DONNA - The physical argument for the notion of causation in its modern sense goes back as far as the Scottish polymath David Hume in the 18th century. The gist of his work was to discuss that A’s action against/with B has caused a C; in other words, an attempt to explain the process by which an event has occurred, noting that A indeed “caused” B.
Now in the world of sports, metaphysics and Hume are not popular subjects, for obvious reasons that do not bear stating at this juncture. But suffice to say that in football, basketball and beyond, there are actions, reactions, and results after the fact.
At the latest RGV Sports Hall of Fame banquet here Friday night, the theme of the evening as seven sports legends joined the august body of local athletic greats would have made Hume somewhat pleased. Because the underlying topic larding the speeches of the new members was easily gleaned: the influences that helped the inductees along their path to glory.
As the honored guests at Victoria Palms Resort told their tales to a crowd of over 300 admirers, names of coaches and mentors cropped up consistently. From Edinburg’s “Fito” Flores to Port Isabel’s Eliseo Villarreal, the magical men of the past were recalled for their tireless dedication to teaching, motivation, and, well, causation.
Each of the speakers detailed with poignancy the marks that were made upon their lives and athletic careers by their elders, making for a perfect illustration of the fact that for every successful subject, the provenance of achievement can be traced to the effect of a man or woman behind the scenes.
It was a marathon affair lasting nearly four hours, but on this night of nights, nary a discouraging word was heard, as if the assembled parties understood that it takes some time to recount the stories of longitudinal success. None of the inductees got where they were Friday without a lifetime of hard work and dedication. So regaling the crowd of the way it all went down just seemed to be par for the course.
RGV Hall president Charlie Vaughan, himself a member of the select group for his extraordinary accomplishments as a baseball pitcher, introduced the various board members with grace and detail. Master of Ceremonies Ronnie Zamora, a lifetime media member who will join the Hall from the inside in 2011, guided the show with the élan of an experienced public relations man, which he remains. Long-time coach and organizer Rene Garza, a man of many accolades including multiple halls of fame, was in rare form, meeting and greeting, helping and facilitating as he has done for decades across the local sporting landscape. These men and other soldiers behind the scenes like Hall co-founder Pikey Rodriguez made the event a memorable situation for the guests in question.
The first honored participant in the proceedings was Roland Lomblot, an indefatigable man who has been a bulwark of American Legion baseball and other youth exploits since the 1950s, when he moved to the Valley from Wisconsin to work for the Border Patrol.
Anyone from the Lower Valley can recognize the burly, soft-spoken Lomblot, who has been a positive influence on Valley athletes for generations. He has always been there, giving advice and helping kids learn sports as well as comportment, first in McAllen and then Harlingen, and it was wonderful to see him get his due.
Lomblot has always been the type of person to eschew personal publicity or credit; the late Buddy Green once wrote that the Valley should appreciate him, though it often has not. Such is the lot of the selfless in this modern, media-centric world where self-promotion has become as second nature as breathing to most of us.
Days short of his 85th birthday, Lomblot humbly received the Hall’s Distinguished Service Award, after Zamora reminded the crowd that for over 20 years, Lomblot has been a regular part of a ceremony that is always difficult to stomach: the folding of the American flag in honor of deceased Valley war veterans.
He has also been one of the driving forces in the continued health of the area’s Legion program. Under his careful tutelage and organization, the number of teams increased from four to 25 over a space of 10 years in the 1980s, and Lomblot could always be seen at the scene, making sure every ball and bat was ready, and ensuring that each player was prepared to play. He gave a brief and heartfelt reply about his award, showing once again that he cares more for the saintly daily grind than the plaque or gift.
If not for the gifts of the Roland Lomblots of the world, it would be a poorer, less rich endeavor all the way around.
Luis Alamia said it well as he led off the list of seven mighty sports legends, suggesting that “it’s much easier to play the game than it is to talk about it.” Nonetheless, the former two-sport star at Edinburg High who went on to a fine college showing in baseball, was able to carry the opening torch with aplomb.
His rise to greatness, like so many before him, was not without its share of serendipity. He recalled being a “mediocre” ballplayer in the beginning, the last to receive a uniform after making the Bobcat team in a high school tryout.
“It was an old, worn-out uniform that needed altering, but I was just happy to get it,” he smiled. “I was just happy to be out there with my friends.”
Alamia made the most of his narrow entry, hitting a grand slam home run in his first start at EHS, a feat that ensconced him firmly in the team’s plans for the future. Training and improving under the watch of coaches Flores, Tom Esparza, and Travis Cook, he became a star in baseball and basketball, later attending New Mexico Highlands where he set a NAIA record for stolen bases in the early 1960s.
Alamia, assistant principal at Edinburg North High School since its inception in 1991, has been a some-time coach and full-time supporter of city sports. Like Lomblot in Harlingen, he is a ubiquitous presence at Edinburg ball games, snappily dressed and stoically supportive of athletics and academics.
He cited Pan American College coach John Donnelly as the best coach he ever had, after he’d come home from New Mexico to finish his career with the Broncs. And he added that seeing his son Luis become one of the Pan Am program’s greatest all-around players a decade ago was a definite highlight. The upshot: as he was once mentored by great people, Alamia has labored his best to do the same for his children, along with the student-athletes of Edinburg.
“I loved seeing him surpass the things I did,” he said of his son. “Because that’s the way it should be. In their own way unique way, my kids have become successful and our legacy should always live on in our children.”
THE HARD WAY UP
Rey Farias never had it easy, from his early years as a migrant laborer who learned geography while following the path of the cultivable crops with his family in the 1950s to arriving at college with all his worldly possessions inside a single laundry bag.
But he became a member of the Hall of Fame Friday, after a superb football career and later incarnation as a school administrator and member of the Los Fresnos school board. A feared runner who made Little All-America in the 1960s at Southwest Texas State and later a star for the semi-pro juggernaut San Antonio Toros, Farias had a large contingent of supporters on hand for his special night.
While several of the inductees mentioned the influence of their coaches, as many took the time to laud their families for playing a large role in their socialization and learning process. In Farias’ case, wife Darlene received special notation for having been a woman without whom the standout gridder would be “half the man I am today.”
Farias overcame obstacles all down the road, and was good enough to start as a freshman for the La Joya Coyotes. He remembered picking cotton one afternoon on a blistering summer day in West Texas.
“Across the way a bunch of kids were playing football while we were working,” he said. “And I recall thinking that I would much rather be on that field than the one I was sweating in.”
Later, after a fine career at La Joya, he had to go the extra mile to make it to the next level, parlaying a high school senior trip to Aquarena Springs into a tryout with SWT. He made the grade and advanced to college, where he proved himself quickly as a hard hitter who would step in at any position, any time, to show what he was made of.
At one point in his Bobcat career, Farias went to see Coach Milton Jowers, to inform the coach that he could not make it financially on the half-scholarship he had been granted.
Jowers relented in awarding the hard-working Valley kid with more aid, and the largesse paid off when the team went undefeated in 1963 and captured the Lone Star Conference crown, with Farias as one of the leading rushers and scorers.
“I had to go out and make my own way, no one really thought I could do it,” he related. “But when I had my own family I made sure that they understood the expectations we all had for them. All three of my daughters graduated from Southwest Texas State.”
THE GREATEST HIT FROM THE HITTER
He was perhaps the most energetic and witty of speakers on the night, and also its most imposing. The last observation is understandable considering that Donny Martin, the pride of Port Isabel, became one of only a dozen Valley athletes to make the NFL. Back in the day, MC Zamora successfully nominated the Tarpon terror for the All-State team and recently squared the circle so to speak by gaining the honor of informing Martin of his induction.
Martin played college football at Rice before becoming a member of the Houston Oilers and then Houston Gamblers of the USFL, growing to 280 pounds with a 500-pound bench press. He commented whimsically that while Zamora’s All-State nomination letter had referred to him as “one of the finest physical specimens to come out of the Valley,” he always considered himself to be built “more like a beer keg!”
That wisecrack aside, Martin was pleased as punch to gain entry into the Hall, and he celebrated the mystique of his high school, one of the winningest programs in area annals since the 1970s.
“At most schools before the game they play the school song and it’s a somber situation, everyone rocking back and forth quietly,” he said. “But at Port Isabel, we would play the fight song, we were all screaming, fans included, and we were ready for a fight!”
He was a monstrous presence for a feared championship team, and Friday Martin remembered the wise tutelage of coaches Eliseo Villarreal and Tommy Roberts at PI. The latter he recalled as an expert motivator, the former as a dedicated program-builder who was an inspiration to everyone he came into contact with.
Later, Martin received invaluable assistance from a pair of Valley Hall of Famers, Matt Gorges of Harlingen and Frank Smith of Edcouch-Elsa, who helped him get into Rice where each of them had been starting football players. Martin, who showed a keen, free-spirited sense of humor in his speech, also admitted that blocking for pal and teammate Travis Sanders in high school did not hurt.
“I still remember one time when Travis made a long touchdown run of something like 75 yards but I was called for a penalty on the play,” he laughed, referencing the super back who finished his career in 1978 as the Valley’s leading rusher at the time. “I’m surprised that Travis isn’t standing up here like me. I bet someday he will be.”
While some football stars tend to downplay the attendant violence associated with the game, Martin was frank about his lifelong love for contact.
“That’s what I really miss the most, hitting people!” he offered. “Getting the chance to bury someone on the ground, I loved that. Heck I couldn’t even watch the games on TV for a few years after I quit playing, I would just get too fired up!”
THE GENTLEST OF GIANTS
Otto Moore is a fascinating individual, from his amazing length to his surprising breadth; the leading scorer and rebounder in Bronc history was equally comfortable at the banquet joking with the support staff at Victoria Palms or hobnobbing with the elite members of the Hall.
Now living in Houston, the 6-foot-11 former NBA starter entertained the crowd with his honest astonishment at having been accorded the honor, and his simple, yet meaningful rendition of his thoughts on success.
“This is great, I tell ya…just great!” he exclaimed to begin, taking a long moment to pause, look around at the crowd with a wide grin, and express his delight at being included. He mentioned that as a member of the College Basketball Hall of Fame and other such groups of outstanding athletes, he considered entrance into the Valley’s Hall as the final award he is likely to win.
He relayed a funny anecdote about his new friendship with Vaughan, admitting that at the onset of their first phone conversation, he thought the president was actually a car dealer of the same name from Houston.
“But after we got started talking, I felt like I had been knowing him 20 years, the way I felt like sharing things with him,” said Moore, who played nine years in the pros after his PAC career ended in 1968.
Though he is one of the greatest of the greats, a man who went elbow for elbow with Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Walton in the 1970s, Moore insists that those who know him understand that he is a quiet, humble person.
“I don’t talk about me,” he intoned, as a rapt audience followed his every move from the dais. “I want to thank each and every one of you for being here tonight.”
After calling out former Bronc teammate Fred Taylor and thanking him for making the trip back to the Valley, Moore commented that he never dreamed he would one day be able to use basketball to travel across the world and meet so many interesting people. A well-known anecdote shared by Zamora the MC is that in high school Moore may have been tall but also uninterested in basketball at the time. In time, he would gain interest in the sport, and advance on the road to glory.
“I never even heard of Bangor, Maine…but there I was, playing basketball in Bangor, Maine,” he chuckled.
Zamora came back up to the microphone and uttered words that everyone in attendance surely felt to be true. “Well, you now have 300 more friends here, Otto.”
He took the time to mention every friend and family member in the building, and there were a lot of them. But that’s the way Mo Molina has always been, a friendly and generous person who rose from relative obscurity in his country home in Faysville, north of Edinburg, to etch his name in the books as one of the finest basketball coaches ever.
The EHS grad attended Pan American College in the 1960s where he tried his hand at athletics and was awed by the presence of a handful of great athletes that energized an already extant love of sports.
Earlier in life, he’d been the oldest of nine children who specialized in making up games for himself, knocking around rocks with a broomstick while imagining himself as the next Mickey Mantle, and dreaming the dreams all youngsters experience.
“In high school I had to get used to playing sports with people, because I had done a lot of it by myself,” he noted.
Molina’s mantra is that success does not happen overnight, and that many people contribute to the growth and progress of every student-athlete. As a coach who has won over 400 games so far, without hint of cessation, he has been the type of teacher who always contributes to the overall process with each kid.
One of his shining moments has been the maturation and success in coaching careers of his children, Brian and Larissa, and the consistent support of wife Liz, known as the bane of existence for any basketball official who finds himself crossways with Molina, currently plying his trade with Marine Military Academy in Harlingen.
“And I also owe a lot to a woman who became like my mother when mom passed away,” said the coach, bringing special acclaim to 93-year-old Yolanda Gonzalez, who beamed broadly during his speech. “She knows all the scores, she’ll watch any game on TV, and she has supported me so much over the years.”
Molina expressed something that had to be on the minds of all the participants Friday; that time has seemed to pass so quickly.
“It seems like just yesterday, and all these things seem as if they never even happened in a way,” he opined. “I have tried to emulate the greats that taught me so much, like Alex Leal, Richard Flores, Roy Garcia…these were my role models, I looked up to them and all the while, I hoped that I could become the coach who impacted kids’ lives the same way. When kids come back to see you and have become lawyers, doctors, that to me is what it’s all about.”
CARRYING THE TORCH
As the only female recipient Friday of the highest honor a local coach or player can gain, Kathy Abbenante Howell understands what obstacles must be overcome to make the grade. The track coaching legend offered an address that was equal parts family values and tough-minded athletic toil and sweat.
“I may be the only woman up here tonight but I am following a series of great ones who came before me,” she began. “I am going to recognize my immediate family and I am going to try not to cry.”
As many of the inductees were, she was moved by the ceremony and at various times let her emotions dictate the pace of a very heartfelt address. On a night like this, the honorees were expected to be themselves, and they did; the authenticity of the moment was clear from the outset.
“I got my competitive spirit and courage from my mother,” said the mentor who has collected over a dozen district titles plus a state championship with Mission in 1991, and continues to spearhead the charge at Mission Veterans High to this day. “Mom inspired me in more ways than she could ever realize…I love you.”
Abbenante Howell gave credit to the coaches who taught her to work hard and maximize her abilities as a track athlete, and even thanked her sister for showing her never to take anything granted; this, after the sister came from behind to defeat the Hall inductee in a quarter-mile race in which she’s looked behind her to see her sibling.
“I thought, it’s only my sister,” she admitted. “And then she beat me!”
In discussing her special relationship with husband and fellow track coaching icon Larry Howell, Abbenante Howell noted that even though “he may be annoying, driving me crazy with his we-can-do-anything attitude, his unconditional love has been a great influence on me.”
THE COMEBACK KID
It was somehow fitting that Willie Garcia went last. Though the large crowd was showing the slightest signs of fatigue after an emotionally draining endeavor, the Rio Grande City native told his story of setback and redemption, keeping everyone spellbound.
The tale of how he lost an arm at age 14 has been told many times, but perhaps not in such heart-rending detail. In the economically disadvantaged westernmost outpost of the Valley, Garcia suffered through weeks of hospitalization in sub-par conditions, and he told the crowd about the strength and character of his mother, who talked him through the amputation, a process that was performed without anesthesia due to the patient’s extremely weakened condition.
Midway through the ordeal, Garcia admitted that he still did not know that his arm had been lost. He suggested that at that stage depression set in.
“Back then we didn’t have any counselors or therapy,” he said quietly. “From that point on, I was unprepared to handle what had happened. I rode the bus to school and then home again every day, staying away from most school activities. I was feeling sorry for myself, I didn’t want to see anyone or have anyone see me.”
He did break free from the sadness to try out for the football team when he got to high school, but it wasn’t until his senior season that the clouds began to lift.
“Coach Joe Sanchez and Coach Vela, many of you know Efrain Vela, it was his first year. I got called in to the office and I kept my hip pads on, because I thought maybe I was in trouble and was going to get paddled.”
Turns out that the coaches wanted to reward Garcia for his effort and improvement; he became an All-District center for the Rattlers that year instead of being punished.
“Hearing that I had won the starting job made me into a different person right then and there,” he recalled emotionally. “I felt I could conquer the world, there were no more bad feelings…I started not to feel like a handicapped person, but like an athlete!”
Garcia went on to college and took a try at baseball for Pan American College in the mid-‘50s, later playing many years of semi-pro baseball. His resume would include a fine run as track and football coach at St. Joseph Academy in Brownsville. Friday he deflected talk of his back-to-back state titles in track in the early 1970s, inviting three members of the award-winning Bloodhound Gang to take a bow.
“I feel that the members of that team should be up here instead of me,” he said, adding a note that spoke volumes about what he has learned though a lifetime of battling the odds. “Everybody on that team was important. They are all champions in my heart.”
The Hall’s president-elect, longtime coach/AD Pete Vela, presented outgoing boss Vaughan with an award of appreciation for “taking this thing to the elite level,” and then the guests dispersed.
There may be some cynics out there who conclude that if you’ve seen one banquet, you’ve seen them all. While there may be some technical merit to such an adjudication, the truth is infinitely more complicated, and happily so. The seven new inductees and Distinguished Service Award winner may not have broken new ground in terms of speaking style or stories. But that is a judgment missing the larger significance of the affair.
They all poured forth with part of themselves, their journeys, and their gratitude at having been recognized for spending a lifetime of hours in earnest effort. They spoke of the people in their lives, family, friends, and coaches, who helped make them what they are today. Sometimes with humor, sometimes in seriousness, the members related the struggle, the glory, and the causes that led down a winding, occasionally daunting, always challenging and rewarding road to this once-in-a-lifetime occasion.
Each year the Rio Grande Valley Hall of Fame gathers the sporting community together, with trappings and details remaining reasonably consistent from season to season. But the memories recalled, the insights offered with loving detail, they are priceless and singular, cherished wisdom and battle scars for the benefit not just of the audience in the chairs, but for posterity and the future, for the young student-athletes coming up the ranks who are looking for inspiration. They are a guidepost to steer by, this bevy of tales they can use to compare and prepare themselves as they attempt to measure up to the exploits of South Texas legends.