Back to the Magic Valley

Commentary by Dr. Don Newbury

For many decadesfootball-loving men gathered in coffee shops to dissect the previous Friday night’s schoolboy football games. There was more dissecting than coffee-drinking.

Many may not have realized it, but those games–won, lost or tied–helped to unify community spirit.

For the most part, high school sports were kept in perspective, unlike major university programs today. Currently, mighty television moguls call the shots, the NCAA goes along and major institutions buy in, thus greatly tilting football and basketball away from their initial purposes. Never mind that governing boards give their blessings, and for a couple of dozen universities or so, clearly the “tail is wagging the dog.”

Dr. Don Newbury

My aged Uncle Mort–who remembers the early days of football when participants wore scruffy uniforms and leather helmets–gets few laughs each season when the “haves” are upset by the “have nots.” Such results leave fans bewildered, coaches embarrassed and oddsmakers frustrated.

A current example is Texas A&M’s loss to visiting Appalachian State University, which was paid some $1.5 million to play the Aggies in College Station.

“Toss in Coach Jimbo Fisher’s salary of some $800,000 per game and you’ve got an outlay of more than $2 million, a lot of greenbacks to spend for a loss,” he added.

Such topics are frequently discussed at coffee gatherings today, particularly by retired coaches. Four who coached high school football in the Rio Grande Valley served a total of more than 150 years, mostly in public schools. I was privileged to have two of them–Luz Pedraza and Poppy Rodriguez–in my class during teaching years at Sul Ross State University, 1963-1967.

Luz played pro ball for eight years in the Texas Football League and Poppy–with a master’s degree from the University of Texas–was the first head football coach/athletic coordinator at McAllen’s Memorial High School before his promotion to McAllen ISD athletic director for 27 years. John Lerma played for Baylor University and Julio Ayala for Wharton Junior College.

All members of this foursome starred as players in Rio Grande Valley high schools. Each of them served in coaching capacities in or near the valley, and all four are now retired there.

Quarterback Luz set numerous football records at Sul Ross, which scored a notable upset of New Mexico State University in 1963.

It was no fluke. The Lobos prevailed, 42-15. Luz and Poppy–a scrappy running back–were leaders of the team that took on Goliath and won.

SRSU received $25,000 for providing opposition for that season-closing Thanksgiving Day game in Las Cruces. Naturally, fans at New Mexico State–a school some ten times larger–didn’t see it coming. Sul Ross–named for a Confederate general–continues to serve a sparsely-populated area of West Texas, rarely enrolling more than 1,200-1,500 students.

I recall that Luz and Poppy contended that Spanish is “God’s language.” Decades later, I attended a church service conducted in Spanish. I had never done so before.

The hymns, sung in Spanish, were indeed beautiful.

Subsequently, I have agreed–for hymns anyway–that Spanish may be God’s language. If I can track them down, I’ll admit that they were excellent football players AND proponents of the Spanish language.

During my Sul Ross years, most students from the Rio Grande Valley returned there.

Maybe it is the “Magic Valley.” This gets my vote as I think of this foursome of coffee-drinking buddies who molded many, many lives.

It should be noted that men like these didn’t coach for the money. They love the game, realize how much it has done for them, and gladly invested in young lives.

My alma mater, Howard Payne University, scored an upset over Texas A&M almost exactly one century ago.

The Yellow Jackets took down the Aggies 13-7 on September 30, 1922.

I’m sure HPU was paid nothing, but the win fueled “bragging rights” for Yellow Jacket fans, even today.

Dr. Newbury, a longtime university president, continues to write weekly and speak throughout Texas. Contact: 817-447-3872. Email: Facebook: Don Newbury

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