Donna 12, Devine 7 (regional)
Donna 32, Sweeny 14 (state quarterfinals)
Donna 16, Brady 14 (state semifinals)
Donna 28, Quanah 21 (State Championship)
By PATRICK ALCATRAZ
DONNA, Texas - For a sleepy, dusty South Texas community of the 1960s, the game for this particular town represented much more than a state high school football championship - something which had never before happened, was not expected, and never happened again.
This was the 1961 Donna Redskins squad, largely a collection of Mexican-American kids with a few White boys thrown-in, who overcame not only a lingering reputation that said Mexican kids could not play with the boys upstate but never with an undefeated team from a football-rich North Texas town that had expected to win, and win big against the brown-skinned lads from far South Texas.
The victory on a cold, mid-December night in Austin remains the greatest moment in the history of the much-maligned Rio Grande Valley. The RGV is a land that, like others in Texas, loves its football as much as it loves its politics and its all-consuming Hispanic culture. "Friday nights after September around here is a drive to the stadium and then a drive to the taqueria," said one resident of Donna, where the historic game still holds a special place in the small town's huge heart.
The rare accomplishment is so revered that many do not count a flight into space by a NASA astronaut from nearby McAllen. There are several military Medal of Honor winners, but their names are largely known only on the western side of the Rio Grande Valley - in Edinburg, where the town named a backroad after its hero, Freddy Gonzalez, and in McAllen, where once-lonely, now-busy 2nd Street also is known as Nikki Rowe Blvd. Other notables are former U.S. Rep. Kika De la Garza; former U.S. Senator Lloyd Bentsen; the country-rock musician Freddy Fender, from San Benito; the idefatigable Othal Brand, ex-mayor of McAllen; the fabled federal judge Reynaldo Garza of Brownsville; the Olympian Bobby Joe Morrow (born in Harlingen, raised on a farm in San Benito); and, more recently, the state high school soccer champ teams from Brownsville.
All brought moments of pride to the region.
But it is the Donna Redskins, led by stoic quarterback Luz Pedraza and hard-running Alfredo Avila and Fred Edwards, that remains the singular mark of excellence, an accomplishment often claimed by anybody & everybody who calls the Valley his or her home. The shiny championship trophy went to Donna; the patina of the historical victory always has been claimed by an entire region.
Not that it was easy, or that anyone saw it coming. Not that year. Donna lost its first two games that season, to Rio Grande City and Mercedes, before reeling off 13 straight wins to claim the title. Its first playoff game, against Sweeny in Freeport, saw a coach for the opposing squad say this to Donna Head Coach Earl Scott: "Can these pepper-bellies play?" And play they did, whipping Sweeny 32-14 and ultimately making the drive to Austin, where they took to Memorial Stadium's storied field and played their hearts out.
The Quanah Indians that year mauled every team they played. They entered the championship contest with a stellar 14-0 record, having outscored their opponents 483-56. Like most of Quanah's opponents, Donna fell behind 7-0 early in the game. Still, they battled back, with Pedraza calming nerves in the huddle and wiping away tears from some of the younger Redskins' faces when the Indians scored and things seemed ready to turn full-out against Donna. Pedraza remembers concentrating on moving the team via the wishbone offense Coach Scott favored, handing off to Alfredo Avila or occasionally passing to Edwards. The final score was 28-21, Donna on top.
Books and college papers would be written about that Donna Redskin team. And although the school endured football team hazing scandals more recently, it is the unexpected victory in the 1961 championship game that shines on.
Like a beacon only Valleyites can see, it remains the ever-lasting prideful light of an entire culture, a land inhabited by people steeped more along racial and poverty lines than people claiming a game not quite their own. In the years that followed 1961, numerous RGV squads journeyed north, many of them carrying undefeated records. Last year's Harlingen Cardinals squad was the latest. And they tried; they tried, but they lost to bigger and faster northern players.
For the region, now almost 50 years later, the Donna Redskin victory ranks as big and symbolic as the nation's landing on the moon in 1969. We weren't there when the came home, but whatever celebration followed had to be wild and ecstatic for the few thousand residents that called Donna home back then.
Such a moment today would spring a celebration of hundred-fold proportions.
That is how big Donna's state championship was - and is...
The Team roster:
Raul de la Garza
Bennie La Prade