Tom Flores – Academic All-American, first Latino starting quarterback in American professional football history, first Latino head NFL coach and the rare winner of two Super Bowls – was born in California farming country.

A Govea

Early in his pro career Tom Flores was tagged “The Ice Man” – being cool under pressure and adept at come- from-behind wins. He wasn’t just the first minority head coach to win a Super Bowl; he was the first minority to become president and general manager of a U.S. professional football team. Only Tom Flores and Mike Ditka have ever won pro-football championships as a player, assistant coach and head coach.

Roots in Soil

Born Thomas Raymond Flores on March 21, 1937, in Fresno, he would learn how to work in the fields around Sanger, Calif. He was named for his father, who immigrated from Durango, Mexico, and like his father did early in his new U.S. home, the young Tom Flores spent a lot of time picking grapes. Tom learned how to work with his hands, but he had his sights set far beyond the California vineyards that he saw almost daily as a child.

Now 81, Flores received some early childhood advice from his parents, advice that he took to heart: “If you want to do something big, you have to roll up your sleeves and get to work; you find a way to get things done.”

The young Thomas attended Sanger High School and was a high achiever on and off the field. He was an accomplished student; he earned an academic scholarship to Fresno State (later renamed University of the Pacific).

I recently took an opportunity to chat with Tom Flores on the phone, from his California home. I asked him if he ever had to deal with discrimination, growing up and as an adult. “In high school, I know it was there, but I always tried to rise above that; I think if you look for it, you will find it,” Tom said. “In the Pros, there was blatant prejudice in the south against the Black players. As for myself, I guess I kind of flew under the radar,” he said. “Most people, especially in the north, did not know what to make of a Chicano.”

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From College to THE Pros

Tom won the starting quarterback role for two seasons at Fresno State; additionally, he was active in Student Council and served as president of The Men’s Associated Students group.

He was named Academic All-American. His parents’ advice was not lost on him. But he was destined to accomplish more, much more despite suffering a shoulder injury during his senior year at Fresno. “This hurt my chances of getting drafted, especially since back then (1958), there were not that many teams, and the American Football League was not even in existence yet,” Tom recalled.

Graduating from college, he focused on pursuing a career in professional football, a lofty goal for any athlete, but especially one coming out of a small college and one who was a Latino before that term was commonly used or used with respect or pride. At best, back then when people were being half-way civil, Tom likely was called a Mexican. Today that’s a label of pride, too, in many Hispanic circles. Although the National Football League did not call, the Canadian Football League did. So, Tom went north to Canada and joined the Calgary Stampede football team in 1958. Tom, however, met more than his share of adversity. He was cut after one season. But his dream was not lost; he didn’t give up. The Washington Redskins of the NFL picked him up in 1959. His stay didn’t last long; his shoulder injury from college days came back to haunt him. He was released by the ’Skins, and he underwent shoulder surgery.

Tom returned to college: “I was preparing for life after college and was working on my master’s degree when I got a call from a new team, from Oakland.” Not just a new team, the Oakland Raiders were in a new league, the AFL. So, in 1960 Tom became a Charter member of the American Football League. As a Raider, Tom was to enjoy most of his pro successes as a player and later as a coach. He was named starting quarterback, thus becoming the first Latino starting QB in American professional football history, all leagues. In his first year as the starter, he passed for 1,738 yards, completing 54 percent of his passes, connecting on 12 touchdowns.

Those numbers are not impressive by today’s standards, but in that era, running the ball was always the number one weapon for all teams. Indeed, Tom’s passing stats that year led the league, AFL.

As Raider QB, Tom was dubbed “The Ice Man” for his ability to keep his cool under pressure and bring his team back from scoring deficits to win. Tom stayed with Oakland until 1967, by far his longest

stay with any team; then he was traded to Buffalo. Tom stayed with the Bills until 1969; he was traded to Kansas City and helped win an AFL championship there as a backup QB. In 1970, after the AFL and NFL merged into the National Football League, Tom retired as a player, with a record of 838 completions on 1715 attempts, gaining 11,959 yards and 92 passing TDs. He also rushed for 5 TDs.


Tom started his coaching career in Buffalo under Sid Gillman. But he was soon back with Oakland, where he would reach his crowning achievement. In 1979, Tom was named the Raiders head coach when John Madden retired. The promotion made Tom the first minority head coach in the NFL, in both divisions. Tom Flores went on to lead the Raiders to two NFL championships, against the Eagles in Super Bowl XV and against the Redskins in Super Bowl XVIII.

Jerry Jones-X-2

What I find even more admirable were Tom’s achievements with the Raiders, the team owned by Al Davis, who was known for his impatience and constant meddling in team management, coaching and recruiting. Many sports history buffs call Davis the original Jerry Jones-TIMES- TWO. I asked Tom about his relationship with Al Davis. “Sure, he was tough to work for at times,” Tom said, having worked for Davis as a player/assistant coach and as a head coaches. “He was tough, but for the most part, he was fair, but at times . . . unreasonable.” How did Davis and Jerry Jones compare? “When Jerry bought the Cowboys, he . . . sought out Al for advice,” Tom said. “This led to them becoming friends.” Tom said it’s possible that Jerry did take to heart the early counsel of Al Davis. “But again,” Tom said, “If you win, nobody will second-guess you.” For Davis and anyone in the business then and now, Tom said, “the bottom line . . . is winning. If you win, you can do no wrong. If not, you will be in the hot seat.” So, to quote the late Al Davis: “Just win, Baby.” Davis was once quoted as saying that Tom “is not just a great coach in the league,” but that Tom “is among the greatest ever.” And as the business proved, Tom knew, a coach is only “as good” as his record at any given moment. Davis removed Tom from the head coaching job and moved him upstairs in Oakland management and later fired Tom from that job and all Oakland roles. It proved to be another opportunity. Tom was named general manager of the Seattle Seahawks and later, in 1992, became the team’s head coach. After three disappointing seasons, Tom was let go. Overall, Tom compiled a coaching record of 97 wins, 87 losses and no ties, with a playoff tally of 8 wins and 3 losses – and of course, the two Super Bowl victories. Tom recalled his Super Bowl quarterback, Jim Plunkett. “He was a very talented quarterback and also the first and only Latino to win the Heisman Trophy. He is of Mexican descent on his mom’s side.” Does Tom foresee another Hispanic quarterback and head coach combo in the NFL? “There will likely never be again,” he said. Tom never regained the magic of his Oakland days. The Football Gods giveth and taketh away.

       Honors y Mas

Tom Flores has been recognized on many occasions for his philanthropy, including being presented the Roberto Clemente Award by National Council of La Raza, being named to the California Sports Hall of Fame and having the football stadium

at his alma mater, Sanger High School, named for him. When considering Thomas Raymond Flores’s whole body of work, including being a charter member of the old AFL, I and many other pro football fans and many experts argue that “The Ice Man” deserves to be in the NFL Hall of Fame. I asked him about the induction possibility. “It, of course, would be an honor,” Tom said. “My last chance will not come until four or five years down the road, as an old-timer pick.” Regardless, Tom Flores is a prime source of pride for the Latino community. For now, he’s still involved in football, as color commentator for the Oakland Raiders Network. He plays golf; one course is a short walk from his home. His advice for anyone with a dream is: “Have passion for your chosen career, and be prepared for setbacks. They will only make you stronger and smarter.” Tom is married; he and his wife Barbara have three grown children, twin boys and a daughter, and five grandchildren.


The ‘Ice Man’: Honors Student, Pro Quarterback/Coach, Latino Legend

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