PLAY IT BACK, PAY IT FORWARD

LATEST HALL BANQUET GIVES OFF LIGHT

TO SHOW CHAIN OF LOCAL EXCELLENCE

 

BY GREG SELBER

 

BROWNSVILLE – Always the stories, some humorous, others poignant, some a bit of both. Always the soulful smiles, the glances at those precious few who really know, who have been there all along. And always the realization, codified in speech and etched on film, of the fact that without loved ones to support, teachers to believe, mentors to instruct, and scribes to record, none of this would have unfolded the way it has. So, perfectly so.

Every year they gather, the members of the Valley sporting clan, for the annual induction ceremony of the Rio Grande Valley Sports Hall of Fame. For 2011, seven new heroes to honor and celebrate, and as is usually the case, the theme developed organically, almost serendipitously, as all fine things are created.

As Tom Drew stood in the banquet room at the Holiday Inn Saturday night, he was surrounded by three of his professional offspring, long-time reporters who made their bones under his patient watch and tutelage. One of them, Brownsville’s own Ronnie Zamora, was to be entered into the saintly list of Hall heroes, after a lifetime of journalism and community service.

Later, in his acceptance speech, Zamora would recount that he has the utmost respect and admiration for Drew (Hall Class of 1995, editor of the Valley Morning Star and Brownsville Herald after a career in college and pro media relations) for helping him achieve his goals every step of the way. For it was the legendary writer who saw something in Zamora that he himself didn’t see at the time. At age 16, Zamora got his first byline, and by 18 he was a sports editor.

“When I did my first story, Tom liked it,” recalled Zamora, who later guided The Daily Texan at UT, worked for all the Valley papers, and then became director of sports information and marketing for The University of Texas-Brownsville/Texas Southmost College, a post he mans today. “He told me he didn’t know I could write, and I said, ‘I didn’t either.’”

It was the beginning of a glorious career of hard work, long hours, and continued success. Zamora will take over for Charlie Vaughan as president of the Hall in July and he told the 300 attendees at the banquet all about the mentors, Drew most prominently, who believed in him and gave him a shot at proving himself in the business. This he has done with aplomb and effort since the 1970s as a writer, broadcaster and PR expert.

“He saw something in me and he helped me to become the reporter I am today,” Zamora noted. “And I hope that as I was inspired to achieve by Tom, I am today inspiring other young people to be their best and to do the things they want to do with their lives and careers.”

Ronnie Zamora

STILL THE ONE

Zamora was actually the last of the seven to speak. To kick off the latest Hall affair, the 50th anniversary of the Donna football state championship was celebrated, with Coach Earl Scott and player Richard Avila speaking on behalf of the Redskin Nation. The struggles and successes of the Valley’s only public school state championship unit will be chronicled in an upcoming documentary, “Miracle at Donna,” and the film’s trailer was played for the assembled audience.

Scott, excited and energized at the opportunity to address the gathering, noted in typically humble fashion that he’d just been in the right place at the right time.

“It’s great for us to be recognized again,” said the leader who took a smalltown band of kids all the way to the top of the sport back in 1961. The squad will be honored anew in October at the school’s latest Homecoming football game. “It is a great honor for the team, myself, and the community of Donna.”

In the documentary Scott is interviewed, and the point he takes pains to stress centers on overcoming. His assertion is that though the Redskins faced many obstacles on the road to the prize, the kids and coaches turned every struggle and distraction into a positive; whether it was circumventing a lack of depth or playing all five postseason games on the road, they simply refused to lose.

Scott and assistant coach Bennie la Prade are legends in the Mid-Valley, patient, hard-working men who drove their charges past the difficulties and taught them to expect, and accept, nothing but the best.

 

Bob Brumley

EDINBURG’S FINEST

Of course, the Redskins had some super athletes, including the Avila Boys, future UT star Fred Edwards, and the man whom Scott calls the “coach on the field,” quarterback Luz Pedraza. And many of the Hall inductees stressed this fact. Carlos Vela, the track and football star who was a 10-time Coach of the Year in cross country and track, has become in his latest incarnation one of the great Valley sports historians. He said Saturday that “great athletes made great coaches.”

And “great” is an adjective that describes Bob Brumley quite well.

Brumley, one of the first superstars in early Valley sports, was an Edinburg Bobcat who went on to become an All-Conference footballer at Rice and OU, later playing in the NFL with the 1945 Detroit Lions.

Brumley, who passed away two years ago, was represented by his family, notably grandson Bart Reed, who relayed that his grandfather loved football with a passion, and always gave credit for his development to Coach Bobby Cannon.

Cannon was a former UT athlete who led the Bobcats to many accolades from the early 1930s to the late 1940s. Brumley was his first and foremost protégé. Together the two would win titles and set standards that Edinburg sports mavens still talk about. Hall member Robert Vela used to always talk about how Brumley’s contributions were the gold standard that all local kids used as the measure of success.

“Bob Brumley really enjoyed his time here, he always thought highly of the Valley,” recounted Reed, who regaled the crowd with humor to begin the induction speeches.

Carlos Vela

 

BORN TO RUN

While Brumley was not a Valley resident his whole life, Vela surely has been, and he made sure to remind the audience that in climbing the ladder the hard way, he made sure to note the curves on that path to greatness, and to pass along the lessons he learned to those who followed him up the road.

“Bean” Ayala of Brownsville was a terrific emcee Saturday, mixing self-effacing humor with solemn intonations throughout the night; in introducing Vela he hit a slight snag when assessing the Pharr man’s contributions in the mile run.

“Now what was that time again?” he asked, inquiring about one of the many records Vela set in the distances as a P-SJ-A Bear. On cue, Vela responded, and at once, his singular value to the Valley sports world was illustrated.

He had memorized the number, and has done the same for countless other athletic performances in the area’s annals, because Vela, aside from his sporting exploits, has emerged as the ultimate chronicler of track and field, Deep South Texas style. His record books, compiled through many years of research and effort, are a source document for all local kids seeking to beat the best, in sprints, relays, distances, and field events.

Who better to keep count of the numbers, and to teach and exhort new generations of would-be thinclads to exceed the marks of those who came before them, than a luminary who has had a hand in track and field since the 1960s?

Bruce Bush

A FAMILY AFFAIR

While Brumley looked to Cannon for inspiration, and as Vela has become a standard of greatness himself to track and field followers, Bruce Bush has a similar tale of continuity through time.

The fellow known far and wide as one of the most successful leaders in Texas football history never wanted to be anything but a football coach. He told the Holiday Inn crowd that his father, Travis Bush, was the first super coach, a man who enjoyed a tremendous career but was taken from the earth too early in life.

“I wanted to be like him,” said the winner of more than 260 games and the genius behind the tricky and elusive Slot-T offensive attack that has been at the fore of dynasties in Alice and Gregory-Portland. He has also coached San Marcos, Donna, P-SJ-A, and Pharr North in a 41-year odyssey, always with the same attention to detail, masterful motivation, and an overarching grace and class that would have been standout qualities even if he had not been as successful as he’s been.

The family motif was on display as Bush spoke of his clan, including son Travis, who was named for the eldest Bush and has developed into one of the fine up-and-coming coaching lights in the state. Travis Bush is on the staff of Larry Coker at The University of Texas-San Antonio, set to help launch the Roadrunner football program on to its maiden voyage in the fall.

“Travis is the third generation of coaches in the family,” beamed the proud Papa, who has always been the type to deflect praise from himself onto those around him, another of the helmetful of endearing traits he possesses. “I think there is no greater tribute than to have someone follow in the footsteps of someone else.”

Bush, to this day a steady force in Valley coaching the hard-fighting Raiders, suggested that he learned everything he needed to know about perspective from the magical Jim Wacker, who led programs at Texas Lutheran, Southwest Texas State, and TCU, setting the pace for ethical behavior, a rare and selfless charisma, and just plain fun.

“I had the chance to speak with Coach Wacker shortly before he passed,” Bush recalled, adding that in a nutshell, the great mentor summed up the beauty of the coaching profession, beyond its endless hours of toil and pressurized daily grind. “And he said something that always stuck with me: ‘I never went to work a day in my life…I just went out to play.’”

Sammy Garza

THE FOOTBALL STAR

Sammy Garza certainly played the game for all it was worth, and had a blast all the while. The former Harlingen stud looks like he could still jump behind center and lead a team downfield for six points. Tall and handsome, Garza was the very picture of the playful impishness that has always been an alluring part of the athletic world. At times, when discussing his rise from small-town hero to college star at UTEP and into the NFL and Canadian Football League, he told mildly off-color stories with panache and grins.

Raw and uncut, Garza personified the very mold of the Football Star, cocky/confident and yet down to earth and with something of real worth to impart.

He noted the presence of a pair of Port Isabel stars on the Hall docket, Donald Guillot and Travis Sanders, and spoke of Juan Castillo, also of PI, a man who has been instrumental to Garza’s post-football success

Castillo, a long-time NFL assistant with the Philadelphia Eagles, has also been the beacon for minorities seeking to make it in the business, with his nationally acclaimed internship program for promising minorities interested in coaching, scouting, and NFL administration.

As a current scout for the Dallas Cowboys, Garza gives Castillo credit for helping him understand the options and showing him the opening, which the rocket-armed QB has exploited well, as he once attacked NFL and CFL defenses with a football in his hand.

Along the way, there were other coaches who aided Garza in his quest for the grail, including HS hoops coach Carl Owens (like Castillo, a Hall member in good standing), who worked Garza to within an inch of the brink and instilled in him a belief in conditioning and discipline. Then there was uncle Hector Salinas, also a past inductee into the Valley Hall.

“He supported me all the way,” said Garza, who set numerous passing records at UTEP in the 1980s. “And one time, when I was already in El Paso, my uncle drove up one day with a bunch of kids in his truck. All the way from the Valley. I was stunned, so I asked him, ‘Uncle Hector, what are you doing here?’ He just smiled and said that he and his team wanted to see me play…and they were just in the area.’”

With solid comic timing, Garza repeated that phrase, to howls of laughter from the gallery. “’Just in the area.’ …El Paso?”

Donald Guillot

AN ALL-SPORTS SUPERSTAR

Looking at pictures of Donald Guillot during the pre-speech slideshow that each inductee was honored with, one had to be impressed with No. 10. Wavy haired, muscular, and confident, the Port Isabel four-sport achiever resembled as much a Golden Gloves fighter as anything else.

And opposing teams that tried to compete with Guillot’s onslaught must have felt like they were on the receiving end of way too many devastating blows. He was amazing in everything he did at PI, the linchpin of the football program’s rise to the top of the Valley heap in the early 1980s. In a state where football is king, and in an area that takes that aristocracy seriously, Guillot was the prince, leading the Tarpons to within a hair’s breadth of a state grid title in 1981.

Later he chose to stay home and play baseball, a decision he thanked God for Saturday. Because it was at Pan American University where he fell in with the venerable Coach Al Ogeltree, becoming the national record holder for stolen bases in a season (107 in 1987).

He could have been a football big shot in college, and probably a trackman to boot, as he had dominated the Valley in those arenas while in high school. But with the Broncs he found a second muse, after Coach Tommy Roberts of Port Isabel (another Hall member, who made the trip down from Liberty Hill in Central Texas to be there for his Tarpon Gang.)

“Coach Al gave me the opportunity to pursue my dream in baseball for Pan Am,” said Guillot, a soft-spoken chap who mentioned his brothers and high school sweetheart (the two have recently married) as other priceless forces in his life. “My greatest thrill was when Coach Al handed me second base, the night I broke the record.”

Travis Sanders

SMOOTH, THEN AND NOW

Of course, Travis Sanders went next. Because before there was Guillot, there was the first pioneer group, with Hall member Todd Harbour and the newest hero, Sanders, paving the way for the Tarpon program to become one of the finest in the state. There will be timeless arguments over whether Harlingen, which recently won its 600th lifetime football game, or PI, the most successful sub-5A team in history down here, is the greatest football program ever.

If it’s PI, then the island faithful would do well to extend a measure of gratitude to Sanders, the first Valley 2,000-yard back, who ran over, around, and beyond local defenses on the way to more than 5,000 career yards. At one time, the lean strider was ranked No. 1 among Valley rushers all time, and still perches among the top athletes in Texas for a number of astounding achievements, including 22 100-yard games in a row.

In attendance Saturday was Donny Martin, a recent Hall inductee and a man who has been Sanders’ best friend for decades. He and Sanders share a unique bond of friendship that is a special derivative of competitive sports. With eloquence and superb delivery, Sanders told some great tales of Tarpon Times, and Martin, who marched all the way to the NFL after an All-SWC career at Rice, appeared more than once in the narrative.

Seems that one night against Lyford, Sanders just did what he usually did, breaking 80 yards for a touchdown. One problem: penalty, TD nullified. As he was about to chew out his buddy Martin, the offending party in the “offside” ruling, Sanders noticed that the 260-pound tackle was in the vicinity, after the long run.

“He told me, ‘Well at least I was the first person down here,’ Sanders recalled, smiling over at Martin in the audience. “But I said, ‘OK…but you had a HEAD START!’”

Like the others who had spoken before him, Sanders gave thanks to numerous influences in his life that enabled him to succeed. He told of the hard-core training he received from Hall member John Lerma in junior high basketball, and of the lessons he learned in toughness and intimidation from the original Old School boss, Willie Crafts.

Without missing a beat, the articulate grid hero then lauded Eliseo Villarreal for his offseason conditioning program and the ability to mold the Tarpons into warriors who never took maybe for answer.

“That team, and its coaches always expected to win,” he explained, and the record notes that from 1978-81 PI was an impossible 47-4-1 with Roberts and righthand man Chuck Seydler at the helm, assisted by Villarreal and others. “We never wondered whether we’d win, it was more a matter of by how much.”

THE POINT REFINED

At one point, Sanders suggested to the crowd that “tradition breeds greatness,” and so it goes. The theme of the night, bandied about by each of the new Hall inductees in their own way, using their individual stories to construct the mesh. Tradition means continuity, leadership, and attention to the task at hand, armed with support, mentoring, and nurturing from the old guard.

From Bruce Bush’s lifelong goal to become like his father, to Ronnie Zamora’s mentoring of young journalists, the Hall crew for 2011 exhibited all the right moves when it came to memories, debts owed, and paybacks in the most positive sense.

From Carlos Vela giving back to the sport and area he loves, to the most recent appearance of the 1961 football team that will always have the Valley’s admiration, the night was beyond a banquet, into the rare territory of metaphor. And all those assembled left the building with the meaning, the fabric of the event itself, still bouncing around softly but surely in their minds.

 

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