AS LONG AS IT NEEDS TO BE: LATEST HALL BANQUET SETS RECORD FOR ATTENDANCE

BY GREG SELBER

 

PHARR – In the 1850s, someone asked Abraham Lincoln what the ideal height for a man would be. The 6-foot-4 president, after his ponderous manner, thought for a time and then responded with a deft dodge shrouded in wisdom: “A man’s legs should be long enough to reach the ground.”

We are reminded of that timeless bon mot in regard to the latest banquet honoring the newest inductees to the Rio Grande Valley Sports Hall of Fame. It was another marathon affair, with the festivities stretching until after midnight, but none of the 550 people in attendance batted an eye at the extended ceremony. The fact is, exploring the life and times of the seven honorees, plus that of a distinguished service award recipient and a featured football team from the classic old days, was an exercise that should not be expedited in a hurry.

The 25th annual banquet did exactly what it was supposed to do, which was offer the gathering a chance to see old friends, make new ones, and pay respects to the newly enshrined legends. And in an overarching sense the affair allowed a respite from all the busy lives, a moment to reflect on the importance of sports in the Valley and pass along new versions of old stories, told in the pleasant and welcoming heat of the moment. Indeed, the adventure had legs of its own, and by the time the last patrons and organizers trundled out into the soft summer rain in the wee hours beginning a Sunday, contentment was the weary but satisfied watchword.

 

THE TRAVELIN’ MAN

Could there have been any better avocation for Ben Lopez, who worked many years in the airline industry? This year’s DSA winner has made a name for himself as a bird dog scout for Lindenwood University in Missouri, and his presence across the Valley is by now a regular and comforting sight for area players, coaches and fans.

Introduced by Tony Guerrero, one of the many Mission natives on hand for a big Eagle night, Lopez smiled when recalling all the recruiting work he’s done on behalf of the local kids. Guerrero had mentioned that Lopez has traveled 425,000 miles on the job, and helped garner more than $3 million in scholarship monies during that stretch.

In the pregame din, Lopez noted that Lindenwood now has two campuses, an NAIA school having been added to the Division I institution.

“I guess the most important part is the network, the contacts I have down here,” he explained. “There are going to be more and more openings up there for Valley athletes in the future.”

As the middleman for the Lindenwood pipeline, Lopez tirelessly attends hundreds of sporting events a year, but his task does not stop with the initial facilitation.

“I always make sure to keep tabs on the kids, to help them get accustomed to life in college, away from home,” he offered. “And that sometimes includes taking them to orientation, we want them to be settled in, know where things are, and be ready to start their college experience.”

 

TRI-CITY TERRORS

So much ink has been spilled through the ages about the great high school football teams in Valley history, and with ample reason: football is king in this land, and always will be. While everyone knows about the state title won by the Donna Redskins in 1961, the group from P-SJ-A that attended Saturday’s festivities certainly has a claim to fame to be proud of.

The 1962-63 Bears went to back-to-back state finals, and though they fell short of their ultimate goal, became the first South Texas outfit to ever dance the final number twice in a row. More than 100 rooters, ex players, and other members of the Oso entourage whooped it up in fine form as their exploits were recalled with relish. This was a hard-nosed contingent that posted 14 shutouts in 28 games over the span, won two of the program’s four district titles in the first half of the 1960s, and overcame tremendous odds to scale the heights of the state playoff bracket.

Speaking on behalf of the 1962 club, that went all the way to Fort Worth before dropping out against defending state champ Dumas, was running back Poppy Rodriguez. Long the AD for the McAllen ISD, he reminded everyone of the enormous physical size the Dumas Demons brought to the fray that December day at TCU’s Amon Carter Stadium. The enemy outweighed the Bears by 55 pounds per man.

Earlier, Rodriguez related how he had run into one of the Dumas studs, Kelly Baker, a year or so ago, as the latter had come down to the Valley for a fishing trip. Poppy noted that he still had to look way up to speak to the 6-foot-7 former All-Stater who played for Texas in college. But apparently, Baker still held memories of how tough it had been for the Demons to get past P-SJ-A and repeat as state titlists.

In his address to the Hall crowd Saturday, Rodriguez was adamant about what the experience in 1962 had meant to his teammates and himself. It had started on the first day of practice before the campaign, when one of the Bears told his mates that the team was headed all the way to state, a bold prediction to say the least. But one that came true, and almost ended up in a repeat of the Donna smash hit of 1961.

“We may have lost on the scoreboard,” said the hard-charging superstar, of the Dumas game the Bears led until the fourth period. “But in our hearts and souls, we know we took it to them.”

Phil Hetrick went next, as a representative of the 1963 bunch that duplicated the feat of the previous season, advancing to the final day, ending up on the short end of a 7-0 decision versus Corsicana.

Now Hetrick, All-State as a tackle in 1963, was, along with guard Ernest Nagy, the bulk of the undersized Bear attack. He praised the coaches that made the Bears into winners, and enjoyed (at least now) recalling the first day of the 1963 preseason, getting down into a 4-point stance and coming up with a handful of painful stickers.

“We didn’t have anyone who weighed over 200 pounds,” he said. “But we were well coached, and we were smart, our line would come off the field after the first series already planning on adjustments. That sort of thing helped us overcome the bigger teams, because we had coaches who taught us and prepared us for anything. We were ready.”

 

INTERLUDE

The banquet was as always hosted by the able Ronnie Zamora, himself a member of the Hall, and he guided the assembled throngs to a quick break before the marquee event of the night was to begin. Zamora is the current president of the Hall. He and former boss Charlie Vaughn did their usual bang-up job in preparation, assisted by a ton of other persistent worker bees. Charlie’s wife, Carol, received the internal, unofficial MVP award for her superb work with the video portion of the program.

Every year the affair seems to improve, draw more fans, and leave everyone excited for next year. The UTPA contingent was in fine fettle Saturday, with president Robert Nelsen, AD Chris King, and head basketball coach Ryan Marks all in the house, to see a trio of Broncs join the august circle of honored sports stars. In 2013, the 1963 Pan American College national champ hoops team will enter the Hall, and one can surely count on an overflow group of Bronc supporters next summer.

 

EDINBURG’S FINEST

The first honoree was also the most experienced, 87-year-old Jack Wallace Sr., an Edinburg resident since age 1 and one of the leading businessmen in the Valley’s history. Long before he became a TV star on a 2009 Frito Lay commercial, though, the strapping Wallace was a football and basketball athlete who participated in both sports at EHS and then again at the college level with the Texas Longhorns. Can there have ever been a more handsome chap than Jack Wallace, circa 1943? More than one gal in the crowd Saturday, when looking at the picture presentation, weighed in on that.

His son, Jack Jr., who followed in dad’s footsteps on all counts, including the farming biz, spoke on behalf of his father, a star athlete and serviceman who would eventually be named to the Texas Produce Hall of Fame. Now he can add the RGV Sports Hall to the list. The younger Wallace recounted some of his father’s athletic accomplishments, but was more concerned with relating the lessons “Big Jack” had imparted to his family over the years.

“He has always been a person with high integrity and character,” said Wallace Jr., who got a chance to take a snapshot with his old college coach, Fred Akers, after the show. Wallace’s high school mentor, Richard Flores, was also there Saturday, and that is what the Hall banquet is all about: mentoring, continuity and cohesion. One big family. Forever.

“Dad was never boastful, he had the drive and desire in sports, loved the competition…but he was always humble,” Wallace Jr. said. “Dad never wanted to be recognized for what he did. He was never that kind of person.”

With his father sitting by his side on stage, Wallace suggested that beyond all the awards he has won, Wallace Sr. has made the biggest contribution to the world in a way that transcends banquets and plaques and speeches:

“He has always demonstrated to us, time and time again, how a man should behave.”

 

TRAILBLAZER STILL

Of all the Hall inductees, one might argue that Harlingen’s Cathy Beene has got the strongest resume of all. A state tennis champ in high school and a national champ in college, Beene was a successful coach for many years before becoming a high-ranking athletics administrator at Georgia Southern University. She’s a heavy hitter who speaks with the polish and dignity one might expect from an associate AD and a pace-setter in women’s athletics.

In this, the 40th anniversary year of groundbreaking legislation known as Title IX, or the “equity bill,” Beene has been speaking to media in Georgia about it. She has firsthand experience, to be sure.

“It came into existence as I was graduating from college, my doubles partner got a full scholarship out of it,” recalled Beene, who dressed as smoothly as she poured forth. “I did not reap the benefits back then but I have been helping women in athletics do so from the time I got into coaching.”

Beene credited Harlingen tennis legend Jerry Hirst with her rise to fame on the court, and now she is a member of the same select crew as her mentor.

“He made the game fun for us, which it really had to be in the end,” she said, also giving props to various boys’ tennis stars at the high school, who toughened her up by giving no quarter when the mixed games took place.

“They would nail you in the face, they didn’t care, and it made us all work harder and be tougher,” she said with a smile.

So many of the honoree bios are full of thanks to family, friends, and coaches. Beene gave special recognition to her mother, who bought the youth’s first tennis racket with S&H green stamps, and hand-sewed many of her tennis dresses. Down the road, the Lone Star gal with the pageboy haircut found herself trading shots at a professional tournament against controversial transsexual Renee Richards, and speaking about the match on national TV to the redoubtable Howard Cosell afterward. Her story is remarkable, her accomplishments excellent, and groundbreaking.

“So many people sacrificed so that I could be able to do the things I did,” she stressed. “And I won’t forget it.”

 

WORKING HIS WAY UP

When folks watch golf on television, chances are they are secretly envious of the stars who are earning a living playing the game they love. Maybe not so secretly. But when Mike Brisky addressed the audience Saturday night, he put the lie to the assumption that a professional golfer’s life is all peaches and cream.

“I had to fight for everything I got, because I didn’t really have the talent a lot of guys had,” said the Brownsville Hanna alum and former star at UT-Pan American. “I struggled for years to make it to the tour, there were times when if I didn’t make any money at a tournament, hey, I didn’t have anything.”

Brisky, who averaged 73 per round with the Broncs under legendary coach Oton Guerrero, had learned the game growing up in Brownsville, as a 10-year-old caddie for his father. Now an inspirational pastor at a church up near Dallas, the Valley native reminded everyone of how important dads are.

“We never really see the sacrifices the parents make until later,” he admitted in a heartfelt and honest speech. “I dedicate this honor to my dad, who is not here…all you dads out there, remember that your kids see you as the champ, you are the ultimate man in their lives.”

Brisky played seven years on the PGA Tour, raking in more than $2 million, and now has found a new calling, in the ministry with his wife Judy. He still recalls having to paint houses in the summers and then run out to play golf. And he will never forget the way he and his family lived in trailers on the road, scrimping and saving to give him the chance to pursue a dream. So many people chipped in to help.

If sports can teach us the lessons we use in the ensuing stages of life – and Mike Brisky’s life is a testament to the good – who can argue for a moment that the athletic endeavor is not a worthwhile one?

 

STILL STANDING, FIGHTING

Emcee Zamora asked all coaches in the audience to stand up, then asked those who have been at it 30 years or more to stay up, others to sit. Finally he requested that all coaches who have been at their alma maters for more than 30 years remain upright. Only one of the 550 people in the Pharr International Convention Center was still alive in the object-lesson game. Zamora looked to his left. There was Iris Iglesias, the next inductee.

Everyone in the business knows the long-time mentor, from her many successes in volleyball and softball, though she started out also doing hoops. A fine college athlete back in the day at Pan American, Iglesias has now won more than 500 games, and carved out a reputation for excellence along with nurturing of young women on their road to adulthood. She is an integral part of Mission sports, and always has been.

Iglesias noted that when most inductees speak of their spouse, it’s a female. In her case, though, the dedicated sidekick is Moises “Mo” Vela, her husband of 37 years/seasons. The clan was lucky enough to fashion a family reunion around the Hall of Fame weekend, and there were dozens of supporters on hand to support her.

She had come up under one of the best, the amazing Mary Lee Rabke at Pan Am, the trailblazer’s trailblazer, and from there was tutored and challenged by a terrific list of other RGV Hall of Famers.

Iglesias ran off the list of people in her circle of competition, from Nora Zamarripa, Paula Gonzalez, and Teresa Winston to Carmela Martinez, Mary Howell, and Rene G. Garza. All the best, Hall stars all.

“I bleed maroon and white, people, you know that,” she laughed. Earlier she had noted that some of her ex players are now part of the opposing coaching group trying to beat her alma mater. “I wish them all the best…except when they’re playing us. Sorry, it ain’t gonna happen!”

 

MAN WITH THE FLAG

His first chance at the task was in an inauspicious setting, a 7th-grade football game at La Feria. But in time, Ed Knetig grew into prominence as a football official, working more than 650 high school games, hundreds of college ones, and eventually rising to become a replay official for the Big 12 Conference.

With self-deprecating humor delivered in a crisp and natural style, the Corpus native regaled the crowd of tales from his journey to the top. He gave credit to Hall member Tommy Moore, among others, for taking him under his wing and showing him the ropes. It seems as if Knetig has benefited from such assistance at every stage of his progression.

“I can’t remember ever working a game by myself,” he told the crowd. “This award is for all those other guys I shared the field with. We always tried to administer the game and I owe a lot to my colleagues.”

This sentiment was echoed toward the end of the night when he posed for a picture flanked by Moore, an NFL replay official now, and Butch Cooley, a long-time great in Valley flagger annals. Also in attendance was Tom Weekley, one of the Hall Board’s veteran organizers and himself a famed official.

Like athletes, referees comprise a close-knit fraternity, men who work long, difficult hours and are seldom mentioned or noticed unless something goes, in the eyes of fans, players, or coaches, “wrong.”

But through his successful career, which culminated in a prize promotion to the Big 12, Ed Knetig has met the challenge of constant argumentation with poise and precision. That’s why he’s in the Hall now.

 

THEY BROKE THE MOLD

Leading up to the banquet, the hard-charging George Schulgen was, as he had been on the field, a bear. He admitted to the audience that he wouldn’t have blamed Charlie Vaughan and the other event planners if they had given him the boot because he was so hard to deal with.

The truth is, The Big Redhead from Santa Rosa was always hard to deal with, especially on the football field, where he was an All-American in high school, all-SWC in college, and a great pro prospect before a series of knee injuries curtailed his ride.

The other truth is, Schulgen is not really hard to deal with as a man; he’s just a unique character full of life, the sort who dominates a room more with his gregarious personality than with any perceived, persnickety behavior.

The Kerrville resident was delightful, plain and simple, with hilarious anecdotes, the occasional beyond-the-pale remark (Sandusky, anyone?), and loads of wisdom disguised as lighthearted banter.

He ran down the list of injuries and maladies he has suffered, from two brain surgeries to 10 knee operations, quadruple bypass surgery, and a torn rotator cuff, the last of which he insists was the most painful by far. All in a day’s work for the blacksmith’s son who revealed that his interest in sports as a youth was borne from the distinct will to avoid working in the grueling blacksmithing world.

“We had to be down there to the shop 30 minutes after we finished school, and needless to say, I wanted to get involved in extra-curricular stuff so I didn’t have to work,” he laughed, running down the list of sports he played, which included volleyball and softball.

Schulgen made a push for an old foe of his, Rio Hondo running back Gene Taubert, for the list of future Hall inductees. That may seem strange to folks who remember how the two battled it out in high school.

“He was the hardest guy I ever tried to tackle,” said the Rice star, adding that though he and Taubert were the worst of enemies in school, they ended up roommates in college and pals for life; Taubert was there Saturday night, and corroborated all angles of the inductee’s tale.

Yes, The Big Redhead was always a handful and to this day, thankfully, remains thus.

 

THE FINAL LUMINARY

It’s always difficult to be the last to go on banquet night, and for 2012, Pete Vela assumed the job of winding up the event. The good thing was, the Edinburg native was able to marshal the support of perhaps the largest contingent of well wishers. And they got their money’s worth as Vela produced an emotional paean to the people who mean most to him.

The list included a quartet of men who preceded him into the Hall. Having Richard Flores, Poppy Rodriguez, Chipper Zamora, and Joe Rodriguez in the audience was, beyond offering a veritable Who’s Who of Valley sports greats, perfect for the evening. Perfect, because Vela last year became the fifth athletic director in area history to be inducted into the state’s Hall of Honor for ADs. Guess who the other four are…

Vela, known as a defensive mastermind in his days of coaching, told a story which resonated well. Many great coaches were not among the top players in the day, and there are a number of reasons why this is so. Vela noted that he worked his tail off to earn a starting job with the Bobcats back in the mid-1960s and is proud of the fact that he was able to do so. It gave him the understanding he would need to deal with players of all talent levels, facilitating their relative success to mirror the progress he himself had made under Coach Fred Akers. Vela also lauded Coach Bruce Hawkins, who made the trip to see his ex player, as a very important influence in his life.

All of Vela’s intensity, dedication, and desire were on display as he accepted induction, and though the shadows had grown long on the day, his address was a fine capper to a tremendous night. Each of the inductees had a special tale to tell, and accomplished the feat with elan and grace.

It has been written that one can never step into the same river twice, that nothing stays the same for long. This much can be said with regard to the Hall affairs. The technical format might not differ much from year to year, and the tenor of the speeches can be analyzed on a number of levels, with the raw material sounding familiar. So in some ways, there is continuity, similarity, even sameness.

But in sum, the familiarity smacks of the consistent greatness and character of successful heroes and their stories. The winners possess qualities and experiences which bear teaching and repeating, often, especially for/to the young.

So in essence, there is truly nothing like it, a regenerating organism every season. The annual RGV Hall banquet is a dream come true for the people who are elected to the shrine, and for the community members who get to come along for the ride down Memory Lane. It takes a lot of hard work to put the extravaganza together, but every minute spent is worth it, say the organizers.

You only go this way once, at least that can be said for the inductees. For the rest of us, the chance to pay homage to the world of Valley sports comes but once a year, and every time it dawns, the banquet night leaves hundreds of observers with the certainty that, as Mr. Lincoln once opined, the celebration of the ages indeed has legs enough to reach the ground.

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