Hispanic pioneer Tom Flores still waiting for spot in Canton
ALAMEDA, Calif. -- The family story is nearing its 100th birthday now, but to Tom Flores, the Oakland Raiders’ two-time Super Bowl-winning coach, it never gets old.
Not when it’s such a point of pride for Flores and his familia.
Flores’ father, Tom Sr., was 12 years old in 1919, one of seven children whose family worked in the hills of the pueblo of Dynamite in the Mexican state of Durango. There, they mined for materials to make explosives -- when they were not ducking for cover with marauders claiming loyalty to Pancho Villa ransacking the village.
“They didn’t fight them off, but they had to avoid them,” Flores said of his forebears. “My dad and his brothers had to lay on the floor as the bullets came flying through the windows. My grandma and my dad’s two sisters went down the hill and hid because they were afraid of the bandits.”
Nearly a century later, many think Flores has been robbed of his place in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Flores, known as "The Iceman" as a player for his cool demeanor, was the first Latino quarterback in pro football history, the first QB in Raiders franchise history when the AFL began in 1960.
And until 2007, when Tom Brady tied him, Flores held the record for most touchdown passes in consecutive games with 11 in 1963 (Ben Roethlisberger passed them with 12 TDs in 2014).
“I wasn’t a great quarterback, but I was one of the better ones,” said Flores, the fifth-leading passer in AFL history with 11,959 yards, despite missing all of the 1962 season with tuberculosis. “I was one of the few to play all 10 years in the AFL.”
Traded to the Buffalo Bills with Art Powell in 1967 for Daryle Lamonica and Glenn Bass, Flores ended up with the Kansas City Chiefs as Len Dawson’s backup for the Super Bowl IV champs in 1969. That’s when Flores won his first Super Bowl ring.
But Flores truly made his bones as a coach. He was the Raiders' receivers coach in the press box when he noticed the Baltimore Colts showing a certain defensive tendency in a 1977 playoff game and called down to John Madden what would become the “Ghost to the Post” play. Flores added a second ring on Madden’s Super Bowl XI-winning staff.
Promoted by Al Davis to replace Madden in 1979, Flores coached the Raiders to Super Bowl victories after the 1980 and 1983 seasons, the former making him the first minority coach to win a title -- 26 years before Tony Dungy, who was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2016. Rings Nos. 3 and 4 made Flores the first person in NFL history to win Super Bowl championships as a player, an assistant and head coach (Mike Ditka would join him later).
“People are always giving guys credit for their X’s and O’s,” Marcus Allen told NFL Network in 2006. “But being a head coach is just much more than that; it’s managing people. The thing that really created closeness was that he trusted us -- ‘I taught you all you need to know, now go out there and play.’ ”
“How could that not endear you to a head coach?” the late Todd Christensen added in the same show. “As opposed to the usual, ‘Get out of here, I’m in charge.’ It was never anything like that. I can’t emphasize this enough -- I think that what he contributed as a head coach is understated.”
And this from Howie Long: “Tom was the perfect fit.”
Flores was a combined 69-31 (.690) from 1980 to 1985, including the postseason, and was the 1982 NFL Coach of the Year.
“Tom Flores isn’t just a great coach in our league,” Davis said after the Raiders thumped defending champion Washington 38-9 in Super Bowl XVIII, “he’s one of the great coaches of all time.”
Tom Flores and the Raiders celebrate a 38-9 victory over the Redskins in Super Bowl XVIII. AP Photo
Flores’ record against Don Coryell, the architect of the “Air Coryell” passing game, was 11-5. With the Raiders, Flores went 6-0 against Don Shula, the winningest coach in NFL history.
Perhaps the way Flores’ coaching career ended, rather than the pioneering manner in which he broke so many barriers, is what has kept him from sporting a gold jacket.
The Raiders went a combined 13-18 in 1986 and strike-shortened 1987 and, fearing burnout, Flores resigned. He did resurface as the first Latino president and general manager in league history with the Seahawks in 1989 and returned to the sidelines in Seattle three years later. After going 14-34 in three seasons, he was fired.
Or maybe the domineering personality of Davis turns off voters who believe the former iconoclast owner was the Raiders’ true coach, even if Madden dealt with the same perception, and was inducted in 2006.
Flores spoke of his relationship with Davis and the game plan with Sports Illustrated in 1984.
“Sometimes he doesn’t even want to see it,” Flores said. “He says, ‘I want to be surprised.’ But we do discuss general concepts -- this tackle doesn’t match up well, we can work on this cornerback. And the overall Raiders’ concept is his. He just wants me to coach the hell out of it. I always have the last word on game-to-game strategy. I’d be lying if I said I wouldn’t like to be a household name, like Al is. But I figure if I keep winning, sooner or later someone’s gonna say, ‘Hey, Flores must be doing a hell of a job.’ ”
That Flores is, for the ninth time, among the now-102 Modern-era nominees for the Pro Football Hall of Fame Class of 2019 is commendable, though he has yet to make it to the semifinal list, which is 25 deep. A momentum seems to be growing; the Raiders honored the 81-year-old Flores with a Hispanic Heritage Game halftime ceremony that included an artist painting a portrait and video tribute on Sept. 30. He, Jimmy Johnson and George Seifert are the only eligible coaches with two Super Bowl titles not in the HOF.
“I’m trying to keep my emotions low-key because that’s the kind of person I am,” Flores said. “But down deep inside, it grinds on me because I haven’t even made the first cut yet in all the nine times. I see some of the people that have and gone further and, you know, I’m envious of them. I don’t degrade their situation; I’m just envious that they’ve gone that far. And I think I’ve done as much, if not more, than some of them, but I’m looking at it through my eyes.”
Indeed, can you write the definitive book on the NFL without mentioning Flores?
Dick Enberg waxed poetic as the cameras zoomed in on Flores in the closing minutes of Super Bowl XV on Jan. 25, 1981.
“You have to be happy for that man,” Enberg said on the NBC broadcast. “Talk about Cinderella stories -- Chicano, worked at 6, 7 years old in the fields, became a fine athlete, on to Pacific, had a fine pro career and now, maybe the most important moment in his life.”
Flores’ father came to central California to work in the fields and met Nellie Padilla, who was born near Fresno, though her family was from Jalisco, Mexico. They would marry and have two boys. Tom Jr. was the baby, born on March 21, 1937, as the family lived on the “Courtney” family ranch for which they worked in the Fresno county town of Del Rey.
“The house was almost a shack, which wasn’t much housing, but still it was a place to sleep and live and work,” Flores said. “My dad followed the crops when the season was over there.”
But when World War II began, the Flores family moved into a “real” house outside of Sanger, “with real floors, indoor plumbing, mainly because [my father] and my grandfather sharecropped the farm.
“The people that lived there before were Japanese and they were put in internment camps. So [we] were able to take over and live there throughout the war and did well farming. Everything was cash in those days. And then when the war was over, they had to move out because the owner had promised the Japanese, ‘When this is over, you can come back.’
“And he honored his commitment. What an honorable thing.”
Flores, who was 4 years old when his family moved into the “real house,” was in the fourth grade when they moved to Sanger and he was already, as Enberg noted, doing his part.
“I remember growing up working, playing and sleeping in the fields,” Flores said. “Because that’s what you did when you’re 1, and 2 and 3 years old -- you go with your parents while they work, and you pretend to work, and then you eat and you run around the fields and then you take a nap under the vines and then you get up and you pretend to work again and you pick maybe a half a tray of grapes and then you go home at night and do it all again the next day.”
When he was older, though, it was all work and some play. The work ethic he got from his parents, who also operated a tienda, a family store, seemingly all hours of the day, seven days a week, all while Tom Sr. became a U.S. citizen. The athletic skill came naturally and surprisingly. Flores and his older brother, Bob, did not discover football until junior high school -- the family knew next to nothing of the game, as they did not have a television -- and then starred at Sanger High (the football stadium there is named after him) before playing his college ball at Pacific.
Both Tom Sr. and Nellie lived into the 21st century, “So they were able to go on this journey with me,” Flores said. "They were fans, but they were quiet fans."
In 2017, the League of United Latin American Citizens honored Flores with the National Trailblazer Award for his “advocacy for Latino representation” in the NFL and a Lifetime Service Award for his “support for comprehensive immigration reform and work for inclusion and diversity in government,” while Flores, along with Plunkett, is seen as having made the Raiders popular in Mexico.. There, they're known as Los Malosos , the Bad Boys.
“Anytime a Hispanic is doing well, I feel like we always pull for each other,” said Eddy Piñeiro, the Raiders’ Nicaraguan/Cuban kicker, who is on injured reserve. “I always pull for any Latino -- Mexican, Nicaragüense, Cuban, Puerto Rican -- I always pull for anybody. It’s hard. It’s hard to make it when you’re Hispanic.”
It was at the LULAC awards where Flores told the story of Pancho Villa’s raiders having a lasting effect on an Oakland Raiders icon, and the sense of orgullo, pride or self-worth, that enveloped him from generations ago.
“It gives me a feeling of pride, in a way, because they survived,” said Flores, whose family story has been passed down from him and his wife of 57 years, Barbara, to their children, Mark, Scott and Kim, all of whom are in their 50s. Five grandchildren can also expect to hear the tales of the Flores familia surviving Pancho Villa's bandits. “Gives me a feeling of gratitude because they came to California.”
Now if only Flores can get to Canton.