Tom Flores, Jim Plunkett blazed path to Raiders popularity in Mexico

Jim Plunkett and Tom Flores won two Super Bowls together, yet neither is in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. AP Photo

MEXICO CITY -- Fernando Arias was a high school junior at Instituto Mexicano De Bachilleres in the early 1980s in Mexico City when Tom Flores and Jim Plunkett won Super Bowl XV as coach and quarterback, respectively, of the Oakland Raiders.

The reverberations of the trail Flores and Plunkett blazed as Mexican-Americans were felt in the Mexican capital 35 years ago and still are today. On Monday night, the Raiders serve as the “home” team at Estadio Azteca against the Houston Texans.

“I came from the province to Mexico City; I’m from the state of Guanajuato, so for me it was like a new world and football was a new sport,” said Arias, who is in his sixth season as a Spanish language broadcaster for the Raiders.

“I played baseball most of my youth and soccer is a big thing in Mexico. So when I came to Mexico City, when I went to high school, the upper class would talk about football a lot. That’s when I heard them talking about the Raiders.”

The Dallas Cowboys and Pittsburgh Steelers already were popular here, Arias said, as were Los Malosos, the bad boys. Translation is not necessary, right?

Flores was the first minority head coach to win a Super Bowl and Plunkett was the first Latino starting quarterback to win a championship, which opened even more eyes south of the border -- even if it took many years for them to fully comprehend their impact. Three years and a move from Northern California to Southern California later, the pair won another title.

Plunkett, whose family moved from New Mexico to California before he was born, felt that impact during the NFL draft last spring. The Heisman Trophy winner from Stanford and No. 1 pick of the 1971 NFL draft was representing the Raiders in Mexico City and announced a pick.

Fans could not get enough in what Plunkett described as a “frenzied” atmosphere.

“Even though my last name is Irish, they knew who I was,” Plunkett said with a laugh this week. “They knew my background. They knew I was Hispanic and I had my hands full down there -- let me put it that way. And I enjoyed every minute of it.

“It doesn’t get old, no.”

Plunkett’s paternal grandfather was Irish, he said, though the rest of his family had Mexican roots.

“You don’t find a lot of Plunketts in Mexico,” Arias said with a laugh. “But the hard-core fans, they know. They know the roots and they know that he’s Mexican.”

Flores’ father came to California's Central Valley from Durango, Mexico, in 1919 when he was 12 years old. His mother’s family is from Jalisco, though she was born in Fresno.

Tom Flores grew up working in the fields before he played college ball at Pacific. He became the first professional Latino quarterback as the Raiders’ first QB in the AFL’s inaugural season of 1960. He is still calling games on the Raiders' radio network.

Despite his four Super Bowl rings (one as a player, three as a coach) and trailblazing résumé, Flores again missed the semifinalist cut to enter the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He will be 80 years old in March and recently underwent surgery on his right foot.

Plunkett, who turns 69 next month and is the only eligible quarterback with two Super Bowl titles who is not enshrined in Canton, just had a bout with Bell’s palsy.

They will always be linked with what they accomplished with the Raiders, winning Lombardi trophies in two cities.

“It’s part of our lives now,” Plunkett said. “He and I, we had the good fortune of teaming up together and having success and I think Tom and I are two people that younger Hispanic children can maybe look up to as two who were successful in their endeavor.

“As I travel around, and even in where live, some parents will tell me, ‘I know your story and I make sure kids know what you’ve accomplished.’ I feel good about that.”

Flores said it did not hit him until an older Latino man, speaking Spanish to him and thanking him for being a role model, began crying.

“There is a certain amount of pride,” Flores said Sunday. “The enjoyment is when you see the enjoyment in the Mexican people in what we accomplished as Hispanics. There’s not a lot of us in this profession. It’s pretty impressive, I guess.

“But when you do sit back and think about it, yeah, you do realize, we did accomplish some things.”

Hall of Fame-worthy things, many claim.

The Raiders moving from Oakland to Los Angeles in 1982 and winning it all the very next season only served to burnish their popularity in Mexico.

“L.A. is like a mini-Mexico City,” Arias said. “And when the Raiders went there, it was like they went a step closer to Mexico City.

“Oh yeah, the fans in Mexico, they see the highlights of Tom Flores, of Jim Plunkett. So for the generations that saw the best of the Raiders, those names are always the ones that come to their minds.”

Still, Arias said, he is always asked the same question by Mexican fans, one that maybe Flores and Plunkett could try to answer there, as they will both be in Mexico for the game.

“Why they’re not in the Hall of Fame,” Arias said. “The answer is the same question: Why?

“The two Super Bowls [they won together] and the tradition and knowing what they’ve given to their community, the feeling is, one of us is there. One of our people is there. And that guy that is there represents all of us.

“They already gave that to us.”