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Appreciation: Al Padilla was more than just an East L.A. coaching legend

East Los Angeles football coaching legend Al Padilla on the sideline in an undated photo.
Cradle to grave, Hector Albert Padilla, who passed last week at age 90, was a fixture on the Los Angeles football scene and the lives of the players he coached.
(Courtesy of the Padilla family.)

No one denies that Al Padilla was a tough football coach. With his blunt features, thick black hair, he had the look. Stalking the field, grumbling and hollering, he made his teams repeat the same drills over and over until they got it right. People still tell the story of the lineman who dared to talk back.

“Coach called me over and told me to take my helmet off,” J. Jon Bruno recalls all these years later. “Whap! He hit me on the side of the head with his clipboard.”

Hit him so hard the clipboard broke. The next morning, Bruno showed up at Padilla’s office with a new one.

“It was my fault,” he says. “I could never be mad at him.”

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Over the course of four decades, Padilla became an institution in East L.A., teaching the game to generations of young men at Roosevelt High and then rival Garfield High before moving to East L.A. College, where he led the Huskies to their first state championship.

Football was only part of Padilla’s impact on the community. Long after players graduated, they would get a phone call or a note from their old coach, who was checking up on them. If someone needed a job, he asked around. If someone died, he rounded up teammates to serve as pallbearers.

Bill McMillin heard an announcement on a radio station that the annual Garfield-Roosevelt football game would be played. He made a documentary about what he saw.

“Al could be a tough guy,” says Mike Garrett, who played for Padilla at Roosevelt before winning the Heisman Trophy at USC and playing in two Pro Bowls and a Super Bowl with the Kansas City Chiefs. “But off the field, he loved you to death.”

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When Padilla died at age 90 earlier this month, word spread quickly. His former players commiserated. Some cried, including Bruno, who grew up to become bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles. “I shouldn’t break down in tears,” Bruno says, “but he was one of the greatest mentors of my life.”

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Plenty of good players, such as Garrett, have passed through Roosevelt and Garfield over the years. But neither of the schools, situated about four miles apart, has ever been considered a football powerhouse.

They are, however, a big deal in the community.

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As many as 20,000 people show up for their annual rivalry game, the East L.A. Classic, each fall. Families are defined by whom they root for, the Rough Riders or Bulldogs. And Padilla stood at the center of it all.

“I shouldn’t break down in tears, but he was one of the greatest mentors of my life.”

J. Jon Bruno, former player

His coaching career began at Roosevelt in the mid-1950s. He then switched to Garfield — “Turncoat,” Garrett says, only half-jokingly — in the 1960s.

Former players remember his attention to detail, especially along the line of scrimmage, where he had played in high school and college. Practices were demanding, always harder than the games.

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“Coach wanted perfection,” says Bill Gonzalez, a star running back at Garfield in the early 1960s. “He told us, ‘Get it right, get it right.’”

Told them in a voice they can never forget.

“Oh my God,” Gonzalez says, “you could hear him all over the dang school.”

Al Padilla in an undated photo.
(Courtesy of the Padilla family)
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The Garfield Bulldogs had suffered through disappointing years when Padilla took over. By his second season, they were leagues champions, but wins and losses don’t fully account for the coach’s legacy.

Padilla always left a crate of apples or oranges in the visitors’ locker room on game day and instructed his team to greet opponents during warmups. Off the field, he demanded good grades. If a player had trouble with schoolwork or anything else, teammates were expected to help.

“He taught us how important it was to maintain relationships,” Bruno says. “To care for each other.”

Fatherly is a term his former players often use. The man they continued to call “Coach” through their adult years was equal parts demanding and supportive, always watching over.

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“Coach was raised without a dad,” Garrett says. “Did you know that?”

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Hector Albert Padilla was born March 22, 1930, in Tucson, Ariz., to Manuel, who worked as a boilermaker for the Southern Pacific Railroad, and Concepcion, who was a seamstress.

Manuel also played semipro baseball — he was a catcher — and had just enough time to pass on his love of the sport to his only son. He died from illness at 42 when Al was still in grade school.

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In 1939, the family moved to Los Angeles where Padilla distinguished himself as captain of the football team and a star pitcher at Roosevelt High. A semipro baseball team sponsored by Ornelas Market recruited him for the local barrio league, with games played at a Boyle Heights park.

“Each team brought one new ball to the game,” he told The Times in 2006. “You could call it a two-ball league — and the winning team got to keep both balls.”

After World War II, a loose affiliation of amateur and semiprofessional teams played nearly every weekend throughout Southern California and northern Mexico. Nowhere were those games bigger than in East L.A.

Though Occidental College offered him an athletic scholarship, Padilla could not pass the English entrance exam. He reacted in the same way — Get it right — that he would later stress to players.

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First came a stint in the Army, then two years at junior college. In 1950, he transferred to Occidental, where he became an all-conference guard on the Tigers’ offensive line. At 5 feet 9 and 185 pounds, pro football was out of the question; another type of sports career called to him.

“No, there weren’t many Latino coaches at all,” Gonzalez said, “but he was intending to do that.”

Roosevelt High gave him a start, running the junior varsity football team, and it wasn’t long before Padilla worked his way up the ladder. His son, Steve, the Column One editor at The Times, recalls him coming home with a hoarse voice. The coach wasn’t sick; he had been shouting at his players all afternoon.

“Were they screwing up?” Steve asked.

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“No,” his father replied. “It was just time to yell at them.”

In this era, his style — especially the part where he breaks a clipboard over a player’s head — might not be acceptable , but Garrett suggests that Padilla be viewed in the context of his time.

“It was a throwback to World War II and the Korean War,” Garrett says. “His generation served in the military, then came back and taught the next generation with sternness, but also with compassion.”

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Lynn Cain was done playing football.

After three seasons at USC and seven more in the NFL with the Atlanta Falcons and Los Angeles Rams, the running back decided to become a coach. His first job at an Atlanta high school led to a spot on the staff at Southwest Baptist University.

Al Padilla during his time in the U.S. Army.
(Courtesy of the Padilla family)

Arriving at the campus in a small Missouri town, he received a letter from Padilla.

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“Wow,” he recalls thinking. “How did Al Padilla know I was in Missouri?”

A decade earlier, Cain had been a part of Padilla’s greatest success, that championship season at East L.A. College.

The Huskies weren’t much of a team when Padilla took over, stumbling to a 1-9 record the first season. Needing fresh blood, he scoured Southern California for talent that had been overlooked by larger schools. Five of the prospects he discovered — including Cain, Mike Davis and David Gray — eventually wound up in the NFL.

“Think of the guys he recruited,” Cain says. “It was like a Disney story.”

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The 1974 squad flipped its record to 9-1-2, defeating San Jose City College in the Shrine Potato Bowl to claim the state title. Though the team soon scattered, some going to NCAA programs, others dropping out of football, Padilla added their names to a long list.

“He stayed connected with his players,” Cain said. “Always had some idea what you were doing in life.”

Padilla helped Cain get the head coaching job at East L.A. College in 2007. He found jobs for other former players outside of football, whether it was working in a factory or delivering meat.

This emphasis on relationships, on caring for one another, rubbed off on the men who played for him. They continued visiting Padilla and his wife, Dora, at their Alhambra home long after his retirement, after streaks of gray began to show in his black hair and that voice grew a little raspier, a little quieter.

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In recent years, when he and Dora moved into an assisted living facility, his former players brought along kids and grandchildren to meet the old coach.

“Al Padilla was cradle to the grave,” Cain said. “When you joined his team, he had you cradle to grave.”


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