Commentary: The Hall of Fame bash for Tom Flores that celebrates what’s possible for Latinos
Long before I was a columnist, long before I was a podcast host, before I was an author, an editor, a taco historian — long before all of that — I was a high school football reporter.
It only happened for one fall, in 1996 during my senior year at Anaheim High School. I was on the yearbook and newspaper staff, and my job was to document our mighty Colonists. I did it because I’m a huge football fan, but I also wanted to cheer on our three stars, guys I had known since our days at Sycamore Junior High.
Jesus Acevedo was our main wide receiver, a guy whose family was from the same rancho in Zacatecas as mine, who had hands like staplers and ran like the track stud that he was. Luis Gomez was the quarterback, tall and with an arm like a howitzer. And the best athlete of them all was Jose Rodriguez, another speedy receiver who was even better as a defensive back.
Tom Flores, who has played on and coached championship teams, won one of his Super Bowls in Los Angeles and left his mark on Southern California .
The three led the Colonists to a share of the Orange League title and were so dominant that I wanted to immortalize them with a nickname (I went with the Flying Burrito Brothers, but my editor nixed the idea. Damn editors). Myself and the rest of the Class of 1997 — 95% Latinos — couldn’t wait for them to find college glory.
It never happened. The University of Idaho recruited Acevedo, but he quickly came back home. Rodriguez played for four years at Menlo College, an NAIA school. Gomez went on with his life. They had the skills to go far, but my classmates had one big roadblock: They were Mexican-Americans who played football. Working-class kids with the skills to go big, but too few resources to get there.
Latinos make up a bigger and bigger portion of football fans every year, as the Las Vegas Raiders, Dallas Cowboys, University of Miami Hurricanes and USC Trojans can tell you. More and more high schools feature Latino-majority football teams, just like the Anaheim Colonists were over 20 years ago and have remained since. But when it comes to advancing past high school and the cheap seats, the numbers get smaller and smaller for us.
There’s just one Hispanic-surnamed prospect in Rivals.com’s Top 100 prospects for the Class of 2021. Only 3% of Division I football players identify as Latino, according to a 2020 survey by The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport at the University of Central Florida. That same report found that just half of 1% of NFL players in 2019 were Latinos, while just 1% of coaches were.
That’s why the enshrinement this past summer of Tom Flores in the Pro Football Hall of Fame — just the sixth Latino — was so important. They’re going to hold a big ol’ party for him this Saturday in Sanger, the tiny city in California’s Central Valley where Flores was raised and where they named the football stadium after him years ago. I wish I could go, but all the jobs I listed at the beginning of this column preclude me from the fun.
Trust me, I’m going to feel the FOMO. You’re going to see a scene similar to what I remember so fondly from my high school years — thousands of pigskin fans, nearly all of us Latino, enjoying one of our own excelling in the most American of sports. But in this case, we can bask in the happiness that is seeing a Latino make it all the way to the top.
I’m not one for nostalgia, but Flores is different. I was long skeptical of the idea he belonged in the Hall of Fame. Sure, he was a pro pioneer many times over: First Latino starting quarterback. First Latino to play on a Super Bowl-winning team when he backed up Len Dawson in the Kansas City Chiefs’ Super Bowl IV victory. First Latino to coach an NFL team — the Oakland Raiders — and the only one to win a title (Flores nabbed two). First Latino general manager, with the Seattle Seahawks. Not bad for a son of migrant workers, who picked grapes during the summers when he wasn’t starring at Sanger High in the 1950s.
But in this case, we can bask in the happiness that is seeing a Latino make it all the way to the top.
But Flores was a marginal player, I’d tell my Raiders-loving cousins. Despite the two Super Bowl rings. his overall record as head coach wasn’t great, and he didn’t do anything as a GM. I’d compare him to George Seifert, who won two Super Bowl championships with the San Francisco 49ers and retired with a far better lifetime winning percentage than Flores, but rarely gets mentioned in any Hall of Fame discussions.
But as I got older and looked back on my high school reporting days, I’d also think of my brother, who’s 12 years younger than me. He’s the jock in our sports-mad family, a fine power forward in basketball who also couldn’t go anywhere with a career because club leagues and private coaches were a luxury beyond the means of my parents.
Gabriel yearned for sports stars who were Latinos — one of his role models was former UCLA center Lorenzo Mata-Real, a key player in my alma mater’s Final Four runs in 2006 and 2007. My family cheered him on from home because Mata-Real, like us, was a Mexican kid from a Latino-majority city, but he actually got a chance for the big time and showed what happens when Latinos take it.
Tom Flores, a Mexican American former NFL quarterback and coach for the Raiders and other teams, has long deserved enshrinement in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Gabriel’s the one who turned me on to “Athletes Remembered: Mexicano/Latino Professional Football Players, 1929-1970,” a 1997 book that scoured through press clippings in the pre-Google days to show that, though few of us ever got to the big time, we sure as hell tried. He’s the one who tuned me in to Latinos adopting Kobe Bryant as one of our own, partly because he was so great but mostly because we had no one else.
My brother now helps out in youth basketball, and tells his young players — Latinos like us — the message I should’ve absorbed long ago: Representation does matter. Pioneers do matter.
So as Sanger celebrates Tom Flores this weekend, I’ll raise a Coors Light in honor of him, but also my brother. To Jesus Acevedo, Luis Gomez, and Jose Rodriguez. To all the Latino prep athletes who didn’t and don’t have a path forward because scouts aren’t looking for them, because they don’t play for marquee schools.
Neither did Flores when he was their age. But he got the chance, and he’s now with the greats. May more Latinos follow.
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