For years, Tom Flores — the first Latino pro football quarterback and head coach — doubted he would be voted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. But his fans were sure he'd earned the honor and helped get him there.
Flores, 83, who is Mexican American, was elected to the Hall of Fame this weekend, a recognition that many fans had been saying he was due years ago.
"Congratulations to Sanger Alumni Tom Flores. It's about darn time," said a comment on a Twitter account dedicated to the Sanger Union High School Apaches in California. Flores attended the high school, where the football stadium is named after him.
Flores was the first Latino starting quarterback in pro football when he played for the Oakland Raiders in the American Football League in 1960. He went to the fourth Super Bowl in 1970 as backup quarterback for the Kansas City Chiefs.
He was an assistant coach with the Oakland Raiders when they won Super Bowl 11 after the 1976 season, and he was the head coach when the Raiders won Super Bowl 15 after the 1980 season and when the Los Angeles Raiders won Super Bowl 18 after the 1983 season. All as a coach and a player were firsts for a Latino.
He and Mike Ditka are the only men to have won Super Bowls as a player, an assistant coach and a head coach.
Even so, Flores often wasn't nominated for the Hall of Fame, or he got only as far as semifinalist, a fact not lost on him; Flores mentioned his disappointment at being passed over in interviews in recent years.
Flores' absence from the hall was seen as a major omission by his fans, Latinos and other sports figures, given his barrier breaking in football. Some publicly called it out as "racism."
After having enough of that, fans launched social media campaigns and Twitter storms and took up some hometown rallying.
Alfredo Arteaga began using his Twitter profile last year to make the case for Flores: "Tom Flores won a Super Bowl as a player, won 2 as a head coach and as an assistant, 4 Super Bowls & is not in the #HOF," the top of his Twitter profile reads.
He also was part of a list of fans who would write information about Flores regularly and tweet demands for him to be in the Hall of Fame. The tweets were often tagged to Hall of Fame voters, football writers and other journalists.
"I grew up a Raiders fan in the Bay Area, so he was the first coach that the Raiders had when I was, probably, 5 or 6 years old, when I really knew what football was. He should have been inducted a long time ago. It's way overdue," said Arteaga, 47, of Orange County, California.
The Raiders' website reported that Pablo Mora, who paints the grounds at Tom Flores Stadium in Sanger, petitioned for a Hall of Fame spot for Flores with a plea he painted on the stadium's field two weeks ago.
A fan-inspired Coors Light beer commercial released this year also got in on the lobbying, tapping into Flores' nickname, "Iceman," which he earned for his chill demeanor. The commercial featured Flores shrugging when the narrator asks, "Why isn't he in the hall yet?"
"It's long overdue," said Domingo García, national president of the League of United Latin American Citizens, or LULAC, the Latino civil rights and education group, which passed a resolution in 2018 calling for Flores' inclusion.
In 2017, LULAC honored Flores with its Lifetime Achievement Award for his support of comprehensive immigration reform legislation and his work for inclusion and diversity in government. It also gave him its Trailblazer Award for his Latino representation in the NFL.
At the ceremony, Flores expressed hope that he would end up in the Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio.
'A proud Chicano'
In a 2016 interview with NBC News, Flores said it was fans who helped him understand his impact on the Latino community.
"The fact that I was on national TV as a quarterback was a great influence on a lot of Hispanic kids and their families. You don't think about it like that when you are doing it," Flores said.
"I had people come up and say they were proud of me — one person told me his father cried when I won the Super Bowl. I didn't know who he was, but the fact that I accomplished it as a Hispanic was a proud moment in his life. That makes me feel better. That is where my ethnic background comes into play," said Flores, who called himself a "proud Chicano."
Flores' father, originally from Mexico, immigrated to California as a guest worker in the Bracero Program. His mother was born in California. He said at the LULAC ceremony that his father worked tirelessly to buy a home to replace the lean-to where the family initially lived and to eventually start a business, a small convenience store.
"It happened. This is really happening. Think about it. I'm sorry, I'm getting tears in my eyes again," Flores said in an interview with Raiders.com.
In the interview, he said being inducted into the Hall of Fame was "my last dream."
The induction ceremony is in July.
When Flores coached the Raiders to the Super Bowl 15 championship — the first Super Bowl victory by a wild card team — and Super Bowl 18, Jim Plunkett was the starting quarterback. Plunkett, who is also Mexican American, was the first Latino and the first minority quarterback to lead a team to a Super Bowl victory.
Flores' fans want Plunkett to join him in the Hall of Fame.
Flores' election follows last year's racial reckoning over the death of George Floyd and during a coronavirus pandemic that has highlighted racial inequities across the country.
"I hope they did it because it's the right thing to do," said García of LULAC, "but I'm sure — the national climate has changed dramatically just from two years ago, when you had this anti-Latino, anti-immigrant, anti-Black atmosphere emanating from the White House."