Flores, Plunkett deserve Canton call
Hispanic coach, QB broke barriers and led the Raiders to Super Bowl XV win
ALAMEDA, Calif. -- Their profiles struck a pose as proud as it was profound.
Seemingly looking ahead to a promising future, they were on the cover of the premiere issue of NFL Pro magazine, their faces above the words "JIM PLUNKETT AND TOM FLORES: HISPANIC PRIDE, POISE AND AN NFL TITLE."
It was summer 1981, and the Oakland Raiders' quarterback and coach were not only reigning atop the football world with a Super Bowl championship, they had blazed trails and broken barriers in doing so.
And yet, neither understood the magnitude until years later. For Flores, it came when he was traveling the country and a man came up to him during one of his stops, thanked him and told him his father had cried after the Raiders beat the Philadelphia Eagles in Super Bowl XV.
"I didn't even know him," Flores recalled with a laugh. "It was about that Hispanic heritage that we shared. That's when it really set in, when I saw how proud people were.
"There were a lot of things I did that were influential, looking back."
Flores was the first Latino quarterback in the old AFL, the first Latino coach to win a Super Bowl, and in Seattle, the first Latino general manager in the NFL.
"I'm proud of these things," he said.
And yet, if you were to ask the random fan today who the first minority coach was to win the Super Bowl, more often than not, they would say Tony Dungy.
While Flores and Plunkett were looking forward in their iconic magazine cover shoot, perhaps it is best to take a look back, to the excitement the two created in a certain segment of society in the waning days of the Carter administration (yes, it was that long ago) to better understand the road they've traversed.
After the Raiders beat the San Diego Chargers in the AFC title game, Los Angeles Times columnist Frank del Olmo wrote on Jan. 16, 1981, of the effect the two had among Latinos in general, Mexican-Americans in particular.
"So it's a safe bet that in the coming two weeks the Raiders' head coach, Tom Flores, and the team's starting quarterback, Jim Plunkett, will be the most publicized and talked about Chicanos in the world," the late del Olmo wrote. "At least this side of Cesar Chavez."
Whether the Raiders win or lose the Super Bowl game, millions of Latinos will be proud simply that Flores and Plunkett are there. For they will be there not as representatives of their people, but as competent professionals whose skill, determination and hard work have brought them to the pinnacle of success in their field." -- Los Angeles Times columnist Frank del Olmo, before Super Bowl XV in 1981
Yes, the civil rights activist and labor leader.
"Whether the Raiders win or lose the Super Bowl game, millions of Latinos will be proud simply that Flores and Plunkett are there," del Olmo added. "For they will be there not as representatives of their people, but as competent professionals whose skill, determination and hard work have brought them to the pinnacle of success in their field."
And there it was.
Flores, whose parents were from Chihuahua, Mexico and who grew up working in the fields of the Central California valley, and Plunkett, the son of blind parents in Northern California, had become iconic figures. Not because of their shade of skin color, but because of who they were, and -- to borrow from a famous speech -- the content of their character, as seen by the masses.
Their following only grew three years later, when the then-Los Angeles Raiders won the franchise's third Super Bowl in eight years, this time blowing out defending champion Washington.
Sal Castro, the late Chicano activist who helped organize the East Los Angeles high school walkouts in 1968 and died April 15, compared the ripple effect of Flores and Plunkett winning titles in football to the cultural phenomenon of "Fernandomania" in baseball, and not just in L.A., even if Fernando Valenzuela was from Mexico and Flores and Plunkett were as American as mom, apple pie, baseball and, well, Taco Bell.
"Hell yes, there's a cry in the community to have heroes," Castro told me in 2011. "Throughout the Southwest, you see people walking around with Raiders shirts on … they're part of the reason.
"A lot of chavalitos [youngsters] are crying for positive role models. I hope there will be more Chicanos who will sleep standing up, to get taller. Guys like Flores and Plunkett opened doors. They broke barriers. Both came from humble beginnings, and that only adds to their story and how inspiring they are."
Or, as del Olmo wrote nearly 33 years ago of Plunkett, guys in the neighborhood were "talking about him as a Chicano, just like he was a homeboy from East L.A."
Plunkett, though, grew up in a San Jose barrio and won the Heisman Trophy at Stanford.
"I'm proud to be Hispanic," Plunkett told me on the 30th anniversary of the Raiders' Super Bowl XV victory. "It's who I am. And if it helps kids in our community around the country set goals, even better.
"But it didn't hit until later. That's when you have a chance to really step back and take it all in, get an overall view of what I was able to do."
Long road for Plunkett
Plunkett, who was the No. 1 overall draft pick in 1971 by the then-Boston Patriots, had early success in the league before injuries and ineffectiveness waylaid him. He found his way to San Francisco with the 49ers and was thisclose to being out of football for good when he went across the Bay to the Raiders to serve as Ken Stabler's backup in 1979, which also happened to be Flores' first year as coach after John Madden retired.
But when Stabler was shipped to the Houston Oilers in a starter-for-starter trade for Dan Pastorini prior to the 1980 season, Plunkett had enough. He would not be able to compete for the starting gig and went to Flores and asked for his release.
Flores convinced Plunkett to stick it out. His time came when Pastorini suffered a broken leg in Week 5. The Raiders were foundering at 2-3 when Plunkett became the full-time starter. Oakland won nine of its last 11 games and entered the playoffs as a wild card, beating old friend Stabler and the Oilers in the wild-card game, upending Cleveland in the famous "Red Right 88" game, when Mike Davis picked off Brian Sipe in the end zone, surviving an AFC title game shootout with the Chargers and heading to New Orleans for the Super Bowl.
Plunkett's story was equal parts Lazarus and Cinderella, all wrapped in one silver and black bow. Flores, who was known as the "Ice Man" for his cool demeanor as a player, called it a "resurrection" for Plunkett's career. It's the kind of stuff that embodies the very fabric of the NFL's myth and ethos. And yet …
"They're being lost in the mist of time," said Mario Longoria, who wrote "Athletes Remembered: Mexicano/Latino Professional Football Players, 1929-1970."
"They are fading into history, becoming obscure."
Hall of Fame?
If you subscribe to the theory that you cannot write the definitive book on the purportedly inclusive NFL without mentioning the accomplishments and contributions of Flores and Plunkett, then where are their gold jackets, their busts in Canton?
Indeed, many see the Pro Football Hall of Fame as an incomplete shrine without the two.
"By all standards, they should be in the Hall of Fame," Longoria lamented, "but they're not and the voters don't take the time to find out the whole story."
While not as stats-driven as the national pastime of baseball, the national obsession of football is more story-driven, even if Flores was 8-3 in the playoffs and is one of three coaches -- with Jimmy Johnson and George Seifert -- with at least two Super Bowl wins not already in the Hall. As happened to Seifert in Carolina, though, Flores did not win in his next stop, in Seattle.
Still, Flores -- who was the Raiders' first quarterback and is one of a handful of QBs to have played in the AFL for its entire existence -- has two other rings, one as Len Dawson's backup in Kansas City for Super Bowl IV, and one as an assistant on Madden's Oakland staff for Super Bowl XI.
Lester Hayes, the former Raiders cornerback who won two rings with Flores, called the absence of his former coach in the Hall "so, so foul…the most unfair, the most unjust omission."
Flores, 76, pops up every now and then on an early Hall candidates list.
"I don't get too excited about it anymore," he said. "I'm on the ballot and then I fall on the wayside. The voters, whoever they are, are not interested in what guys have done in the past. It's about the more recent years."
Not that he's against guys who deserve to get in on their first year of eligibility -- he mentioned his former running back Marcus Allen as the perfect example of a player who should get in right away. It's just that with the way the system works, anywhere from four to seven have to get into the Hall every year. And the 46 selectors hash it out in a sequestered room the day before the Super Bowl, whittling their list from 17 finalists, with a candidate needing 80 percent of the vote for election. The way the process plays out, selectors often act as "sponsors," speaking for candidates, with backroom deals being bartered, critics charge.
"The system is flawed," Flores said. "It's about who yells the loudest in that room."
Flores having worked for Raiders owner Al Davis also might be working against him in the minds of selectors.
"The perception was that Al did it all," Flores said, "and if they did some homework, they'd see that I coached the team.
"He had input during the week. We talked all the time, second-guessed each other. I learned most everything from him, his leadership from him. But yeah, the impression was that Al did everything.
"I don't begrudge Al for that."
Plunkett, 65, was the MVP of Super Bowl XV and is the only eligible starting quarterback with at least two titles not in the Hall. Yeah, he threw a lot of picks, but do yourself a favor and compare his career numbers to those of Joe Namath.
Meanwhile, Flores' Hall lot now, he figures, rests with the seniors committee, which examines the cases of players and coaches whose careers have been over for at least 25 years. Plunkett, whose playing career ended in 1986, is already there. Flores, who coached Seattle in 1994, still has some time.
Ray Guy, Flores' punter with the Raiders, is a seniors committee nominee this year.
"They won that first Super Bowl together; a Chicano coach and a Chicano quarterback," Longoria said. "You cannot put a value on that as an accomplishment, especially not to Mexicans in the Southwest."
Transcendent figures, like altars to La Virgen de Guadalupe in the corners of some Latino homes? Not quite.
But as linked intrinsically as they were successful, Flores and Plunkett are still together, so to speak, raging against time. They co-host with Greg Papa on preseason Raiders telecasts, while Flores joins Papa on the radio in the regular season and Plunkett is with Papa on-set for in-house Raiders television shows.
"His record speaks for itself," Flores said of Plunkett. "Maybe he didn't go to Pro Bowls, but he won."
You could say the same of Flores, who actually introduced himself as the Raiders' coach at Super Bowl media day in New Orleans.
"I didn't think anybody knew who I was," he said.
They should know now.