When I first met Al Padilla I was a freshman at East Los Angeles College. He was the offensive line coach on the football team and I was one of his charges. Like many first year college athletes I was a bit overwhelmed by the game that seemed so much more physical and faster than what I had played in high school. No need to worry, Coach made sure that we entered every game well-prepared and conditioned.
Outside the area of East Los Angeles Coach might have not been well-known, but in East LA he was a football coaching legend. One of the biggest high school football rivalry games west of the Mississippi River is the neighborhood clash between Garfield and Roosevelt high schools. Tens of thousands of fans regularly witness the yearly contest between these two big high schools in East LA. Al Padilla was the head coach at each of those schools before taking the reins of the football program at East Los Angeles College. All he did there was take the Huskies to the top of the community college football world by winning the California State Championship in 1974.
I didn’t really know much of this history when I first met Coach. All I knew of Al Padilla in 1978 was that he was my offensive line coach that worked me harder in practice than I had ever imagined possible. Driving our blocking sled up and down our practice field became a regular thing for us. We linemen thought he was feeling a bit human when he only had us drive that big sled only two hundred yards. We worked hard, but I don’t remember ever complaining because of the kind and respectful way Coach always approached us. A true gentleman who knew the importance of preparation in the sport he was clearly passionate about.
Due to a two-year Church mission to Guatemala, and a year to let my body recover, I returned to ELAC for my sophomore season. Coach Padilla was no longer involved in the football program, but he remained at the college as an instructor in the Physical Education Department. Our paths crossed and he seemed interested in my experiences in Central America and my decision to once again play football. That interest was demonstrated when he offered to help me out a bit. Turns out he taught a night basketball class in our large gym, which was located near our football stadium. Coach would come to his class early and observe our football practices from one of the tunnels high up in the stadium. After practice, in order to catch my public transit bus home, I would walk by the gym to meet Coach. While overseeing his basketball class, he would share with me his observations and how I could get better. My ride home on the bus was then filled with the valuable information learned from a coach who clearly still possessed passion for football. I was one of “his guys”. He was willing to help. I was willing to learn.
After finishing my playing career at the university level I entered the coaching ranks. With just three years of coaching experience I happened to be at a high school all-league meeting. The word there was that ELAC, who had dropped the football program a few years earlier, had decided to bring the football program back with Al Padilla as the head coach. I swung by the college on the way home to congratulate Coach and wish him well. The two equipment guys were the only ones I found, but they told me to come back when Coach was there because they knew he would love to see me. I followed their advice, returned to see Coach, and it was clear that I was still one of “his guys”. He told me he was assembling a coaching staff and mentioned some of the names who were already onboard. It was not surprising that this East LA legend had some great coaches lined up to help resurrect the football program. I think my jaw about self-dislocated when he asked me if I wanted to join his staff as the offensive line coach.
Coach Padilla had coaches on his staff that had decades of experience in coaching offensive line. I had only three years experience. One at the university level and two at a high school where football took a backseat to gymnastics and soccer. Yet he wanted me to be his offensive line coach. Being the man that he is, Coach told me to take my time in telling him my decision. Go home and talk it over with your wife, I was told, there are things more important that football and having your wife on board is vital. We arranged to meet again after the holidays. He looked forward to hearing my decision.
Our decision was made and I became the offensive line coach at East Los Angeles College and we hit the ground running. All of the tasks in restarting a football program were already underway and I jumped in for the ride and learning experience. I coached two years at ELAC before we bought a home too far from the college for a reasonable commute. Those two years were filled with so many learning experiences at the hands of a master mentor. Coach Padilla let me coach the offensive line, not at all taking over in any regard.
Some of my choicest memories during this time were when he and I found ourselves in the stadium offices after the other coaches had left. Those were the times I was helped to see the ways of the offensive line from someone who knew much more than I…and he was willing to share. In his kind, fatherly manner Coach helped me really learn the aspects of being an effective offensive line coach. Being dictatorial was not his way. Instead he led me along the path to growth and enlightenment by helping me come up with my own solutions. A twinkle in his eyes would clearly be seen as I arrived at a solution he had been leading me to. Sometimes that solution was one he had in mind and sometimes that solution was one of my own…which he proudly approved of.
College football coaches work seven days a week during the football season and things were no different at ELAC. Sundays were always spent going over the previous night’s game and studying the film of the upcoming opponent. When the question of what time we were to meet on Sundays came up, Coach Padilla asked me what time my Church meetings were. After I told him they were in the morning hours he said that our football meetings would start one hour after my Church meetings were over. He knew Church was important to me and he was always willing to help out one of “his guys”…plus it allowed him to get in a round of early morning golf.
I loved Coach Padilla and coaching for him was a joy. Yet we both knew I could not continue because of where my family now lived. It was a tough decision to leave, but we both knew it was necessary. He mentioned that he knew the head coach at the community college near our home. They had known each other for years and Coach Padilla told him about me. Coach’s recommendation gave me the opportunity to meet this head coach and after some interviews I was hired as his offensive line coach.
For a few seasons Coach Padilla and I found ourselves on opposite sidelines as both ELAC and my new employer were in the same football conference. We had some good games, but I remember the first one the clearest. ELAC came to our place and I wanted to make a good impression on Coach Padilla to show that I was making the most of the opportunity he had helped provide me in coaching college football close to my new home. I studied his defense meticulously and felt comfortable entering the game. Coach Padilla was the defensive coordinator and I felt confident I knew his defensive tendencies. I informed my new head coach that in certain game situations Coach Padilla would most certainly blitz. Sure enough, during the game that game situation arose and the head coach put the information to good use. We were backed up very deep in our own territory. It was third down and a long way to go. Coach Padilla tendency was to blitz in that situation. Armed with that thought, our head coach called a “pop pass” (a short, quick pass to the tight end just behind the blitzing linebackers). The result was the longest scoring pass play in the school’s history. We ended up winning the game. Hugs were shared afterwards and Coach looked at me with that familiar twinkle in his eyes and asked if that “pop pass” was my idea. I told him the truth. I had just provided my head coach with the information that Coach Padilla liked to blitz in that situation. With the same twinkle in his eyes, he responded: “Good job.”
In my third season coaching away from ELAC we had earned a bowl game invitation. Coach Padilla let me know that he would be there in the stands to support me. My dear wife was also in the stands that day with our toddler daughter and newborn baby girl. Ever the gentleman, Coach sat with my three loved ones during the game. The game turned out to be a memorable back-and-forth affair with the outcome not decided until the final seconds. We came away with the unlikely victory and I was anxious afterwards to hear Coach’s impressions and observations. When I asked him what he thought about the game, his response was: “It seemed like a good game…what I saw of it.” Turns out that Coach Padilla had become an impromptu “toddler-tracker” while helping my wife out with our little daughters. While my wife had her hands full with the newborn, Coach Padilla kept tabs on our little toddler. He told me that he would definitely sleep well that night due to his efforts. With his actions Coach showed me that he really meant what he told me years earlier…there are things more important than football.
The years moved on and Coach Padilla retired from the coaching ranks. Yet every time the college I coached for paid a visit to ELAC, Coach would be there in some fashion. Most times it was him catching my eye during our pregame warmups and sometimes it was a greeting passed along by the ELAC head coach. I remember during one pregame warmup he was watching me work with my offensive linemen. I spotted him, rushed over to hug and greet him, then was told by him that it was great to see me and I should get back to work. After the games where he was present, he would always stay afterwards to hug and greet me, then talk about anything other than football. Ever the mentor, he still showed me that there are things more important than football.
Even more years moved on and I did not stay in touch with Coach Padilla. After twenty-five years I retired from the college he had referred me to. There were no more road trips to ELAC for me. Just today I learned that Coach Al Padilla has moved on from this mortal existence. My heart hurts. I owe him so much. I worked hard for him as a player and as one of his assistant coaches. I never wanted to let him down, even when we found ourselves on opposing sidelines. As I have reflected back on what I learned from him over the years I am filled with a thankful heart. Thankful for him believing in me enough to hire me as his offensive line coach. Thankful for his mentorship and what he taught me about offensive line play and how to be a coach. Thankful for all that he did to show that he cared about me as a person, not just a football player or coach. Thankful for his kind and guiding hand in much more than football. So much I learned from him has helped me in being a better coach, a better husband, a better father, and a better person. It was an honor to be one of “his guys”.
I recently heard of a belief in angels in our lives. These are actually the individuals who do the things which seem angelic to those of whom are affected by their caring, kind, and loving manner. I know this to be true as I’ve been blessed by these angels in human form throughout my life. My life is better because of them. Al Padilla is definitely one of those angels who deeply blessed my life for so long and in so many ways. I still don’t want to disappoint him as I continue to develop my…VIEW FROM THE SIDELINE…