GRIDIRON GREATS: Villarreals talk life, football ahead of RGV Hall Of Fame ceremony

When it comes to the history of Brownsville football, a good starting point is always the 1951 Brownsville High Eagles, led by legendary head coach Bobby Martin.

Propelling that team on the field was Tony Villarreal Jr., who rushed for 1,010 yards and helped lead the Eagles to a state semifinal before being named a National High School All-American by the Wigwam Wiseman of America Football Committee.

It’s the reason he will be honored next Saturday when he will be inducted into the Rio Grande Valley Sports Hall of Fame.

But don’t look for Villarreal Jr. to sit and reminisce on his abilities or how good his team was on its way to the state semifinals.

To him, it was simply fun and games.

“I played, I enjoyed it, I put in my best and that’s it,” Villarreal Jr. said. “I never went around saying ‘I’m Tony Villarreal’ and this and that. I played to participate and compete, not to be remembered for doing this and that. I didn’t give thanks to the Lord Jesus Christ or thank my parents for giving me this ability of speed and quickness — I didn’t think about that back then.”

While Villarreal Jr. didn’t think much of his own feats, son and longtime Rio Grande Valley football coach Tony Villarreal III is the first to point out that his father’s standout year was more impressive as you dive into the numbers.

“I was in awe and I’m a stat guy,” said Villarreal III, who didn’t even know his father was a football star until he was a high school freshman. “He had 1,010 yards and that doesn’t seem like a lot, but he touched the ball just 99 times. He also played for the legendary Bob Martin, who coached Tom Landry in Mission … I was always in awe of his team and what he accomplished. My dad has always been like ‘Whatever, man, it’s no big deal.’

“What’s most impressive is looking back in the 50s when you see how people of color were treated and for my dad to be honored like he was, he must have been incredible.”

Along with learning of his father’s star status, it wasn’t until Villarreal III’s freshman year at Brownsville High in 1972 that he even learned Villarreal Jr. graced the gridiron.

“One of the freshman coaches was like ‘So you’re Tony Villarreal,’ and I said ‘Yes,’ and he said some thing like ‘We’ll see how good you are,’” Villarreal II said. “I wasn’t very good. I went home and I told dad what happened and he said ‘Well I guess I played a little bit, there’s a scrap book over there.’ And when I saw it I was like ‘Oh my God, who have I been living with?’”

But the fact that Villarreal Jr. was fast isn’t lost on him as he recalls being given a pair of nicknames, but they aren’t anything he’s looking to brand.

“In Matamoros (Mexico) they used to call me ‘El Caballete’ (The Dragon Fly) because of the way I ran,” Villarreal Jr. said as he mimicked the insect’s quick back and forth patterns with his hands. “In school they would also call me ‘Sugar’ because some of the runs I broke off were just sweet.

“But like I tell Tony (Villarreal III), I did it, it’s part of my life and that’s it — let’s move on. There are many that stay (in the past) saying they did this and that and I don’t want to go around bragging.”

Villarreal Jr.’s humbleness is traced back to his upbringing as he grew up in Matamoros before coming to Brownsville after his father Tony Villarreal Sr. left him to live with his grandmother.

Meanwhile, Tony Sr., his wife Eliza and younger son Carlos moved to South America after being tasked with establishing a stockroom presence in Columbia, Uruguay, Paraguay and Argentina following World War II for Pan American Airways.

“After World War II came to an end, everything in South America was German-controlled and Pan American was going to take over the routes,” Villarreal Jr. said. “So my father had to establish the stock room for the parts for the planes. He took my mother and little brother with him and left me with his mother here in Brownsville.”

Villarreal Jr. was groomed by the simpler times when most kids often left school and practices early to help out at home, while other people in the neighborhoods were ready to help each other.

“Those were the kids that were needed at home to survive because there was no welfare, food stamps or anything like that,” Villarreal Jr. said. “You had it or you didn’t, but I have to say the people would help each other. It was nothing for people to help you here and there. That was the good ‘ol days— nobody was spoiled.”

Villarreal Jr. skipped his senior football season per his mother’s wishes and his father’s persuasion, but easily left it and opted to watch from the sidelines as a fan and young man.

But soon after he was off to Texas A&M, where he said he became a realist about his athletic abilities and was shown firsthand the large gap between Valley athletes and the rest of the state.

It started with the famous Paul ‘Bear’ Bryant, who coached Texas A&M back then.

“I went up to coach Bryant and said that I wanted to try out for the football team and he looked at me and asked ‘Did you want to be the equipment manager?’ and told me that I was just too little,” Villarreal Jr. recalled. “I was 138 pounds, about 5’6. There was a guy with one arm and he was 220 pounds and 6’2 and I couldn’t even tackle him and he ran the ball just as good. They told me I was quick but I was too light. I’d get to the corner and I was met by a guy 250 pounds who could run with me.”

“I found out there were players who really, really deserved the honors (I received).”

Villarreal Jr. played freshman football but did little else at A&M and returned home two years later. He would marry his now-wife of 60 years Evangelina and eventually put his two years of education to use as a sought-after factory worker.

But he knew working and supporting a family is what he would always do.

“My parents always told me to study so I won’t come home and dig ditches,” Villarreal said. “If you want to improve your life and future, you have got to study. If the chance is there to study, take it.”

It’s those words that have resonated in son Tony III, daughter Magda and even in grandson Anthony Villarreal.

“Grandpa was always a humble man and was a no-nonsense kind of guy,” Anthony Villarreal said. “He has always been a get-to-work, actions-speak-louder-than-words kind of gentleman. I think a lot of what he did for our family was instilling a strong belief system in my father and that has permeated to everything my dad has touched.

“My father raising me was instilled in him by my grandfather and my father has spread that to every kid he has coached over the years.”

While Tony Jr. was a humble soul doing his best to raise a family, Tony III took his father’s teachings and began slowly trying to bridge the divide between RGV athletes and the rest of the state.

After learning of his father’s accomplishments, Villarreal III would eventually make the varsity football team as a junior at the newly renamed Hanna High School as a wide receiver for then-head coach Tom Chavez.

By the end of his football career, Villarreal III would become an All-District and an All-Valley wide receiver, but his biggest athletic accomplishments came on the diamond as a baseball player.

During his sophomore year, Villarreal III made the varsity baseball team.

With the eventual Brownsville High split still a year away, the student body stood at more than 6,000 strong, which made the feat mean more for Villarreal III.

“I was a baseball player and I was really just hanging out with the guys during football,” he said. “I had already made the varsity baseball team as the starting catcher. That was with Brownsville High with 6,000 kids, so that was a big deal for me.”

Villarreal went on to Texas Southmost College after graduating from Hanna in 1976 and joined the baseball team. He led the team in hitting in 1977 and helped his team become the Texas representative in the Junior College World Series.

After two years with the program, he’d transfer to Southern Methodist University and join the baseball team there as a walk on.

But after graduating in 1980 with a bachelor’s degree in physical education and a minor in history, Villarreal’s football coaching future was set in motion.

The new graduate wanted to be successful and he turned to the legendary Charlie Williams and McAllen High.

“When I came out of college I wanted to be with winners and I just wanted to learn,” Villarreal said. “I wanted to be with a winning program. I had a little success in football in my two years in high school. I didn’t know I was going to be a football coach but I knew you had to go through that to be with the winners and Charlie Williams was probably the winningest coach in the Valley at the time.”

Villarreal would get the job and start learning the trade under Williams and his staff as the junior varsity baseball and football coach.

By 1982, Villarreal III had the McAllen JV team going strong with just a two-man coaching staff, drawing the eyes of then-PSJA High coach Bruce Bush, a 2006 Coastal Bend Hall of Honor inductee, during a game.

That would earn Villarreal III another opportunity.

“That spring (1983) Bruce Bush moved on and got a job in Alice and he called me asking if I wanted to join his staff,” Villarreal said. “That was my first varsity job and I was the youngest varsity backfield coach in Alice High School history. I knew then and there I wanted to be a football coach and with Bruce, if you didn’t learn, you must be dead.”

So Villarreal landed under yet another standout coach and quickly began to catch on to Bush’s “workaholic” mentality.

After three years in Alice, Villarreal moved back to the Valley to rejoin Williams, this time at PSJA High, and married his wife Arlene in 1987.

Soon after, Villarreal found himself at Port Isabel as an offensive coordinator and the eventual successor to Chris Cavazos in 1990.

And the pressure was on.

“Port Isabel had a winning tradition with many successful coaches,” Villarreal III said. “I applied out of survival so I wouldn’t get fired and I got the job. Fortunately, we always had a tradition with the kids working hard and they loved football. It wasn’t easy because they expected you to be in the third round or better.

“I got a call from the superintendent asking what I needed and after I told them they’d say ‘Okay, you better win,’” Villarreal III recalls.

By 1993, Villarreal III had the Tarpons in the third round of the playoffs where they were dismissed by Cuero, 63-8.

That loss set the stage for one of the greatest season’s in Valley football history.

“To this day, that was the worst beating I ever gotten,” Villarreal said. “Cuero had a bunch of DI players go play at Texas, (Texas) A&M and all over the country. One of the things people don’t know is we had injuries and limped into that game. We both had junior ball clubs at the time and knew we’d face them again next year.”

Over the next year Villarreal and his staffed prepared vigorously for a potential rematch, creating special schemes, game planning and even subscribing to Cuero-area newspapers.

Villarreal III said he had 12 papers being sent to him and benefited from the heavily detailed game stories writers used to offer up in the mid 90s.

Sure enough, the rematch would happen in the 1994 regional playoffs with Port Isabel and No.1 state-ranked Cuero, who was led by former Los Fresnos head coach Clint Finley at quarterback, coming in a perfect 12-0.

Port Isabel would trail in the game but would rally to force a 20-20 tie at the end of regulation.

The Tarpons would advance on penetrations, as there was no high school overtime back then.

With Cuero also being a top-10 team in the nation that year news of them being upset spread fast.

“The USA Today called me the next day asking me what happened because they weren’t answering the phone at Cuero and I told them they could interview me if they wanted,” Villarreal III said with a laugh. “I told them that Cuero was out and we were in.”

Villarreal III and the Tarpons would fall to eventual 1994 3A state champion Sealy in the state semifinals, but the win over Cuero would be among the biggest in the Valley’s history and would help Villarreal III bridge the proverbial gap between the RGV and the rest of the state

“I’ve always been one to think that Valley athletes can play at the next level,” Villarreal III said. “Ever since I was a young coach I always told the kids they could do anything and accomplish anything, but you have to get passed the No. 1 team in the state.

“I guess it’s because I played college baseball but I always felt that we in the Valley are just as good as good as anybody. I think us winning that game laid the ground work for all the teams that have had deep playoff success.”

Villarreal went on to accomplish much more in his career, leading PSJA North and Hanna to each program’s first district titles. Of his 27 years as a football coach, he has qualified for the postseason 20 times, including 10 as a district champion.

After joining Weslaco High in 2005, Villarreal III took the Panthers to 10 postseasons and three district titles before being reassigned to the administrator in charge of records this year.

His overall coaching record stands at 200-107-4.

While Villarreal III has become a coaching icon in the RGV, his success has been noticed most by his family.

His son Anthony Villarreal, who played for his father for four years from 2002 to 2005 at Hanna and Weslaco and later went on to graduate from Texas A&M and become a dentist, says his father’s work ethic is second to none.

“The road to become a dentist was a long one,” Anthony Villarreal said. “But it always comes back to the work ethic my dad instilled in me. Playing football for him was a full-time job with the amount of studying you had to do. Making it on a coach Tony coached team made dental school seem survivable for me.”

As for Villarreal Jr, he sees his son’s success and impact as far more important than anything he ever personally accomplished on the gridiron or a baseball field.

“I like him as a coach and he’s been successful,” Villarreal Jr. said of his son. “He always had district championships and who knows how many bi-district championships he’s had. I tell him that he turned out better than an athlete; he turned out to be a coach that knows how to mold a team.”

RGV Sports Hall of Fame 2017 class

Tom Chavez, Brownsville football coach

Ruben Gonzales, McAllen track

Frank Hernandez, Mission football

Manuel Hinojosa, Port Isabel historian

Jim Lancaster, Edinburg sports medicine

Jim Norris, Mercedes football

Sonia Sepulveda Dempsey, Edinburg track

Tony Villarreal Sr., Brownsville football

Harlan Woods, Mission journalist

If you go

RGV Sports Hall of Fame induction ceremony

WHEN: Saturday, July 1

WHERE: Boggus Ford Events Center, Pharr

TIME: Reception 4 p.m., Dinner 5 p.m., Program 6 p.m.