“Hispanic athletes have played a significant role in virtually every
famous historic moment in A & M athletics history. Athletics have in turn
helped Hispanics fulfill dreams and grow the presence of Latinos on campus as
- John P. Lopéz, ’84, Houston Chronicle Columnist
Traditions in Sports
By John P. Lopéz, Houston Chronicle Columnist
I got home from track practice on that early-spring evening in 1979 and saw an envelope bearing my name and the Texas A&M University logo sitting on the kitchen table. I looked at my mother and saw a look of anticipation and anxiousness on her face, as she grasped the skirt of her apron, drying her hands and passing me the letter.
No one before in my family had ever gone to college. My father, Brigido, and his brother, Fidel, were the first to graduate high school, in 1943. I had two older brothers whom I idolized and two older loving sisters, all four of whom were more than qualified to pursue a longtime family dream. But because of circumstance and out of need to find work, they hadn't yet managed.
My father was a dedicated San Antonio civil service worker who always found a way to feed five children and for years, four cousins who lived with us. There were always presents under the tree at Christmas, happy birthdays, and all-around, scrumptious barbecues on the weekend and laughing good times. There was never a lot of money, but it never felt like it.
The year before that admissions letter arrived to our house in a predominantly Hispanic near-northside neighborhood, when I spoke with my father about my desire to go to college, he told me, "If you get to go, don't worry about how we'll pay for it. We'll find a way."
I opened the letter and read the first sentence: "We are pleased to inform you ..."
I showed the letter to my father and he stuck out his chin and nodded, proudly. My mother hugged me and said she already was making one of my favorite meals - albondigas con arroz y frijol, meatballs coated with eggs and spices, with rice and beans. She started baking a cake and when it was done, she wrote on top of it with red icing, "Aggies."
My mother, Ydolina, grew up in Monterrey, México. She met my father on a blind date and six weeks later they were married. She became a masterful seamstress who earned extra money for the family making gowns and clothes for society ladies from the rich part of town. Not long after I was accepted into Texas A&M, she began knitting an afghan blanket for me. She didn't know very much about Texas A&M, only that it was college. She asked me what colors the Aggies wore and began knitting, night after night, a thick maroon blanket, with the A-T-M logo in bright white at the center.
No one in my family except me had ever been to the A & M campus. I went with my girlfriend and her family to a football game in the fall of 1979. Sports were so important to me. I played football my entire life, and basketball. I ran track, throwing the discus, and played baseball. I boxed for the Boy's Club and played golf at the public course every summer. And I loved writing about sports, watching the games and working for school newspapers since I was in sixth grade.
Something about that crisp afternoon at Kyle Field felt like home - that this is where I should be. I walked across campus and realized it was just a three-hour drive from my neighborhood in San Antonio, but was so starkly different in terms of culture and ethnic make-up, it might as well have been a million miles away. Yet it fit. I saw the Fightin' Texas Aggie Band march in and was inspired. I heard the whoops and yells and had no idea what it all meant, other than it was calling me. I watched the football game, a brutally physical football battle between the underdog Aggies and the Texas Longhorns, a team that I followed as a kid.
The Longhorns were assured of a Sugar Bowl berth with just a presumably easy game over the Aggies remaining. But there were the Aggies, on the strength of running back Curtis Dickey barreling through Longhorns tacklers and a salty Aggie defense, taking it to the 'Horns. The final score was Aggies 13, Longhorns 7.
The post-game scene was a blur, yell leaders and Corps of Cadet members running wild on the field, the Kyle Field bleachers rocking dizzily back and forth and the whoops and hollers of giddy Aggie fans splitting the air well into the night.
I sent videotape of some of my high school football games to Aggie coaches a couple of weeks later and was invited to walk-on to the team as a non-scholarship player. But I later decided to play only intramural sports and concentrate on my love of writing.
When I arrived to College Station, it struck me how few Hispanics I saw around campus and how much this was an entirely different world. It was strange, but wonderful. I felt immense pressure not to fail my family, yet was inspired by their support. I brought along the big maroon-and-white A-T-M blanket my mother made for me and, to this day, I still have it. And sports and sports writing were the constants for me, as comforting as that blanket.
I realized sports also were faceless and the most accepting, unbiased thread that always has kept Aggies knitted together regardless of class or culture. The only colors Aggies ever see are maroon and white.
And I realized I was not alone in sports playing such an important role in my Texas A&M academic career _ and the important roles Hispanics have played in Aggie sports _ not long after I began writing for The Battalion the second semester of my freshman year.
I was working on a journalism class project about historic moments in Aggie football. I went to the athletic department archives and was allowed to read old football programs and newspaper accounts of famous Aggies and Aggie games. I was stunned when I discovered that the first touchdown ever scored in an A&M football game, against Galveston on Thanksgiving Day in 1894, was by a back described as, "tough and fearless."
His name was N. Valdez. I searched for hours trying to find out more about Valdez - pictures, stories, even just his first name. I never did. Even now, it is unclear what Valdez' first name was and there are no pictures, but according to newspaper reports he was from Hidalgo, México and was a Civil Engineering major in the class of 1896.
Really, though, to me his first name was not nearly as important as his last name. If I felt this kind of pressure to represent my family and my heritage, if I occasionally felt lost in this special place called Texas A&M - if I was one of just a few Hispanics on campus in the early-1980s- imagine what N. Valdez faced.
Yet it is perhaps surprising and certainly significant that in virtually every area of sport since that first Aggie touchdown, Hispanics have woven their names into the common thread of the maroon and white, wrapping themselves up the comforting blanket of competition.
From the tough and fearless N. Valdez on the gridiron, to his contemporaries such as former linebacker Christian Rodríguez and recent offensive tackle Aldo De La Garza, Hispanics have carried only their heritage as proudly as the Aggie colors.
There was Jim Garza, an outstanding athlete in track and football from 1914-1916. There was Edward Nuñez, a sprinter in the class of 1928, and Homer Martínez, a three-year letter-winning pitcher in baseball in the 1930s. There was the popular Eduardo Longoria Theriot, class of 1937, one of the most versatile athletes in Texas A&M history, participating in varsity track, swimming, boxing and fencing. There was Xavier Fernández starring on the tennis courts in the early-1940s.
Hispanic athletes have played a significant role in virtually every famous historic moment in A&M athletics history. Athletics have in turn helped Hispanics fulfill dreams and grow the presence of Latinos on campus as well.
The noted "Junction Boys," era of Bear Bryant's head-coaching tenure in the 1950s?
It is known for the legendary likes of Gene Stallings and eventual Heisman Trophy winner John David Crow. But Crow remembers Carlos Esquivel as an integral part of the Cinderella story of the Aggies regaining control of the Southwest Conference in 1955 under Bryant.
Esquivel, who died in the late-1980s, and Crow were classmates.
"Our style under coach Bryant was three yards, a cloud of dust and a headache," Crow said. "Carlos was the first Hispanic I'd ever been around. I was just an ol' Louisiana boy, but you know, I didn't even realize he was Hispanic until months into the season. He was one of us.
"He was tough and played through all the injuries. And he was genuinely a nice guy. I don't mean to be too corny about it, but we would have fought for each other like brothers. Everyone on that team was one."
Invisible, but real walls came tumbling down as Hispanic athletes like Esquivel began to thrive. Preconceived notions were changed.
Before enrolling at Texas A&M, flashy point guard Eddie Dominguez, who led Dallas Thomas Jefferson High School to a state basketball championship in 1962, took part in an all-star game in Lubbock. Before practice one day the week of the game, Dominguez and a pair of teammates went to a Toddle House for breakfast.
A waitress approached the booth and told Dominguez, "I'm sorry, we do not serve Mexicans here."
"I didn't know what to do, I thought she was kidding," Dominguez said. "But my teammates told her, 'Then, none of us are going to eat here.'"
Dominguez went on to star for Shelby Metcalf's rising Aggie basketball program and became a lifelong friend of Metcalf's. Like many Hispanics who pulled on the maroon and white, his apprehension ultimately was eased through sport and a love of the university.
Joe Arciniega, one of Metcalf's early-1970s players, spoke of the "culture shock" of leaving his Southern California neighborhood for College Station. Yet Arciniega became one of the most popular players in Aggie basketball history, prompting a group called, "Arciniega's Army" to show up at every game to cheer his every move during precious few minutes on the floor.
"He'd stand up from the bench just to stretch his pants and everybody in the crowd would go crazy," Metcalf said. "Everybody loved him."
Hispanic students began forming their own Arciniega's Army at games, shouting encouragement to him in Spanish during warm-ups.
"We'd get great crowds, just because there wasn't as much to do," Arciniega said. "Everybody would come. The Corps, the band ... they just took a liking to me.
"I was kind of fun-loving guy and kind of a cheerleader. I was always a good shooter, but not as athletic as the starters. In warm-ups, I could hit 10 shots in a row and the students were like, why is this guy on the bench? It was so much fun."
How many Hispanic names simply roll off the tongue now, huge contributors in Aggie sports history, more than 100-years after N. Valdez pulled on an A & M jersey?
The captain of Gene Stallings' 1967 Cotton Bowl team, Robert Cortez. The likes of footballer Carl Luna (1950s), basketballers Mike García (1940s), Carlos Marrero (1990s), Dario Quesada (1990s) and more recent players Leandro García-Morales and Luis Clemente. Baseballers such as Homer Martínez (1930s) and David Florés (1980s).
There has been PGA professional Anthony Rodríguez (1980s), LPGA tour player Patricia González (1980s), softball superstar Zina Ochoa (1980s) and conference champion tennis players Bernardo Martínez and Ricardo Rodarte. There have been hundreds of names, even more memories.
From the first touchdown ever scored in Aggie football to, most likely, the last sporting event held on campus. Hispanics have woven a blanket of significant contributions to Aggie sports history.