"Mr. Southside" keeps T-bird youth sports program soaring
by Victor R. Martinez \ El Paso Timeselpasotimes.com
Posted: 09/05/2011 12:00:00 AM MDT
Juan Gonzales was surprised with a football cake during the Southeast T-Birds' practice at Golden Key Park to mark the 50th anniversary of the football organization. (Vanessa M. Feldman / El Paso Times)For half a century, Juan Gonzales has given his time, energy and soul to the youth of El Paso.
Like many fathers, his first volunteer effort came when his son's baseball coach asked him to help with the Jr. Rangers in 1961. A year after that, another parent asked me to organize a football team so I did, right in his front yard," said Gonzales, laughing at the thought. "We had to move to De Vargas Park."
He took a bunch of boys from the Clardy Fox area in South El Paso and molded them into young men.It's something "Mr. Southside" has been doing for the past 50 years now. As another season of El Paso Parks and Recreation youth tackle football gets under way this month, ol' Juan Gonzales can be found in his familiar spot, sitting in his lawn chair watching the Southeast T-Birds practicing at Golden Key Park.
"Every year at every banquet, he always says that was his last year and he is pretty firm about it when he says it," said Kevin Aguilar, parent of 10-year-old backup quarterback Nathan Aguilar. "But every year he is out here again. He pretty much is the foundation of the organization."
Gonzales is director of the Southeast T-Birds, one of the city's oldest and successful youth sports programs. He started the organization with volunteers Joe Scott and Mike Manago.
"My legs are giving out on me, but I'll continue to come out here," said Gonzales, who celebrated his 81st birthday on Aug. 26. "This is my life. If I stayed home, I would probably die out of boredom."
For Gonzales and his wife Catalina, there is nothing like the sound of coaches barking out instruction at young football players and the repetitive, high-pitched cadence of the T-Bird cheerleaders. "I let him do whatever he wants as long as it's for the kids," said Catalina, his wife of 62 years. "He's always loved to help the kids, all his life he has been doing something to help the kids. I've never tried to take away his passion for volunteering. It makes me happy to see him happy."
Catalina Gonzales did her part and coached the cheerleaders for years. The Southeast T-Birds organization was originally called the Thunderbirds and used that name until 1967.
"In '62, we broke away from the Jr. Rangers and we went to the Thunderbird Station at Paisano and Gateway West with Ray McNutt, and we approached him to see if he could help us out with equipment," Gonzales said. "He told us he would buy our helmets but he wanted to put the Thunderbird logo on the helmets."
Five years later, Gonzales went to a local sporting goods store to buy equipment but was told they owed money. "There was a group of men who called themselves the Thunderbirds and it was that Thunderbird organization that owed the money, not us," he said. "That's why we changed our name to Southeast T-Birds."
The retired U.S. Postal Service worker coached from 1961 to 1963 -- "I lost the first Little Bowl in 1963 against the Sports Club of Segundo Barrio" -- before setting his sights on raising money for the organization.
"It brings joy to my heart to be able to raise the funds for the equipment these boys need for football," said Gonzales, a 1948 Bowie High School graduate. "My job is to make sure the kids have two game uniforms, practice uniforms and replace old worn-out equipment."
Many of the current coaches are former players who wanted to give back to the program. "Gonzales did a lot for us when we were youngsters trying to stay out of trouble," said C.R Villalva, a defensive coach for the T-Birds.
"We knew how difficult it was to stay out of trouble and fortunately we had this program to keep us in line.
"Everybody who played in the program was taught respect, discipline and to do good in school. Now we are able to come back and teach that to all the other kids." Villalva said despite not having his own children playing with the T-Birds anymore, he continues to volunteer his time. "I've learned a lot from him," he said of his old mentor. "Dedication, loyalty and being a good role model ... meaning don't be a knucklehead.
"You have to stay out of trouble to be a coach around here. You have to be a good example for these kids." Anywhere between 150 to 200 young boys and girls representing more than 40 schools are involved with the T-Bird organization.
"We've been really lucky to have a guy like him around all these years," Villalva said. "We try to give the kids a good foundation like he gave us." Lisa Salas, Gonzales' granddaughter, has been the T-Birds cheerleading coach for about 15 years, off and on. "He has always been a hard-working man," Salas said of her grandfather. "He taught me never to give up and always work not only for yourself but for others."
Gonzales' two great-granddaughters -- Lauren, 9, and Isabelle, 4 -- are cheerleaders.
"My grandfather has a lot of pride in this community," Salas said. "Doing this for the children brings a smile to his face." Salas said she hopes she can match her grandfather's dedication for the community.
"I hope to be doing this for a long time," she said. "I hope that I can continue doing this for the children just like my grandfather has for all these years. "I want to be able to continue the tradition he started 50 years ago."
Victor R. Martinez may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org; 546-6218.
The Gonzales file
Who: Juan Gonzales, director of the Southeast T-Birds, one of the city's oldest and most successful youth sports programs. He started the organization with volunteers Joe Scott and Mike Manago in 1962.
Of note: This is the 50th year Gonzales has been a volunteer in the city's youth sports programs.
Accomplishments: Inducted to the El Paso Baseball Hall of Fame in 1994; in 1964, organized with Gene Stogner a city program for 8- to 12-year-old boys and girls to participate in sports; privately raised more than $100,000 to fund positive sports activities for boys and girls; served as park director for Boys Baseball of El Paso; served as deputy commissioner for AABC baseball Sandy Koufax and Mickey Mantle programs.