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Flores, football pioneer, finally makes it to Canton — on his own terms

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Ruben Navarrette

Ruben

Navarrette

SAN DIEGO — The Spanish phrase of the day is one of my favorites: Ya era tiempo.

The saying is akin to “It’s about time.”

Tom Flores — better known as “Tommy” in Sanger (pop. 24,270), our shared hometown in Central California — has been voted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. The 83-year-old Mexican American — who has four Super Bowl rings and was the first Latino pro football quarterback (for the Oakland Raiders back in 1960, and later for the Kansas City Chiefs), head coach, and general manager — was twice snubbed by the pigskin pooh-bahs. In fact, Flores had nearly given up on achieving what he calls his “last dream.”

The induction ceremony is in July.

Furious at seeing Flores passed over, Raider Nation was determined to correct the injustice.

The Nation is like the Mafia. Once you’re in, you don’t get out. As Flores said in a recent interview, “Football is family and it’s forever. Once you’re a Raider, you’re always a Raider.”

And Raider fans don’t know how to back down. A grassroots campaign on social media led to a petition drive, lobbying by Latino advocacy groups, and even a Coors beer commercial featuring Flores that needled the Hall of Fame for an obvious omission.

Flores, who dedicated his life to professional football, certainly had the goods to get to Canton, Ohio, on his own.

That is, if the induction was on the level. The gatekeepers at the Hall of Fame aren’t fooling anyone. We know the score. Football — like politics, media and Hollywood — is a black-and-white game. Flores is neither, so he gets overlooked and disrespected.

Maybe the Iceman needs a better publicist. Or maybe pro football needs to be less racist. NFL shouldn’t stand for “Not For Latinos.”

The NFL and the Pro Football Hall of Fame needed to do right by this pioneer and ambassador. They didn’t. The slight is unforgivable.

Mexican Americans have seen this movie. They’re accustomed to being discriminated against, treated as “less than” and clubbed over the head with the m-word: “merit.”

It’s about merit, The Man says as he denies you a seat at the table that you’ve earned through hard work. You place No. 2 on a civil servant exam, and the two jobs go to White males who were No. 1 and No. 3. Even when you lose out to the less qualified, you don’t whine. Instead, you transfer your dreams to your children who, you pray, will someday have “merit.”

On that 100-yard field, the green one with the white lines and the goalposts, Flores ate merit for breakfast. He’s one of only two men in NFL history to have won Super Bowls as a player, an assistant coach and a head coach. The other? The iconic Mike Ditka.

Flores also had 97 victories as an NFL coach, and his 8-3 playoff record is second to only the legendary Vince Lombardi.

Tommy’s imagination could never have carried him that far when, back in the late 1940’s, he was playing on Olive Street in Sanger a few doors from where my father lived with his parents and brothers. There were no Rockefellers on that block. Everyone was busy working, trying to make a dollar out of 15 cents.

Flores’ father, Tomas Sr., was a farm worker from Mexico. His mother, Nellie, was born in California. Together, his parents raised Tommy and his brother, Bobby, to not be shy about laying claim to their versions of the American Dream.

For Tomas Raymond Flores — who told NBC News in 2016 that he considers himself “a proud Chicano” — the long process of staking that claim began with a weird, ellipse-shaped ball that magically appeared one day on Olive Street. It was made of leather, pointed at both ends and braided down the middle. And Tommy soon realized that it fit his hand perfectly, and he could throw it really far with pinpoint accuracy. The rest is history.

In 1985, when I graduated as valedictorian from Sanger High School, I gave my speech in Tom Flores Stadium. For me, Tommy’s journey down the road less traveled is about hometowns, heroes and heritage. It’s about what Mexican Americans crave most: respect. It’s about resilience, and not giving up when things don’t go your way.

After hearing the news on social media, the first thing I did was call my father, who is now a 79-year-old retired cop.

“Hey Dad,” I said. “He did it. Tommy got into the Pro Football Hall of Fame!”

My father cried. And you can bet that, all across Raider Nation, tears are flowing. Why? Because ya era tiempo.

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— Ruben Navarrette is a syndicated columnist with The Washington Post Writers Group. Email ruben@rubennavarrette.com.

Today's Bible verse

“But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not carry out the desire of the flesh. For the desire of the flesh is against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; for these are in opposition to one another ...”

Galatians 5:16-17

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