Raiders legend Tom Flores, trailblazer for Latinos in the NFL, changed sports history

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
·12 min read
In this article:
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

Editor's note: This story was originally published on Aug. 6. USA TODAY Sports is republishing the story in recognition of Hispanic Heritage Month which begins on Sept. 15 and ends Oct. 15.

Tomás Cervantes Flores, the father of the first Latino starting quarterback in AFL history, was from a town called Dinamita.

Wedged between desert hills in the northeastern corner of the Mexican state of Durango, Dinamita is Spanish for dynamite. It was irrigation that brought cotton to this once-unreclaimable land. It was the rich rock that brought the mining and American explosives companies. And it was the town’s flourishing economy that brought the plundering bandits who claimed ties to Pancho Villa, forcing Flores' family to flee to El Norte on the flatbed car of a train in 1919. Flores was 12 when they left.

Immediately after arriving to this country, Flores worked in the fields, then later met Nellie Padilla, a first-generation daughter of migrant farmers. After they married, they lived outside of Sanger, California, on the ranch where they worked in a little lean-to shack with no running water, with no plumbing.

Their child, Tom Flores, the first person of color to ever win a Super Bowl as a head coach, slept in an old grape box with blankets bundled within to soften the wooden slats.

The family was paid by the pound of whatever they picked, so when Tom was old enough, he, too, took to the fields and filled one or two boxes with grapes or peaches or plums.

“We had nothing,” Flores, the first Latino general manager in NFL history, told USA TODAY Sports.

“Nothing. Every check my dad made until he was 27 years old went to his mom and dad. That was because my father always remembered when he was a young boy in Mexico, laying on the floor and the bullets coming through the windows. He remembered everything his parents did to get them out of there.”

The story of Latinos in the NFL is the story of immigrants. If not the player, coach, or executive, it's the story of the parents, grandparents or great-grandparents who brought them to this country and the sacrifices they endured. Like the stories of so many immigrants, the stories of Latinos who helped build the NFL are often overlooked, if recognized at all.

And as generations of Latinos have assimilated into this country these stories are, at their heart, American stories.

MORE: While Hispanic NFL fan base expands, representation on the field among players, coaches still lagging

In a three-part series, USA TODAY Sports is examining the contributions made by Latinos throughout NFL history and the obstacles they faced. This part explores the most prominent: Flores, who will be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame on Aug. 8.

The 'Iceman'

Flores became the first Latino to ever start at quarterback in the AFL, doing so for the Oakland Raiders in 1960. Though Flores said it wasn’t frequent, he did experience some players trying to weaponize his identity against him.

“I never saw blatant discrimination, but I knew it was there,” Flores said. “It was there. Because there were just some who couldn’t hide it. There were always those sly comments along the way.

“For the most part, when you walk through the door in pro football, the outside world doesn’t exist. We were all treated with respect, and that didn’t change because of the color of your skin. But there were some from the South that it was hard for them just because that was the way they grew up.”

Raiders coach Tom Flores clutches the Super Bowl trophy as Raiders managing general partner Al Davis is interviewed by Brent Musburger in the locker room after their 38-9 win over the Washington Redskins in Super Bowl XVIII.
Raiders coach Tom Flores clutches the Super Bowl trophy as Raiders managing general partner Al Davis is interviewed by Brent Musburger in the locker room after their 38-9 win over the Washington Redskins in Super Bowl XVIII.

Flores stressed that he never felt his ethnic background negatively impacted his career opportunities in football. Yet despite being a groundbreaking figure for the Raiders and then becoming the first – and thought to be only – Latino general manager in league history for the Seattle Seahawks from 1989-94, his contributions were ignored for years.

When the NFL 100 lists were published in 2019 to commemorate the 100th NFL season, Nos. 2 and 3 on the all-time list of 100 greatest characters were the late Raiders owner Al Davis and former Raiders coach John Madden, respectively.

On the list of 100 greatest game-changers, Davis was No. 3. Neither Flores, nor Hall of Fame offensive tackle Anthony Muñoz, nor any other known Latinos made that list, although the Madden NFL video game franchise (15), Astroturf (31) the highlight show ESPN NFL Primtetime (44), oddsmaker Jimmy “The Greek” Snyder (62), the J5-V Spalding football (76), Sticky gloves and Stickum (77), the Mo Lewis hit that knocked out Drew Bledsoe (82) and Apple’s first Super Bowl commercial (99) made the cut.

This despite Flores winning two Super Bowls as the head coach of the Raiders — XV in 1981 and XVIII in 1984 – both of which came with a Latino starting quarterback, Jim Plunkett. This despite his helping win another (XI) as the receivers coach in Madden’s lone championship season in 1976.

Yet it was Madden who rode a gregarious personality to a career in broadcasting and, eventually, the wildly lucrative video game franchise that bears his name.

LOS ANGELES - SEPTEMBER 28: Head coach Tom Flores and his Los Angeles Raiders prepare for battle against the San Diego Chargers during a game at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum on September 28, 1986 in Los Angeles, California.  The Raiders won 17-13. (Photo by George Rose/Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES - SEPTEMBER 28: Head coach Tom Flores and his Los Angeles Raiders prepare for battle against the San Diego Chargers during a game at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum on September 28, 1986 in Los Angeles, California. The Raiders won 17-13. (Photo by George Rose/Getty Images)

“In a world dominated by the visual, if you are engaging or can be produced as engaging visually, added onto the fact that Madden’s persona resonated with a particular mainstream American football value – let’s use that as a euphemism for whiteness – there’s no doubt he capitalized on advantages the system inherently afforded him,” David L. Andrews, a professor at the physical cultural studies research group at the University of Maryland, told USA TODAY Sports. “And there’s also no doubt that Flores, despite his accomplishments and accolades, was not afforded those same considerations.”

The author of “Making Sport Great Again: The Uber-Sport Assemblage, Neoliberalism, and the Trump Conjuncture,” Andrews added that “there’s somewhat of a cultural indifference” toward the Latino experience that reduces “the cultural value Latino groundbreakers have in popular American culture.”

To that point, Flores became known as the “Iceman” for his stoic and quiet demeanor and workmanlike approach to his jobs.

Madden was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2006. Flores, by comparison, was just announced in February and will be enshrined on Sunday, after years of fan and media campaigning drew more attention to his candidacy.

Davis was enshrined in 1992.

“I never really got the chance to be the face of the Raiders because Al was taking up most of the space up there,” Flores said. “I became more and more than I had realized in Los Angeles, but my nature is quiet. Whenever you saw the Raiders, Al Davis was the first name that came into your mind. That’s just the way it was.

"I want to be clear: Al was always great to me, even when I didn’t work for him. He just talked a lot more.”

It was that relocation to Los Angeles before the 1982 season when Flores recalled Davis coming to understand the pride the Latino community held for Flores.

One day, as both men were marketing the team’s arrival in a public appearance, Flores was drawing the overwhelming adulation of Mexican American fans. Flores noticed Davis being unusually awkward. Davis turned to Flores and mentioned how impressed he was with Flores’ popularity.

Tom Flores led the Raiders to two Super Bowl wins.
Tom Flores led the Raiders to two Super Bowl wins.

“I just laughed and said, ‘Yeah, there’s a lot of Hispanic people down here, Al, and they like me,’ ” Flores said. “And he said, ‘Yeah, you’re right, that’s it.’ But he didn’t know how to say it.”

Yet if Flores is admired but overshadowed in Raiders lore, for Latinos looking to break into the league, he remains nothing short of revered.

“I get to the NFL and I was one of just a handful of Latinos in the league,” Washington Football Team coach and former Chicago Bears linebacker Ron Rivera told USA TODAY Sports. “But then I get into coaching, and people really started pointing it out. It’s this tremendous thing. I do think about my influences and what I can do for the next wave, because for me, Tom Flores was that influence. With him, I finally had somebody representing my ethnicity.”

'I'm proud of my heritage'

Esther Muñoz also worked in the fields. She picked grapes when they were in season. When they weren’t, she packed eggs on a chicken ranch. She would also clean for the family that owned the ranch.

To supplement what she brought in, Esther’s children would come home from school with pillowcases stuffed with their teachers’ clothes. Esther would wash and iron them, sending them back starched and crisp.

Born in California as a first-generation Mexican American whose parents and grandparents came from the state of Chihuahua, Esther Muñoz didn’t have much growing up. Her son, Anthony, is widely considered the greatest offensive lineman in NFL history.

Anthony Munoz was a nine-time First Team All-Pro, an 11-time Pro Bowler and was named the NFL's Walter Payton Man of the Year in 1991.
Anthony Munoz was a nine-time First Team All-Pro, an 11-time Pro Bowler and was named the NFL's Walter Payton Man of the Year in 1991.

Anthony still zooms in on photos of Esther as a young girl. In the photos, the fabric at the elbows of her sweaters is worn thin. He said she vowed, as a single mother, to do whatever she could to prevent her children from ever feeling that.

Though Anthony recalled having few outfits, he said he popped in the ones he did. He remembered slicking his hair back with Vitalis or pomade that Esther bought him. He got wingtip shoes and added taps to the heels. He walked down the hallway of his school bursting with pride.

He was in the fourth grade.

“She always said ‘Just because we don’t have much, doesn’t mean we have to look like we don’t have much,’ ” Anthony Muñoz told USA TODAY Sports. “She made sure we learned work ethic, responsibility, accountability. And she didn’t have to sit us at the dinner table and tell us what those things were all about. All we had to do was watch her. When she left in the summer for work at 6:30, 7, we had to wash the dishes, wash the clothes, iron and clean the house all before I could play baseball. And you better believe I was going to get that all done."

Financial struggles like the ones the Floreses and Muñozes faced when assimilating was common for Latino immigrants in the years following the Great Depression. Things have improved dramatically since then, though some of those issues still remain. According to a Pew Research study from 2017, just 19% of all Hispanic people in the U.S. are living in poverty. By contrast, the study found 13% of all Americans living in such conditions.

Like so many Latino children playing sports, Muñoz’s first love was baseball, a sport he inherited from his grandfather, who played semi-pro ball.

Muñoz played third base and pitcher. He dreamed of one day being like Juan Marichal. On the mound, naturally, he borrowed a high-kick windup, tried to swoop up the toe of his cleats above his head, just like Juan. Muñoz had a strong arm.

So when he signed up for local Punt, Pass & Kick events, he started winning the throwing competitions. By the time he was 8, he was quarterback in the sandlot games his friends arranged and on his flag football teams.

Muñoz grew, quickly. He earned all-state honors three times as a third baseman. He continued to think baseball would be his path to pro sports. His junior season, however, Muñoz played offensive and defensive line and made all-state.

His senior year, the recruiting offers came in. They weren’t on the diamond.

His next step was to teach his mother about the sport that would grant him a scholarship, and – eventually – get him drafted third overall. Muñoz was the lone Cincinnati Bengal to make the NFL 100 all-time team roster and one of only three known Latinos, joining running back Steve Van Buren and tight end Tony Gonzalez.

“I just have to say, who you are, how you determine who you’re going to be as a person, your work ethic, your dedication, that’s what matters," Muñoz said. "I really believe it has been God’s favor that I’ve been able to, first of all, not have been given anything, but also not have been held back because of my skin color, my name, my position.

“Whatever word – Hispanic; I use Latino, but growing up in Southern California it was Chicano – I’m proud of my heritage. I’m American, but I’m Mexican American. My grandparents brought the culture, and we celebrated it. But first and foremost, it’s all about hard work. That’s what the Latino community is all about.”

Growing fan base

Data compiled by the SSRS Luker on Trends Sports Poll showed that more than 16% of the entire NFL fan base in 2019 was Hispanic, the highest-ever figure for the group. According to data the NFL compiled in 2019, 71% of young Hispanic fans are more likely to follow the NFL’s social media accounts.

Yet despite the growing fan base, player representation on the field remains miniscule.

The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport (TIDES), which publishes annual report cards on racial and gender hiring, showed that only seven of the 1,682 players (0.4%) for which there was data from the 2020 season identified as Hispanic or Latino.

One of the league's most high profile players was Tony Romo, who played quarterback for the league’s most popular team in the modern era, the Dallas Cowboys, from 2003-16. Romo has been selective in speaking publicly about his Mexican heritage and through a representative, declined to participate in this story.

SUBSCRIBE: Help support quality journalism like this.

Texas Tech professor and associate dean in the department of history Jorge Iber co-authored “Latinos in American Football: Pathbreakers on the Gridiron, 1927 to the Present” with fellow professor and historian Mario Longoria. Before we see more Latino faces of the franchise, Iber said, we must first see more Latino players overall.

“The pipeline is developing,” Iber, whose book “Señor Sack: The Life of Gabe Rivera” comes out in September, told USA TODAY Sports. “We’re the largest minority population in the country. Ultimately, the key element in all of this is: If we improve economically, if we improve our movement through the school system and through the economy, you will not only see more Latinos in professional sports, it’s only natural that you will see more people named Rodriguez or Sánchez or Perez become the faces of their teams."

More in this series

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Tom Flores was trailblazer for Latinos in NFL, helped change history