Friday, August 14, 2009

Increasing Hispanic attendance at NFL games

Guest Opinion: Increasing Hispanic attendance at NFL Games
By Joe Ortiz, The Latino Journal E-News, August 10, 2009

Your article about the NFL and its failure to actively woo Latinos to fill its stadiums resonated deeply with my views for over 25 years. Obviously the fan demographic is changing dramatically, and (regardless of how the immigration problem is dealt with by the Congress) the majority of NFL fans will soon be Latino. Why the NFL has failed to do a dramatic outreach effort to this segment of America baffles the (profit-making) mindset.

One of the most important factors to drawing fans to a stadium is have on their team that iconic football player who becomes an instant hero, like Jim Brown, Tony Dorsett, Barry Sanders, Bo Jackson, and Reggie Bush and, yes, even O.J. Simpson. Stars of this caliber obviously have attracted African American fans once the NFL decided to hire black players. Hispanics have not been so lucky, with a relatively few recognizable players to choose from. Although we (speaking of the Latino community) have had some great players, with guys like Joe Kapp, Jim Plunkett and Tom Fears, how many regular (or even Hispanic) fans knew they were even Hispanic? Things are picking up with the likes of Jeff Garcia, Tony Romo and Mark Sanchez (a former USC player who could potentially become an NFL star), the few Latino professional football players we have in the league basically have the same problem that Latino actors have faced for over a century.

But the NFL could change all of that, if they would only showcase one of those living icons already among its ranks. The NFL community and its base of fans have had a professional Latino football hero for almost the last 50 years: Tom Flores!

Tom Flores is not only a Latino professional football player legend who should be inducted into the NFL Hall of Fame, his credentials surpass many players already inducted. Tom Flores has impacted professional football like few players ever. His Latino statistics are glowing; he, the first quarterback to play professional football and also the first Hispanic coach.

Many folks question and still debate whether the first Hispanic to coach a professional football team was Tom Fears or Tom Flores. It has been stated by various entities (and your recent article as well) that Tom Fears was the first Hispanic named to coach an NFL team when he was hired by the expansion New Orleans Saints on January 27, 1967.

However, although Tom Fears had a stellar career in professional football, and has been inducted to the National Football Hall of Fame, Fears was actually born in Guadalajara, Mexico, to an Anglo father and a Mexican mother. Fears was the son of an American mining engineer who had married a Mexican woman in Guadalajara, and then moved with his family to Los Angeles at the age of six. Therefore, to be more accurate as to who can claim that title (and not appear to be splitting ethnic hairs), Tom Flores, who was born to both Mexican parents in Sanger, California, a man who has lived the Mexican American experience, deserves that honor!

To most football fans, who is or who is not the first Hispanic to coach a professional football team is an insignificant statistic. But to the emerging Hispanic community, whose football fan base is growing much larger every year, whatever honors of achievements the few Latinos in football can claim, means a lot to this burgeoning group of American citizens. Tom Flores is - to many Mexican Americans - a living football legend that has inspired many Latinos to excel in that sport, among other professional endeavors! While many who vote for players to be inducted into the National Foot Ball Leagues Hall of Fame may not recognize Flores' accomplishments, as being sufficient to qualify for that honor, he has played with, coached, and inspired many players and coaches who are now in the Hall of Fame, including Fred Biletnikoff, Willie Brown, Dave Casper, Mike Haynes, Ted Hendricks, Howie Long, Jim Otto, Art Shell and Gene Upshaw. Although Jim Plunkett has not been inducted (yet), all of pro football acknowledges that Tom Flores was responsible for resuscitating Plunkett's career, who was the Super Bowl MVP in 1984.

Flores achievements are monumental, to say the least. He graduated from the University of the Pacific in 1958, but was unable to find a job in professional football. He was cut by the Calgary Stampeders of the CFL in 1958, and then by the Washington Redskins of the National Football League (NFL) in 1959. In 1960 Flores finally landed a position as a quarterback with the American Football League's Oakland Raiders, who began play in 1960 as a charter member of the league. Flores became the first Hispanic quarterback in American professional football. He became the Raiders' starting quarterback early in the 1960 season.

Flores (who can claim four Super Bowl rings) had his most productive season in 1966. Although he completed only 49.3 percent of his attempts, he passed for 2,638 yards and 24 touchdowns in 14 games. Oakland traded him to the Buffalo Bills in 1967. After serving primarily as a backup, he was released by the Bills and in 1969 signed with the Kansas City Chiefs, where he was back up to Len Dawson on the Chiefs' World Championship team, where he earned his first Super Bowl ring. He retired as a player after the 1970 season. He was one of only twenty players who were with the AFL for its entire ten-year existence. He is the fifth-leading passer, all-time, in the AFL.

After stints as an assistant coach in Buffalo and Oakland (he won his 2nd Super Bowl XI ring as an Assistant Coach under John Madden), Flores became the Raiders' head coach in 1979, following John Madden's retirement. Flores then became the NFL's first minority (and Mexican American) head coach to win a Super Bowl, winning his third and fourth Super Bowl rings for Super Bowl XV and Super Bowl XVIII.

After a 5-10 finish to the 1987 season, Flores moved to the Raiders' front office, but left after just one year to become the president and general manager of the Seattle Seahawks. He returned to coaching as the Seahawks head coach in 1992, but returned to the front office following three disappointing seasons. Flores resigned from the Seahawks in 1994 following Paul Allen's purchase of the Seahawks.

Flores left Pro Football with a lifetime coaching record of 97-87 (52.7%), as well as an 8-3 playoff record, and with two Super Bowl victories. Flores, Jimmy Johnson, and George Seifert are the only eligible coaches with two such victories, who have not been selected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Tom Flores has distinguished himself in so many ways in the pro football arena as a player, assistant coach, head coach, President and General Manager of an NFL Football team, and now as a commentator for the Oakland Raiders football team along with Greg Papa on KSFO (560 AM) during the radio broadcasts of Raiders games.

Tom Flores is also active with many charities throughout the country including the Boy Scouts of America's (Los Angeles District) Tom Flores Celebrity Golf Tournament, and the Tom Flores Youth Foundation, which provides scholarships to students attending his high school. In honor of his many accomplishments in football and to the community, his home town high school in Sanger, California, has named its football stadium the "Tom Flores Stadium" in his honor.

Maybe there are many other football players and coaches who have garnered more wins as a quarterback, or as an assistant coach or as a head coach, but very few professional football players and coaches (as well as fans) who have worked with Tom Flores among his many capacities in football or with numerous civic communities, can never say he isn't deserving to be inducted into the NFL's Hall of Fame!

If that were to happen, watch the size of audiences in NFL cities throughout America become a little browner, many of them who would be proud to say that they finally have one of their own in the NFL Hall of Fame!

Joe Ortiz is a former newsman and talk show host who currently writes for various local and national media. Born and raised in the Coachella Valley, California, he is the author of two recently published books, The End Times Passover and Why Christians Will Suffer Great Tribulation (Author House). Ortiz, who worked in media as a radio and television talk show host, newspaper columnist and news reporter for 23 years, has the distinction of being the first Mexican American to ever host a talk show on an English-language, commercial radio station, in 1971 for KABC-AM Radio in Los Angeles.

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