foot high wall of water destroyed Duenas' home and flooded the town of Minot, N.D., in June, leaving Duenas homeless and jobless as a result of the worst natural disaster in the city's history.
Now, with the help of friends and family, Duenas is working tirelessly to put his life, his coaching career and his adopted city back together.
"When the warning sirens went off, that brought a sick feeling into my stomach," said Duenas of that day on June 19 when the Souris River, angry and swollen from a combination of heavy rains, a melting snowpack and water being released from dams, burst through the city's dikes and swamped the town.
"The thing that scared me the most was the evacuation process," said Duenas. "Just watching people in panic was not a great sight."
Duenas said he was watching live news coverage of the flood provided by a local news station helicopter while it was occurring and couldn't believe what he was seeing when the news chopper flew over his neighborhood.
"You could see the water getting higher and higher and it was happening so fast," Duenas said of the flood, which displaced over 10,000 people from their homes. "The house I lived in had water to the roof — and it wasn't a small house, but a two-story house."
The disaster devastated Duenas, leaving him unsure of his next step. But Duenas knew one thing. He wasn't leaving Minot. Not when so many people needed him desperately.
"To lose a home is one of the worst feelings. This flood was a life change," Duenas said. "But to lose the feeling of not being able to support myself and to be homeless is the lowest low I have ever experienced."
But instead of leaving, Duenas just rolled up his sleeves and went to work doing anything he could to help the same people that cheered him on when he was a two-time all-conference offensive guard for the Minot State University football team.
"It's the North Dakota attitude where you help your fellow neighbor out. Most of the people sandbagging houses were in the clear and their houses were not in danger," Duenas said. "Others already had their homes destroyed but thought they could help save someone else's home."
Duenas' giant heart, drive and determination is why his former Lodi High offensive line coach Greg Bishop says he holds Duenas in the highest regard possible.
"I think this kid was born smiling and his attitude is contagious. He would do anything for you and is as loyal as they come," Bishop said.
"It doesn't surprise me at all that George would help people in need or put others before himself. He lives the Golden Rule, thanks to his mother (Connie Mireles). I only hope my three boys will grow up to have the kind of character he possesses."
According to Duenas' girlfriend, Kori Haskins, whose family opened their already crammed home full of relatives and evacuees to Duenas when he had no place to go, Duenas has been a bright spot for the Minot community.
"George is a really positive person who always looks for the good. With that said, it is hard to find the good when you are surrounded by the bad," said Haskins of her devastated community.
"The whole city is still in a mess. George has empathy for everyone and makes a point of asking people he knows about their flooding situation. He has a positive outlook that not everyone in Minot has right now."
Duenas' little brother JoJo, himself a former all-star lineman for the Flames, went to Minot to see his big brother after the flood hit and was shocked by what he saw.
"I knew about the flood and that there was damage but did not know that it was that bad. It looked like the aftermath of a bomb hitting the city, there were so many houses and some schools that were ruined," JoJo Duenas said.
"The worst part was the people who lost their homes had to gut them out themselves because of the mold and clean sewage water from their basements. I wouldn't have been able to do that."
Berthold High, which is about 20 miles from Minot, started football practice on Aug. 10 and it has been a welcome diversion for George Duenas, who was formerly the Bombers defensive coordinator last season when Berthold made the playoffs for the first time.
Duenas said the former head coach decided to resign in the offseason and the school asked him to take over in April.
"Becoming head coach of a high school team was a top goal of mine ever since I was little and to achieve it at the age of 23 makes me very ecstatic," Duenas said. "The expectations are high and we expect to make it to the state playoffs and make a run for the championship."
According to Bishop, a former NFL lineman who played for the Giants and the Falcons, becoming a coach is something Duenas was, quite simply, born to do.
"He was a heck of a football player. Had he been 6-3 instead of 5-9, there is no question in my mind he would have gotten an opportunity to play on a bigger stage. He was that good." Bishop said.
"I always believed and hoped George would become a coach because of his love for the game and his understanding of the concepts. The fact he became a head coach so quickly is a testament to the impact he has made in his coaching career so far."
Duenas' success doesn't surprise his mother, Connie Mireles, who said George, who comes from a single-parent family, knew that the odds were against him being successful.
"Georgie once said to me, "Mom, the odds are against us but I refuse to be a statistic," Mireles said. "I taught my boys respect and values at the very young age. I was strict and don't believe in half-ass jobs and when you start something, you finish it. George never lets whatever challenges he has get in his way."
Despite his ordeal, Duenas said his family and friends in Lodi called him every day to check on him and offer assistance. Duenas said the aftermath of the flood was horrible and an experience he will remember for a lifetime. He also thanked his girlfriend, Kori, her daughter, Gracie, and Kori's parents and brother, Art, Kathy and Jon Haskins, for all they have done for him.
"There was not much anyone could have done but knowing I had support and prayers meant a lot to me," Duenas said. "When my brother JoJo came up to visit, it was nice having family up here and it was something I really needed."
JoJo Duenas said it was hard when George moved so far away from Lodi but that he is so proud of his older brother.
"You spend 18 years sharing a room with somebody, you are bound to get attached to them. It took about 11 hours total flying time to get there but that is nothing," said JoJo Duenas, chuckling. "Georgie is my hero and I don't know how I would function if I couldn't get to see him at least twice a year."
Contact reporter Richard Banas II at firstname.lastname@example.org.