Latinx Files: Will Tom Flores finally get his due?

Latinx Files: Will Tom Flores finally get his due?

Originally Published in the Los Angeles Times

Fidel Martinez - January 28, 2021

Coach Tom Flores holds out a fist as Raiders football players lift him up

Coach Tom Flores gestures to members of the Los Angeles Raiders as they carry him off the field after their 38-9 victory over Washington in Super Bowl XVIII on Jan. 23, 1984.  (Associated Press)

On Feb. 7, millions worldwide will tune in to watch the Kansas City Chiefs (change the name already!) face off against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Super Bowl LV. It promises to be a great game, one that pits the greatest quarterback of all time (Tom Brady) against the quarterback most likely to take that distinction away from him (Patrick Mahomes).

I, however, am most anticipating what will take place the day before: the announcement of the 2021 class of inductees into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. The reason? The likely enshrinement of Tom Flores, a Mexican American pioneer who has long deserved the recognition as a coach.

The Pro Football Hall of Fame’s mission is “to honor the heroes of the game” and “to preserve its history,” and no other candidate on this year’s list of finalists fits that bill better than Flores.

He’s a hero to Raiders fans, having led the team to Super Bowl victories in 1981 (when the team played in Oakland) and in 1984 (when it played in Los Angeles). That’s one more than Hall of Fame coach John Madden won.

It’s worth noting that he did it with a Chicano quarterback, Jim Plunkett.

Flores is also one of just two people (the other being Mike Ditka) to have won a Super Bowl ring as a player, as an assistant coach and as a head coach — his former two rings coming in 1970 with Kansas City and 1977 with the Raiders.

In terms of history, Flores has certainly made it several times over. He was the first Hispanic (a term he’s used to identify himself) quarterback in professional football, the first Hispanic player at that position to be named to the Pro Bowl, the first Hispanic head coach in the NFL and the first to win a Super Bowl, and the first Hispanic executive in the NFL.

Not bad for a kid from the San Joaquin Valley, the son of Mexican farmworkers.

And yet despite his impressive resume, Flores has had to wait decades to be recognized. It’s an exclusion so egregious that Coors, the brewery that tried to use “the decade of the Hispanic” in the ’80s to sell beer, launched a campaign that put the Raider legend’s face on Coors Light cans to pressure voters into righting this wrong.

So why do I, a lifelong fan of the Dallas Cowboys, care so much about Flores’ induction? And why should readers of this newsletter who don’t follow sports care as well?

Because as Latinxs, it should matter that people who look like us and whose stories resemble ours get recognized for their excellence. It’s a reminder that our community is capable of doing great things, of not only imagining “cosas chingonas,” as Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez would say, but also making them a reality.

It’s aspirational and inspirational.

“Personally, it’s important for the recognition,” Adam Arellano, a 45-year-old Raiders fan from Santa Maria, Calif., recently told me. “A brown-skinned guy whose family worked the fields like my grandparents and mother did, who achieved and succeeded. It’s good to see that. He embodies the Raiders’ motto of ‘commitment to excellence.’”

It matters to people like Arellano and myself now just as it mattered to members of our community back in the 1980s.

Flores, as Raiders' head coach, gestures as he talks over a play with quarterback Jim Plunkett in 1981.

Flores, then the Oakland Raiders’ head coach, talks over a play with quarterback Jim Plunkett during the AFC playoff game on Sunday, Jan. 4, 1981, in Cleveland.
(AP)

“That is precisely why their success is so significant to Latinos,” the late columnist Frank del Olmo, a trailblazer in his own right, wrote 40 years ago in The Times a week before Super Bowl XV, which featured the Raiders and the Philadelphia Eagles.

“Whether the Raiders win or lose the Super Bowl game, millions of Latinos will be proud simply that Flores and Plunkett are there,” Del Olmo wrote. “For they will be there not as representatives of their people but as competent professionals whose skill, determination and hard work have brought them to the pinnacle of success in their field.”

And it should also matter to the NFL. After all, Flores has done more to grow the sport — as of 2019, it had more than 30 million Latinx fans — than the league’s own half-baked and superficial campaigns during National Hispanic Heritage Month.

Flores is keenly aware of how much he means to the Latinx community.

“I didn’t really realize it until years later — after I did most of my work — how important it was to them,” he said in 2020. “When I traveled around the country I would talk to somebody who would say, ‘My dad watched you play.’ Or ‘My grandfather watched you play and coach, and he cried.’

“You think about those things,” he said. “I tell people, ‘I’m not going in — if I go in — by myself. I’m going in with a lot of people. A lot of fans; a lot of the Raider Nation.’”

 

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