I recently read an excellent review of a new book by Mario Longoria and Jorge Iber, Latinos in American Football: Pathbreakers on the Gridiron, 1927 to the Present. The review, published in the prestigious journal, Choice, commented that based on personal interviews and related research, “the authors tell stories of hardship, racism, dedication, and triumph…The careers of distinguished, trailblazing players and coaches and their successes in memorable games are recounted.” This essay is based on an interview with Mario Longoria about the book.
Rene Ramirez of Hebbronville, Texas, was a UT Longhorn halfback chosen to the All Southwest Conference Team in 1959. He was one of the first selections of the Buffalo Bills in the American Football League expansion draft in 1960, but did not pursue a football career. Photo: Collection of Dr. Mario Longoria.
Mario Longoria, a San Antonio native and graduate of John F. Kennedy High School in the Edgewood District, served in the U.S. Navy during the Vietnam War. Following his honorable discharge in August of 1970, he relocated to Los Angeles where he and his military buddy from the U.S. Marine Corps, Anthony Zapata, shared an apartment in West Los Angeles while attending Santa Monica Community College on the G.I. Bill. Dr. Longoria earned a B.A. degree from California State University Northridge and a Ph.D in English from The University of Texas at San Antonio.
Romo: What is your new book about?
Dr. Longoria: The book is a story of Latinos’ struggle, perseverance, and achievement in a grueling sport . It is a story of Latino athletes who did not allow other people’s views and prejudices to discourage them from pursuing their desire to participate in the sport of football. Each of their stories is unique although the circumstances for each of the athletes were basically racial in nature. During the numerous interviews I conducted over the years, the information I gathered is a story in itself because the athletes shared with me both their concerns and their elation about their football careers. One athlete, Alex Bravo (Los Angeles Rams and Oakland Raiders), asked me, “Why do you want to know about my football career…no one else did.” That is how the interview began. I replied, “That is exactly my purpose…I want to document your football history and those of other Mexicanos/Latinos…and I hope to tell your football story and those of others like you…”
Romo: What got you started in thinking about College or Professional football?
Dr. Longoria: During my early college years, we acquired another roommate who happened to be a member of the UCLA football team. He was Efren Herrera from Mexico who was on an athletic scholarship. It was during these times as we sat on the apartment floor having dinner that we discussed football and the possibility of other Latino players like Efren Herrera on both collegiate and professional football teams. We initially could only recall about (10) Latino players and this short list prompted me to think about researching the sport to see what and who would turn up.
Romo: Who are the Mexicano/Latino football players?Longoria: As a result of wondering who played, I began my search back in 1981 by going to the main library in San Antonio, Texas. There, a resource librarian provided me with the Roger Treat Football Dictionary, a book published in Canada. The book provided a year-by-year history of the NFL along with rosters of the players. This was a revelation and there I found, for example, the name of Jesse Rodriguez who played in professional football in 1929.
Jesse Rodriguez…1929 (Courtesy Salem University Athletics).Mario Longoria collection.
In retrospect, this was the kick-off of a research project that has lasted into the 21st century. The more I researched, the more I found. Once I identified the players’ collegiate and pro football teams, I then embarked on the task of writing letters to Sports Information offices of countless colleges and universities and pro football teams.
Romo: Where are the Mexican/Latino football athletes from?
Dr. Longoria: The football story begins with a Cuban immigrant in 1927 who was followed by two Spanish-born immigrants in 1929 and 1930 respectively who learned the sport well enough to compete at both the collegiate and professional football levels.
Since then there have been hundreds of both native-born and immigrant Latinos who played or competed in the sport at all levels…Today…our research has identified several thousand Mexicano/Latino athletes with documentation of their participation in high school, college/university, and professional football history. Mexican/Latino native-born athletes comprise the majority of those athletes.
Romo: Is there a particular story or player who is more memorable?
Dr. Longoria: After giving the question some thought, I found it difficult to narrow my response to any one story or player. My research experience with all the individual players to whom I spoke was a prideful, memorable, and educational experience. As I asked the questions about their interest in football, their replies were straightforward and sincere. I heard stories of success and accomplishment, as well as disappointments, missed opportunities, and mistreatment. But the memorable parts of these inquiries and discussions provided valuable insights into the athletes’ character as Mexicano/Latino men as well as athletes’ mindsets that are more collective than individualistic.
If I may, I will cite one significant story: Joe “Toughest Chicano” (Garcia) Kapp is at the top of the list for many reasons that I might describe as his unimaginable determination and strength of character. Joe was called many derogatory names and criticized openly by coaches, opponents, and the press, but he never wavered in his unquenchable desire to play and win at football. Even in defeat, Kapp won because he never accepted the meaning of the word defeat and constantly pushed forward. When not on the football field, Kapp was a Chicano at heart. He loved his culture and his family, and he was constantly educating players and the media whenever they commented ignorantly about who he was…
Romo: Dr. Longoria, congratulations on your excellent book. A most worthy endeavor.