CHEROKEE, Iowa | Sara Ramirez is all smiles minutes after being crowned homecoming queen at Washington High School in Cherokee on a Friday afternoon long on sunshine and cheer.
And then the queen admits something a bit startling: One week ago she didn't recognize her school.
Ramirez is the first queen I've met who assumes her throne while being withheld from athletic competition due to a concussion. While she savors the rush of homecoming week, Ramirez says it's been a bummer to miss two tournaments and two volleyball matches played by her Braves.
A bigger bummer? This is the last day of work at Tyson Deli Foods, and my primary reason for showing up. Folks here have concerns about Cherokee's ability to withstand the loss of 450 jobs. Houses will be placed on the market. Financial and emotional strains will work their way through the business district, the schools and elsewhere.
The Braves' 2014 homecoming parade strikes me as a way to shove the day's business blues aside, if only for an hour. I ride shotgun beside Jim Perrin, the official Camaro-driving parade escort for the king and queen, Hunter Morrow and Ramirez, who details the pain and fog she endured one week ago.
"I was playing soccer in P.E. class, got tripped, fell backwards and hit my head," the daughter of Jose Ramirez and Bertha Canales says. "Two girls carried me back into the school and I don't remember it. Once I got into the school, I didn't recognize where I was."
Confusion gives way to headaches. She cancels plans to watch her classmates play football at Sheldon (Iowa) High School that night. She misses her home volleyball invitational the following day.
She's diagnosed with a concussion and misses another volleyball match as well as the popular powderpuff girls football game, a homecoming staple across Siouxland.
She doesn't show enough improvement in a second visit to her doctor on Thursday and doesn't get the green light for competition this weekend.
She can, however, twirl flags with the marching band at halftime of the Braves' game on Friday night versus the mighty Spirit Lake Indians.
Before that there's the parade, which winds its way south and east through downtown Cherokee. She and Morrow throw candy and pose for hundreds of photos.
Morrow, the only non-football player among five king candidates (he suffered a knee injury during football last season and gave up the sport), drapes gold wrestling shoes over his shoulder as he walks to the stage during coronation. The other four Braves tote the pigskin.
"You get to carry with you whatever you like to do at school," says Morrow, son of Fank and Kallie Morrow, and a three-time qualifier at the Iowa High School State Wrestling Meet. "Wrestling is my sport."
Ramirez plays volleyball, basketball, softball and runs track. She's also in Spanish Club (she's bilingual), National Honor Society, band, and has served as class president.
Her favorite school activity? Student council. "Without student council, we wouldn't have homecoming," she says, minutes before the parade. "The people on student council plan homecoming activities, advertise the events, contact the drivers of the convertibles, plan the dress-up days and powderpuff football."
Ramirez works with local media to make sure the public knows where to go to watch the parade. She succeeds, judging by the hundreds of adoring supporters who line these streets and cheer as the royal couple cruises past, all smiles.
It's a scene that, unlike her scary school scenario one week ago, Ramirez readily recognizes.
"I like the fact that Cherokee is a small town," the new queen says. "And we like homecoming. It's always like this for our parade."