Guest Blog by By Dr. Ricardo Romo
Photos courtesy of the University of Texas Institute of Texan Cultures
Photo Courtesy The UT Institute of Texan Cultures at San Antonio No. 3086 - Ramiro Bernal, Tony Rivera, and Henry Escobedo. San Antonio, Texas
Sidney Lanier High School Voks are known regionally for their competitiveness in sports, ROTC Drill Teams, and creative arts. But it was the boys basketball teams that first brought them statewide recognition, and in the process shattered several long held myths and stereotypes about Mexican Americans.
San Antonio has produced many great athletes as well as many outstanding teams over the last century. Local athletes played in the NFL, in the NBA, and several won major tennis and golf tournaments. In addition, San Antonio natives have won at least two world boxing championship trophies. Unfortunately, no one has compiled a thorough list of the many great San Antonio athletes or teams and that is a loss to all of us. It is especially a loss to young students who seek role models.
I have always loved sports, and as a youngster I enjoyed reading about the great achievements of famous sports figures such as Babe Ruth, Rocky Marciano, Jesse Owens, and Jackie Robinson.
A few former Lanier graduates are making current youth aware of inspiring Latino sports role models. In this essay I would like to recognize and thank Raul Zuniga and Noe Medina, co-founders of the National Hispanic Sports Hall of Fame based in San Antonio, for their excellent research and commitment to Lanier Voks athletics. Zuniga and Medina both played sports at Lanier and have undertaken painstaking research to highlight the school’s great sports tradition over the past 80 years.
The Lanier Voks, pride of the Westside of San Antonio, had many great athletes in various sports, but in basketball and track they achieved “best in state” status. An important authority on the early basketball achievement--the glory days of the 1940s-- is Dr. Ignacio Garcia, a Lanier graduate and a professor of Western American History at Brigham Young University. His book, When Mexicans Could Play Ball: Basketball, Race, and Identity in San Antonio, 1928-1945, documents the golden years of Lanier’s dominance in basketball. His book is a first for Latino high school sports. To my knowledge no one in the United States has written a book about Latino high school championship teams in basketball and baseball.
My family lived four blocks from Lanier High School, and growing up I heard many stories of the great teams of the 1930s and 1940s. Some of Lanier’s great players lived in my neighborhood. Everyone had heard of the legendary Coach William Carson “Nemo” Herrera who led eight high school teams to the Texas Statewide play-offs.
Photo Courtesy The UT Institute of Texan Cultures at San Antonio No. 2874 - Nemo Herrera
Coach Herrera’s Lanier teams won two State Championship tournaments in basketball-- 1943 and in 1945. Herrera was known as a “skill coach.” He taught the fundamentals of basketball and developed exceptional game strategies. Among his best players were Henry Escobedo, who led Lanier to three trips to the Texas State Basketball Tournament. Escobedo was selected All-State twice (1943 and 1944). Tony Rivera was Lanier’s leading scorer in 1943 when they won the State Championship. Lanier lost the State Tournament in 1944 by one point. Tony was selected All-State in basketball in 1942 and 1943, and also led the State Tournament in scoring in 1942.
Herrera's 1944 team included Joe Bernal, who played basketball for Lanier High School. The 1944 team was undefeated until the State Championship game, which they lost by one point, 19-18. Bernal, who was a 5 foot 6 inch tall shooting guard, scored 6 points in that game. It was a low scoring game because during those years a time clock was not applied to basketball and teams could hold the ball for long periods of time. But scoring was also low because Coach Herrera developed a very aggressive full-court press which kept the other teams from taking many shots. There were three Bernal brothers on the Lanier teams between 1942-46. [Ramiro, Joe, and Gabby]. Joe Bernal went on to become an important role model for civil rights in Texas.
Another accomplished player on Lanier’s early basketball teams was David Rodriguez, an All-State selection in 1943, 1944, and 1945. Rodriguez led Lanier High School to three State Tournaments in Basketball. [Lanier won two of those three]. Rodriguez was also a Jr College All-American and led Tyler Junior College to the National Championship. At the U. of Houston Rodriguez earned All-Conference honors and was selected to the Mexican Olympic team in 1948. [Players whose parents or grandparents were born in Mexico qualified for the Mexican teams].
Herrera, with a 545-193 win-loss record over his lifetime, left Lanier in 1945 to take a coaching position at Bowie High School in El Paso. In 1949 Herrera took the Bowie High School baseball team to the State Championship and won. Lanier’s team continued to be good, but not like the glory years with Coach Herrera. Other great players for Lanier included Mario Cortinas who lettered in football, basketball, and baseball in 1957. Cortinas was followed by Raymond “Spider” Gonzalez who earned All-City and All-State in 1963 and played professional basketball in the Mexican Professional League.
Fifty years later, Rudy Bernal, the son of Ramiro Bernal and nephew of Joe Bernal, coached the Lanier High School basketball teams and achieved a 567-442 won-loss record at Lanier. Coach Rudy Bernal led Lanier High School to the State Tournament in 2000 and 2001. Lanier finished in 2nd place in 2001 losing to Beaumont in the Championship Game. In the semi-final game in 2001, Lanier upset the nation’s number one ranked team, Dallas, Oak Cliff. Bernal currently coaches at Antonian Catholic High School teams.
The early Lanier Vok team accomplished the near impossible in winning several state basketball championships. The players came from one of the poorest school districts in the state. Many of the players had grown up in poverty and graduated from high school at a time when the majority of their classmates were dropping out to find jobs. Their history has been largely neglected. The great Coach “Nemo” Herrera, who is only one of three high school coaches to ever win state championships in two different sports, was finally inducted to the San Antonio ISD Athletic Hall of Fame in 2016, thirty-two years after his death.
Dr. Romo is an accomplished Author, Educator, and Latino Art Collector who graduated from Fox Tech High School in 1962.
A native of San Antonio's Westside, Romo graduated from Fox Tech and attended UT Austin on a track scholarship. Romo was the first Texas Longhorns athlete (and the 19th American in history) to break 4 minutes in the mile, running a time of 3 minutes, 58.8 seconds in 1966. The time set a school record that lasted 42 years.
He holds a mater's degree in history from Loyola Marymount University and a Ph.D in history from UCLA.