This is part of The Shadow League’s Hispanic Heritage Month In Focus series celebrating Latino excellence in sports and culture.
Hispanic football players have made some remarkable contributions to the NFL going back to its formative years.
Hall of Famer Steve Van Buren, a punishing halfback with speed who was a key member of the Philadelphia Eagles’ 1948 championship squad, was born in Honduras as the son of a fruit inspector. He was an orphan at age ten and sent to live with relatives in New Orleans.
He dropped out of Warren Easton High School, the first public high school in the State of Louisiana that was established to educate the working class population of New Orleans, as a 126-pound sophomore. Too small to make the football team back then, he spent two years working in an iron foundry before returning to finish his high school education and blossomed into a standout on the gridiron.
His college coach at LSU, Bernie Moore, once said, “He probably was the greatest running back in Southeastern Conference history and I used him as a blocking back until his last year. The folks in Baton Rouge never let me forget that.”
Moore also called him a …genius with an inferiority complex, and the school’s athletic trainer Marty Broussard said Van Buren …worked as long and hard as any athlete Ive ever known.
Nicknamed “The Moving Van,” Van Buren scored four touchdowns in the season-opening game of his senior year, a 3427 win over Georgia, including the game-winning score with less than two minutes left in the fourth quarter.
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In his final college game, he rushed for 160 yards on 24 carries in the 1944 Orange Bowl against Texas A&M as LSU took home its first bowl title in school history with a 19-14 victory.
Selected in the first round of the 1944 NFL Draft with the fifth overall pick by the Philadelphia Eagles, he went on to lead them to league title games three years in a row, where they captured two championships in 1948 and 1949.
Van Buren was the first NFL player to ever rush for more than 1,000 yards twice.
In the 1949 championship game, during a torrential downpour that rendered the field a muddy mess, he rushed for 196 yards on 31 carries, setting the record for an NFL championship game in a 14-0 victory.
When the Eagles celebrated the franchise’s 25th anniversary in 1957, he was honored as the greatest player in the clubs history. He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1965.
When people think about Hispanic excellence in the modern NFL, offensive lineman Anthony Munoz and tight end Tony Gonzalez come to mind. When the discussion turns to trailblazers, Tom Flores and Jim Plunkett are often mentioned.
Flores, the Oakland Raiders head coach, led the Silver and Black to a 27-10 victory in Super Bowl XV over Dick Vermeil’s Philadelphia Eagles.
Class of 1965 enshrinee and former Philadelphia Eagles running back Steve Van Buren passed away on Thurs. Aug. 23, 2012 at the age of 91.
As I wrote a few years back when reflecting on some Supreme Super Bowl Memories:
That was a tense time in the United States, with the game taking place a mere few days after the release of the Americans that were captured during the Iran Hostage Crisis.
With the country’s patriotic fervor at fever pitch, Raiders QB Jim Plunkett (the only eligible signal caller to start and win two Super Bowls that is not in the Pro Football Hall of Fame), himself a Latino of Mexican descent, threw for 261 yards and three touchdowns on the game’s brightest stage, becoming the second Heisman Trophy winner to be named Super Bowl MVP after Roger Staubach did it in 1972.
Flores, nicknamed the Ice Man because of his stoic facial expressions as a player, became the first-ever Hispanic starting quarterback in professional football with the Raiders in 1960. The fifth-leading passer all-time in the history of the old American Football League, he won a championship as a player with the Kansas City Chiefs in 1970, as an assistant with Oakland in 1977 under John Madden, and as the Raiders head coach during the 1980 and 1983 seasons.
But let’s also take a pause for the cause to acknowledge the originator, the true trailblazer who proved that some supreme Latino flavor wasn’t simply limited to the baseball field or the boxing ring.
Steve Van Buren kicked down some serious doors for all the Hispanic athletes that followed in his footsteps in the National Football League.