As Ron Rivera—the son of a Puerto Rican father and Mexican-American mother—coaches his Carolina Panthers in the Super Bowl this Sunday in Santa Clara, he’ll have someone special rooting for him in Palm Springs.
That’s where Tom Flores lives today. And that’s where he will be this Sunday, watching Rivera trying to accomplish something Flores did 35 years ago.
“I’m really happy for him,” said Flores, who in 1981 became the first Latino head coach to win a Super Bowl when his Oakland Raiders trounced the Philadelphia Eagles. (Rivera is aiming to become the second.) “He’s worked hard to get where he is. And we have kind of similar paths when you think about it. So hopefully he’ll follow that pattern.”
Both Flores and Rivera earned Super Bowls rings as players (Flores in 1970 as the backup quarterback for the Kansas City Chiefs, and Rivera as a linebacker for the famed 1985 Chicago Bears). Both also later reached the Super Bowl as assistants. Flores won with the Raiders in 1977 as an assistant under John Madden, while Rivera lost in 2006 as the defensive coordinator for the Bears.
Flores claimed two Super Bowl championships as head coach of the Raiders; on Sunday, the head coach Rivera looks to follow in those footsteps.
“I will be rooting for Ron more than Carolina, ‘cause I’m an old AFL guy,” Flores said. “We’re kind of a lot alike as far as our low-key approach to the game. He’s pretty low-key on the sidelines, but I’m sure that everything else inside is burning up and going pretty good.”
Born in a rural farming community in the outskirts of Fresno, Flores first picked up a football when he was in the fifth grade. He was the son of pickers. Flores’ father Tom emigrated from Durango, Mexico when he was 12, looking for work in California’s fields. His mother Nellie was born in Fresno to parents from Jalisco, who likewise earned a living picking crops.
“I can remember as a small boy, we used to follow the crops up the San Joaquin Valley,” Flores said, recalling the fields between Brentwood and the little farming town of Sanger, where the Flores’ lived. “That was a ritual every year. When you’re a kid, you work in the fields.”
Tom Jr. picked grapes, peaches, oranges, apricots and cotton alongside his parents, earning as little as 20 cents an hour.
“Picked it all,” said the same man who would later be hoisting Lombardi trophies.
Flores developed into a standout athlete in high school, playing all three major sports. He favored basketball, but realized his talents were best suited for the gridiron.
“At the end of my high school career, I realized that football was a way to get an education,” Flores said.
After graduating from College of the Pacific in 1958, Flores was once again on the move in search for work. The 21-year-old quarterback was turned away by the Canadian Football League’s’ Calgary Stampeders, relegated to playing with the Salinas Packers of the Pacific Football Conference. A year later, he tried out with the Washington Redskins, only to be told he wasn’t good enough.
“I really loved the game,” Flores said. “You don’t realize how much you love anything until its not there anymore. Football became a big part of my life, and I just figured as long as I have an opportunity to do it, I’ll give it one more chance.”
That chance came when the American Football League kicked off in 1960. He was named the starting quarterback with the newly formed Oakland Raiders, becoming the first Latino quarterback in pro football.
His career lasted a decade, and turned to coaching when playing opportunities vanished once he reached his mid-30s.
Flores was hired by Al Davis to be the head coach of the Raiders in 1979, and resurrected the flailing career of Mexican-American quarterback Jim Plunkett. Under Flores’ guidance, Plunkett flourished, helping the Raiders win two Super Bowls.
But the significance of Flores being the first Latino coach to win the Super Bowl was barely acknowledged.
“It really didn’t sink in until after the game when I approached the offseason [in 1981], and faced people around the communities. They were very proud for me, and shared my pride. Because they were Latino, they were Hispanic. That’s when it really hit me the hardest,” Flores said. “I was hired because I was capable of being the head coach, and the fact that I was Hispanic was never an issue—maybe an issue of pride.”
Story by: Alexis Terrazas