He knows it’s about time to get busy, judging by the calendar but also by the arrival of perennial “good luck” text messages. So as Gabe Pena got his Jags off and running last week, embarking on the latest high school football season, his past – considerable travels with remarkable colleagues – was a gift that keeps on giving.
“Yep, heard from Alex Leal the other day, so it must be football season,” said Pena with a smile, referencing the Valley’s all-time leader in coaching wins. Now the dean of town coaches, Pena often notes his influences along the way.
“I got lucky enough to play for Tommy Roberts and then Coach Leal,” said the former All-State guard at Port Isabel in the early 1980s. “My offensive line coach was Cris Cavazos and later when I went into coaching, I went with Tony Villarreal. So yes I have been in there with some of the greats, and I value what I was able to learn from them.”
Now in his eighth season at Econ, Pena has found that each year he can use some bit of wisdom and experience gleaned from his days with the Old Lions. His philosophy is his own, a hybrid of ideas and techniques, used to help the East Side program maximize its talents.
“The kids believe here, they have bought in, and now we just take the foundation and we add to it,” said Pena, whose squad seeks a return to the playoffs this year after an uncharacteristic absence in 2017. “It may be cliché to an extent but we have the culture in place, we’ve worked hard under unique circumstances to help our kids build the belief they can be successful. And we want to maintain that focus.”
Part of the key to coaching at Econ is recognizing what can and cannot be done. With an ample supply of student-athletes who come from migrant-type families, the Jags are always attempting to work around the necessities of life.
“It is a plus in some ways because a lot of our guys go up north to work in the summer,” Pena explained. “It means that they may not be here for the summer program but in the oil fields or wherever, our guys are outside, getting in shape, getting hard, and it shows when they come back to football.”
Not blessed with the sheer numbers of many other programs, Pena and his staff have concentrated on constructing rapport, making the most of what they have, and that is one the legacies in place, reflected by playoff trips in four of the past six seasons.
“That is what drives us, the rewards of working hard,” Pena suggested. “We know we won’t have the depth some teams have, but we know that if we work hard, and stay together, we can be successful, and when we are it means a lot to us. This is a great place to be, it’s my home now, and I love the challenges every season brings.”
The end of the summer and the start of football bring vision for the future and also glances back at the past. Pena laughed when recalling an old photograph that turned up recently.
“It was back in the old Armadillo, an insert into the newspaper down at Port Isabel,” he said. “My father ran across it the other day, my picture was on the front cover, at the start of football season and the caption said, ‘Big Fish in a Small Pond.’ I really cherish the past, the memories and the lessons I learned from my coaches.”
Now he’s on the other side of the fence as a mentor to some of his old charges, including offensive line coach Roger Delgadillo, an All-State tackle in 1994 for Pena when the latter was an assistant for Villarreal at his alma mater.
“We’re awful glad to have Roger,” said Pena, who later was head coach at PI from 1996 to 2000 before heading to Weslaco with Villarreal. “He has had some chances to go other places but he’s stayed with us. All the coaches here, we embrace the task we have, we know the special challenges we face, and we are intent on meeting then, teaching our kids, getting them ready for life … and for the next game!”