In 1971 Juan Chapa and I were starting defensive linemen for a
Hollister (Calif.) High freshman team that went 9-1. At 140
pounds and with no speed, I'm not sure what I was doing on that
line. What Juan was doing there was undoubtedly covering my
mistakes. He was also taking the first steps on a journey that
no one in his family had ever taken.
Juan's father, Jose, was a migrant farm worker who had a starkly
simple dream for his two sons. He wanted them to have jobs like
the guys at the auto parts store had--they wore ties and kept
their hands clean. Jose looked at his own hands, weathered and
callused from work in the fields, and said to his sons, "I don't
want you to have hands like this."
During the summers of his high school years Juan picked
cucumbers and tomatoes under the baking California sun.
Beginning in late August, while everyone else in his family
continued to work in the fields, Juan and Jose Jr., who was two
years younger, went off to practice for the upcoming football
season. Juan loved the contact, the camaraderie, the victories.
He enjoyed the bright lights, but he was never blinded by them.
Though he had trouble putting on weight, Juan kept improving
and, at 175 pounds, was named an all-conference lineman in his
junior and senior years.
After high school graduation Juan became a cop in Hollister. He
was the rookie officer of the year for San Benito and Santa
Clara counties in 1976, but Juan was not satisfied. He wanted to
complete his education, and he was tiring of the drunks and
petty crooks who took up much of his time on the beat. To
escape, he shouldered a full academic load at Gavilan Junior
College, played defensive end for the school and worked the
graveyard shift at the police department. After Juan's sophomore
season the University of the Pacific offered him a football
scholarship. "To me, this was unbelievable," Juan says, his eyes
still lit with amazement.
Such appreciation for a free education isn't often apparent
among today's athletes. College football players rarely speak of
"athletic scholarships," imbued as that phrase is with
suggestions of classrooms, libraries and learning. Instead, they
speak of "rides," a word that is loaded with associations of
coasting and of letting someone else move them along. Nowadays a
little more than half the football players who receive rides
Juan was an exception. He started at linebacker for the Tigers,
earned a B.A. with a major in sociology and a minor in business,
and graduated a semester early. When Pacific played at Arizona
State in 1980, Jose Sr. was at Sun Devil Stadium to watch his
first football game. Juan made it a memorable one: Though the
Tigers lost 37-9, he had 10 tackles, seven of them unassisted.
Jose proudly watched his son and then headed back to California
to finish the tomato harvest.
Upon graduating, Juan landed a job, but it wasn't working for
Manny, Moe and Jack. He became a salesman for Xerox, which gave
him an expense account and a vehicle allowance. "My dad thought
I had died and gone to heaven," Juan says.
After losing touch with Juan, I bumped into him about eight
years ago. He was working in marketing and sales for Cypress
Semiconductor, a chip manufacturer. He said that his dream was
to start his own firm, an even bolder dream than the one his dad
had had for him. The next time I saw Juan, at a class reunion in
1995, his first words were, "I did it. I started my own
business." Nearly five years ago, Juan and a partner founded
ZeusTec, a manufacturers' representative for Silicon Valley
firms. They expect to exceed $50 million in sales this year.
Juan represents the ideal of the scholarship athlete, the real
reason such grants ought to be given. He was a bright,
hardworking student who didn't have the financial wherewithal to
attend college but who found in football a key to open the door
to higher education and then capitalized on that opportunity.
Juan never played in the NFL, never played on national TV. His
alma mater no longer even fields a football team. Yet he is a
walking advertisement for the potential, too often unrealized,
of college football. He says his dream for his own four
children--John, 17; Michael, 11; Rachel, 7; and Alexandra, 4--is
to support them in whatever pursuits they choose. Almost
needlessly Juan Chapa adds, "We're stressing their education."