Friday, November 13, 2009

The 1961 Donna Redskins

Since we are in the middle of High School Valley Football season, I thought I would post our one true tale of glory. My dad grew up in Donna and was a kid when this happened, so he'll mention it often. I am going to quote an excerpt of Jorge Iber's account of this tale:

The Donna High School Redskins, and in particular the team's Mexican American players (10 of the 18 were of Mexican descent), battled such perceptions of inadequacy as they took the field in December of 1961 against the Quanah High School Indians in a contest for the Class AA state football title.

Founded in 1907, the town of Donna is located in Hidalgo County, nestled right next to the Rio Grande, which serves as the border between the colossus of the North and los Estados Unidos de Mexico. Because of its proximity to Mexico, the county was the scene of much cattle rustling and many other illegal activities. The jurisdiction also fits in nicely with the tradition of corruption and political chicanery common in South Texas during the early 1900s. Although Mexican Americans in Donna did not enjoy civil and social equality with their white neighbors, the political boss system then prevalent in the area provided a certain amount of protection from the worst ravages of racism experienced by some of their brothers and sisters in other parts of Texas. As long as corrupt Democratic Party machines needed "Mexican" votes, relations were amicable.

The arrival of the St. Louis, Brownsville, and Mexico Railway in 1904, however, stimulated a land boom in South Texas and radically changed the area's racial dynamics. The arrival of Midwestern farmers during the late 1910s and early 1920s brought stricter segregation to Hidalgo and adjoining counties. Donna split into two separate communities - one mostly white, the other almost all "Latin". The poorer side of town, East Donna, was the domicile of virtually all Mexican Americans, and the children of farm trabajadores (workers) often encountered humiliating and difficult circumstances in "their" school. During the early 1930s these students faced daily dirt and health inspections (specifically for lice infestation) and segregation for the first five grades because of perceived educational "handicaps". Due to such social and economic pressures, few of East Donna's pupils made it out of elementary school.

Because they were classified as "whites", however, those that did survive attended Donna High School (located on the west side of town), and, as one reporter noted in 1931, athletic ability could help increase Mexican Americans' acceptance among their white peers. "In fact, the Mexican children who can show their skill in art, music, scholarship, or physical prowess soon become favorites with the other white children and are wholeheartedly admired by them." By the late 1950s, therefore, the Donna Redskins had a history of fielding competitive, ethnically mixed teams. The 1958 and 1959 squads produced records of eight wins and two losses but did not earn playoff appearances.

For the 1960 season Donna administrators hired Earl Scott, who had a proven record of succeeding with border area teams, in hope of winning their long-sought-after district championship. The coach's credentials were impressive as, starting in 1955, he had guided the Eagle Pass (Maverick County) Eagles to a record of seven wins, two losses, and one tie (with a team that was 90 percent Mexican American) before moving on to Laredo (Webb County) in 1956. Prior to his arrival, Laredo school board members actually considered dropping football because, Scott asserts, many of them believed that the town's "kids could not compete in the league."

However, the new Laredo head coach proved the administrators wrong. After winning two games and losing eight in his first season, Scott's last two Laredo teams finished acceptable campaigns of six wins and four losses and nine wins and two losses. Both programs, though, lacked money, facilities, and winning traditions, and they generated only limited community support. Clearly, Scott was an able motivator and administrator who produced positive results under challenging conditions. Fortunately for Donna's bureaucrats, Scott purchased a small citrus farm in the community and accepted a junior high school teaching post in 1959. When the head coaching position came open, the veteran coach accepted the spot and guided the Redskins to eight wins and three losses in 1960, earning a district title and qualifying for the playoffs. The team's run ended when the squad lost to Sinton 12 to 0 in the first round of the state tournament.

At the start of the 1961 season, Texas' sport media predicted that Donna would be respectable (selected to win its district, number 32AA), but the team was not perceived as a potential championship threat. In class AA, the pundits expected traditional powers Sweeny and Jacksboro to clash for the statewide supremacy. The Redskins' early season schedule featured a scrimmage with San Benito (which fielded 45 players against Donna's 18), as well as two class AAA nondistrict teams, Rio Grande City and Mercedes. Injuries in the scrimmage and setbacks in the first two nonleague games (20 to 0 against Rio Grande City and 12 to 8 against Mercedes) got the team's campaign off to a rocky start.

In addition to a grueling schedule, Scott also faced much the same situation as many Rio Grande Valley teams of that era: dealing with players who worked as migrants picking crops or performing agricultural and other types of labor in other states. A 1961 report by the Corpus Christi Caller stated that the (mostly Mexican American) population could "travel to approximately 38 other states on their journey...follow[ing] the cotton crops" and even trekking to "Colorado for sugar beets, Idaho for hops, Wisconsin for vegetables, Illinois for corn, and Illinois and Alabama for potatoes." Such circumstances made preparation for an upcoming season difficult since Coach Scott and his assistant, Bennie La Prade, never knew "what they had [with regard to talented players] going into any season."

For students such as running back Abel Benavides, playing conflicted with assisting in his family's economic survival. Benavides's father, for example, did not want his son to play and instead insisted that he toil in the fields until mid-September. "My dad didn't believe in sports, he believed in working all the time." Still, Benavides persevered, and his words buttress some of Gems's assertions regarding the value of football to the life of a minority student. "The migrant students had it especially tough...because their lack of English generally shut them out of school activities. For a young man struggling for a toehold in the mainstream, football worked wonders."

Quarterback Luz Pedraza faced similar circumstances since his family spent summers picking potatoes in northern Alabama and later in Illinois. Fortunately for Luz, his parents and siblings sacrificed some of their earnings and sent him home to Donna each year before the start of school. Other players, such as Richard Avila and Harry Lantz, shared similar experiences. When Avila's father, a Hidalgo County peace officer, died in 1955, the fifteen children in the family bagged groceries, delivered papers, raised livestock, and worked as migrants to generate income. Lantz's family traveled the nation as carnival workers, and the young Harry lived by himself in a trailer behind a local gas station for most of the school year.

Although they lost their first two games, the Redskins remained optimistic as they prepared for their third and final nondistrict game against the Mission Eagles. First, both Scott and La Prade were stern disciplinarians who insisted on tenuous conditioning (the Redskins started the first weight-training program in the Valley) to produce a team with stamina that played well through the fourth quarter of their games. Players recall that they "'didn't ever take [our] helmet off or sit during timeouts...[We] sprinted on changes of quarter. We sprinted to the huddle. We ran everywhere.'" Second, tightly scripted practices were designed to perfect their offensive attack and eliminate mistakes. These efforts paid off handsomely during the playoffs as Donna totaled a minuscule fifteen yards in penalties during its last three games. Finally, unlike the situations Scott had faced in Eagle Pass and Laredo, the Donna community, both Mexican American and white, supported their team boisterously, with crowds of two thousand or more attending the junior varsity games. These factors, combined with a talented squad, generated eight consecutive victories (including holding opponents scoreless in four of their last five games), a perfect in-district mark, and a berth in the bidistrict (first round) playoff game.

The Donna Redskins, the unlikely powerhouse from the Rio Grande Valley, marched into (and through) the tournament, defeating Refugio (32 to 0), Devine (12 to 7), Sweeny (32 to 14), and Brady (16 to 14) to reach the state title game with Quanah. In all five contests, they were considered the underdogs and were also the visiting team, which increased the difficulty of success. An examination of the Texas Class AA team polls from the 1961 campaign reveals that Donna never ranked in the top ten of the classification, while for the majority of the season, Sweeny, Brady, and Quanah were all ranked in the top five.

Because of its racial undertones, the most noteworthy clash in the early rounds was the battle with Sweeny High School. Coach Scott never used race as a motivating factor for his team; during the regular season he certainly did not have to since most of the 32AA district teams also had substantial numbers of Mexican Americans. But the Sweeny game (which was played in the Gulf Coast city of Freeport) was different. One of the opposing coaches questioned the team's ability because of its ethnic composition. Prior to the game, he approached Scott and asked, "Can these pepper bellies play? I mean, you never heard of any of them in the Southwest Conference." The Redskins' field general responded that his players would show their mettle between the sidelines and informed his squad of the commentary. Nick Padilla, who went out for the coin flip before the contest, endured one final insult when the Sweeny captain inquired whether he was a "real" player or the team's mascot. After the battling to a tenuous 13 to 6 lead through three periods, the Redskins wore down their opponents in the fourth quarter, crossing the goal line three times in the final period to seize the victory.

Donna's opponent for the title came in with highly impressive credentials. During a dominating season, the unbeaten and untied Quanah Indians tallied an astonishing 483 points, while permitting a mere 56. The team from north central Texas had been classified as high as third in the state polls and had already eliminated top-ranked Jacksboro in the other state semifinal match. The Redskins' "Cinderella" season, prognosticators assumed, would meet an inglorious end on the turf of the University of Texas' Memorial Stadium on December 16, 1961. The Valley's representatives were apparently outmatched by their foes for the title game. In a 1999 interview, Luz Pedraza discussed some of the most glaring differences between Valley teams and squads from other parts of Texas. Although his commentary dealt with the 1961 team, it still holds true in many instances today (before the championship game one newspaper described the Redskins as being both "outweighed and outnumbered" by their opponent). "We have mostly Mexican American kids. Other areas have more talent and speed, which you need as you go further and further in the playoffs."

Donna's season had a happy ending, however, although the title game did not start off very well. Donna received the opening kickoff and quickly had to give up possession of the ball and put to Quanah. The Indians marched down the field and scored to take a 7 to 0 lead after only five minutes of play. The scrappy Valley team responded with a drive of its own, although its offense lost possession of the ball near their opponents' goal line. The Redskins' defense then made a gallant stand, lead b Raul ("Chief") de la Garza and Fabian ("Outlaw") Barrera, who combined to sack the opposing quarterback, forcing Quanah to surrender the football. An appalling punt left the Redskins on the Indian's twenty-yard line, from where they quickly drove their offense across the goal line to make the tally 7 to 6 (Donna failed on a two point conversion attempt). The powerful Indian offense was unable to gain ground on their ensuing possession, and the Pedraza-led offense scored again with less than two minutes left in the second quarter. At halftime, surprisingly, the underdog led by a score of 12 to 7.

The second half began with an exchange of punts until Quanah pushed across the Donna goal line with about four minutes left in the third quarter. Uncharacteristically, the Redskins then turned the ball over on a Pedraza interception, and their opponents scored again to take a 21 to 12 advantage. The championship dream seemed to be slipping from the Redskins' grasp. Team member Joe Gonzalez recalls that this was the only moment of panic for the squad. "Two or three guys started crying in the huddle, but Luz helped get them refocused on the task at hand."

Atoning for his earlier miscue, quarterback Pedraza drove the offense down the field for a score and made a two-point conversion to narrow the deficit to 21 to 20. With less than six minutes to go, the Redskins' defensive unit stopped the Quanah offense and regained possession of the football. The Redskins' drive began on their opponent's 42 yard line and, with pinpoint passing and the hard running of Fred Edwards, scored a touchdown with about three minutes left. The Indians, in a final attempt to salvage victory, took the ensuing kickoff and drove down the field to make a tying score. Their last-ditch effort ground to a halt when Oscar Avila, one of the five siblings on the Donna squad, sealed the title by intercepting a pass. The final score read 28 to 21 in favor of the Rio Grande Valley's representative. The Laredo Times reported the triumph by stating that "Donna's Redskins were the only team to pull an upset. They brought the first state [football] championship in history to the lower Rio Valley area."

The Donna Redskins had done what many prognosticators thought impossible: A Rio Grande Valley team had become football champion of the state of Texas. Indeed, the "Mexicans" had shown "them what they could do if given an opportunity." The task of the student of U.S. sport history is to uncover the significance of such an improbable triumph. What impact did the victory have on individual and community life? Sport reporters of the era noted the achievement but did not appreciate the social and historical significance of the victory. Harold Ratliff (in an article titled "The Latins Show Them") lavished praise on Coach Scott but voiced only faint approval for the sacrifice and talent of the Spanish-surnamed players. The championship "paid for all of the hard work the boys had done in showing that the Mexican boy can play football as well as anyone if he has the coach to tell him he can do it and show him how to prepare himself for the task at hand."

The interviews conducted with members of the team provide insight into the sport's ability to engender social change. The Mexican American players asserted that competition offered them a setting where they could battle alongside and against whites and in which they were judged on individual merit, not their ethnicity. In part, football helped them stay in school, graduate, and pursue college degrees. As running back Abel Benavides reported, "'Football gave me a much better outlook on life. In football we all grew together. Coach treated everybody the same....In this town, I went comunidad used a mostly Mexican (and Catholic) way to commemorate victory in a mostly American (and Texan) ritual.

The second incident is apparent in an interview with Oscar Avila in May of 2002. Avila, who now lives outside the Valley, visits Donna frequently. During one of his sojourns an older gentleman approached him and inquired whether he was one of the "Avila boys" from the 1961 team. After indicating that he was, the individual turned to his wife and said, "Mira, viejita, este es uno de los Avilas que jugo en el equipo del '61 cuando les ensellamos a los gringos que nosotros tambien sabiamos jugar football" (My dear, this is one of the Avilas boys who played for the '61 team when we showed the gringos that we too knew how to play football).

This is an excerpt from Mexican Americans and Sports: A Reader in the Athletics and Barrio Life. Also, if there are any typos to be found in this great excerpt, it is my fault, so blame me.

Eduardo Martinez


  1. I was born in Donna Texas 1959 and love this story... I had never heard about this football game happening... I cant wait to see the movie... Thank you so much for entertaining me and putting a smile on my face... Now people will know a little something about Donna Texas... Thank you... Delfa De Leon

  2. This needs to be made into a movie for all to see!

    1. Who cares every one moved on n no one talk about this just the old n dying

    2. Sunds like u never bern part of somthing worth mantion or belong somwere feel sorry 4 u

    3. Sounds like you are from Donna, hence the bad spelling. Learn to spell.

    4. Sounds like you are from Donna, hence the bad spelling. Learn to spell.

  3. very very good story i lived in donna for over 16 years and iam a redskin


  4. Thank for all of your comments. Very much appreciated.


  6. Wow! I love the details! I grew up looking at the water tower and wondering about the "State Champs of 1961." I was in band and loved the football games.

  7. We win this game for dear Donna's name, so Go Donna Redskins, go! The only team in the Rio Grande Valley to still hold title of state football champs!!!