ALAMEDA, Calif. -- Tom Flores was never one to wear his emotions, or heritage, on his sleeve. Not as the first Latino quarterback in professional football history. Not as the first minority head coach to win a Super Bowl, which he did twice.
But the Ice Man -- he was known as a player for his cool, calm demeanor on the field and for his silent, strong leadership style as a coach -- admits he feels something this week.
The reason for the orgullo, the pride?
Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera is following in Flores’ footsteps as the second Latino head coach to take his team to the Super Bowl.
But it goes deeper than any cultural significance for Flores, who sees a bit of himself in Rivera’s demeanor.
“He has a lot of strengths as a coach, but I’m proud of the fact that Ron’s never changed,” Flores said this week. “You can’t be somebody else. You’ve got to be yourself and stick to what you believe in. Ron’s done that.”
It reminded the reserved Flores of when he was tabbed to replace a, let’s just say, more ebullient predecessor in 1979.
“I told Al Davis, ‘I can’t be John Madden,’” Flores recalled. “He said, ‘I know. Just be yourself.’ That’s what Ron’s done.
“I don’t think Al could spell Hispanic,” Flores added with a laugh. “He just wanted someone he felt he could work with and implement his vision and win.”
Yes, that’s also what Rivera has done in Carolina.
Rivera, whose father is Puerto Rican and mother is Mexican, has been an understated personality throughout his career. He was picked in the second round of the 1984 draft by the Chicago Bears out of Cal. Rivera was a backup linebacker for the 1985 Super Bowl champs and played nine years in the league. He was linebackers coach for the Philadelphia Eagles and San Diego Chargers and defensive coordinator for the Bears and Chargers before becoming the head coach of the Panthers in 2011 at age 49.
By the time Flores was 49, he had won his two Super Bowl rings as head coach of the Raiders after the 1980 and 1983 seasons, to go with his two others as a backup quarterback on the 1969 Kansas City Chiefs and as a member of Madden’s coaching staff in 1976.
The mention of Rivera being the first Latino head coach in the Super Bowl in 32 years brings back memories for Flores, such as the closing minutes of Super Bowl XV, when Dick Enberg said of Flores on the NBC telecast: “You have to be happy for that man. Talk about Cinderella stories -- Chicano, worked at 6, 7 years old in the fields, became a fine athlete, on to Pacific, had a fine pro career and now maybe the most important moment in his life.”
Rivera was an impressionable 19-year-old freshman in Berkeley, just up the road from Oakland, at the time. More than three decades later, Rivera said Flores was one of his “heroes” and spent time with him last summer.
“We’ve talked about the importance of it, and it’s just kind of neat that we can be trailblazers,” Rivera said recently of Flores and the exclusive Latino football coaching fraternity on ESPN’s Max y Marly One Nacion podcast. “He was somebody that I looked up [to] when I was playing professional football and then, as I started getting into coaching, thinking about that I might be able to have the same kind of impact on some young coach like he did on me.
“Tom has achieved, accomplished what I hope to, and that’s winning a Super Bowl. That, to me, is huge in its own right. So, to be mentioned in the same breath as him? I take a lot of pride in that.”
Said Flores: “That makes me feel good. But you don’t think about that when you’re doing it. Not until later.”
In Flores' first summer after the Super Bowl title, Latinos would approach him to thank him for representing a community. A father with his children told Flores that his grandfather cried when Flores and fellow Mexican-American quarterback Jim Plunkett won it all with the Raiders.
“It was very unique,” said Flores, now 78. “There was and still is a lot of pride there. The heritage.”
The fact that Rivera is on the precipice of joining Flores can work twofold, said Mario Longoria, author of “Athletes Remembered: Mexicano/Latino Professional Football Players, 1929-1970,” and both are positives.
“This begins a whole new era because the youngsters can aspire to be something other than a player; they can be a coach at the highest level,” Longoria said. “It’s achievable now.
“And this should reopen the history of Latinos in professional football.”
Rivera, who was the defensive coordinator for the 2006 Bears that lost Super Bowl XLI to Peyton Manning’s Indianapolis Colts, feels the pressure. And he is not shying away from it.
“It’s a responsibility,” Rivera said. “My parents have always shared that with me, just how important it is to carry myself the right way, that I represent our heritage. It’s important. It really is.
“It’s a responsibility and I look up to it.”
Yes, more than three decades have passed between Super Bowl appearances for the two Latino head coaches. But when you factor in that there have been only three Latino head coaches in NFL history (Hall of Famer Tom Fears was the New Orleans Saints' first coach in 1967), it starts to make sense. It is truly rare, especially since, as Flores and Rivera noted, there are not a whole lot of Latinos “in the business." Period.
“The fact that I was Hispanic was another issue,” Flores said. “Either I can or can’t do it. Open the door and let me in.
“How many guys have had the opportunity that Ron and I had? That’s what makes it so special. The percentages are not in favor of this happening.”
Consider it, then, another trail blazed.