Tom Flores was there from the beginning. Literally, the very beginning.
The Hall of Fame enshrinee recalled one of his fondest memories from his time with the Raiders as his very first memory of being with the organization. Flores had left the Fresno, California, area where he was raised to pursue his dream of being a quarterback in professional football. After a couple of unsuccessful stints in the CFL, he returned back to the West Coast to try out for a new AFL expansion team in Oakland. Flores' career would become synonymous with that team in Oakland that he would become the starting quarterback for.
"There were 11 quarterbacks in training camp. Eleven, we couldn't even all get in one picture," Flores said reflecting on his very first day on the Raiders in Santa Cruz, California. "Now 61 years later, you look back and say 'Wow, look at what we've done in that time. ... Look at what the Raiders have grown to'. It's hard to imagine."
Flores became the first Latino starting quarterback in league history and would help lead the Raiders to promise under Al Davis, being named an AFL-All Star in 1966 before being traded. He would pick up his first of four Super Bowl rings in 1970 as the Kansas City Chiefs backup quarterback in Super Bowl IV. While Flores was pioneering for minority quarterbacks in professional football, he didn't take the time to realize the trails he was blazing. He just wanted his talent and abilities to speak for themselves.
"It wasn't as big as a thing when I first started. I never thought about it. I never thought I was hired because of my ethnic background, but I was hired because of what I could do on the field as a player and as a coach," Flores said. "I still feel that way. It doesn't matter what color you are, you have to be ready to perform and you have to be able to win, otherwise you're going to be unemployed – no matter what color you are."
Flores continued to solidify his Hall of Fame career once he returned to the Raiders in 1972 as an assistant coach for John Madden. Under Madden, Flores picked up his second Super Bowl ring in 1977 – and still holds great reverence of the legendary coach he would succeed. When Madden stepped down to become a color commentator, Flores had his work cut out for him. His back was against the wall after posting a 9-7 regular season mark and missing the playoffs in his first season as head coach. Al Davis put a lot of pressure on Flores and his team to win knowing "that he wasn't very happy" with how things were looking, yet Davis kept faith in him.
"[John Madden] took on the field what he was and I took on the field what I was. I remember talking to Al Davis, telling him 'I'm not John as far as the emotional part is' and he said 'Yeah I know that, I know that. But I hired you to win'. And I worked for John for seven years as an assistant so I know all the good parts about John and it was helpful for me as a head coach."
Then the miraculous 1980 season came.
Against all odds, Flores and the Raiders defeated the Philadelphia Eagles in Super Bowl XV, marking it as his third Super Bowl win. Flores is still fond of his 1980 Super Bowl winning team, describing it as some of his toughest, yet most memorable experiences as a head coach in the NFL.
"The '80 one was tough because we were kind of in a rebuilding mode. We had traded away Kenny Stabler, we had a lot of veteran players and not a lot of young players. We traded for Kenny King, which was one of our young running backs, but [Gene] Upshaw and [Art] Shell had one more good year to give us.
"We struggled and struggled, and we struggled all the way through. And toward the end of the year, I started feeling pretty good about ourselves because we said 'Hey, we're playing pretty well'. We had some ups and downs, but so did everyone else. We just did what we had to do and little by little we won here, and won there, and won there, and won there and all of a sudden we're in the playoffs. And once you get in the playoffs – I always told my players this – once you get into the playoffs, anything can happen.
"Anything. And anything happened that year."
What made Flores even more proud as a coach that season was helping resurge Heisman-winning quarterback Jim Plunkett's career. Plunkett, like Flores, was a quarterback of Latino descent. He lost his way in the NFL after being drafted by the New England Patriots before he came to the Oakland Raiders. Plunkett made the most of his opportunity once his name was called to replace injured quarterback Dan Pastorini and never looked back.
Flores and Plunkett still remain close to this day and Flores labeled him as one of his favorite players he ever coached.
"We resurrected Jim Plunkett and he came through like a champ for us and made some big plays in some big games. We had a lot in common, coming from the same ethnic background, battling our way back and achieving what we did. He was one of my favorites before we even got him."
Flores would claim one more Super Bowl win in the 1983 season with a "pretty loaded" roster led by Plunkett and Marcus Allen after the Raiders relocated from Oakland to Los Angeles. He would step down as head coach for the organization in 1987 after posting an 83-53 record and becoming the first minority head coach to win a Super Bowl. Yet for some strange reason, it took him 27 years from his last season as a head coach for the Seattle Seahawks before he was elected for induction into the Hall of Fame. While Flores' storied career was worthy of one being honored in Canton, he felt skepticism kick in as the years rolled by.
Then that day finally came. Flores, 61 years after initially joining the Raiders, got the knock from Pro Football Hall of Fame President David Baker at his door.
"I was kind of expecting it sooner and then it didn't happen. So I got skeptical about it and I was a little guarded in it as far as anticipating that this might be the year. I wasn't going to count anything and then when it finally happened – when Mr. Baker knocked on my door here at my home in Palm Springs – I saw that big body coming into the door way and I said 'Oh man, it happened'. That's when you realized it happened.
"There's no better feeling. I had tears in my eyes. I have tears in my eyes right now just thinking about it because that's a lifetime achievement. That's forever."
Flores will join Mike Ditka in the Pro Football Hall of Fame as one of two men to win a Super Bowl as a player, assistant coach and a head coach. The fact that Flores had to wait so long for this moment may still baffle many, but at the end of the day Flores will get his golden moment with his gold jacket that he rightfully deserves. But like any good man, leader or teacher: Flores fully recognizes that he didn't get here alone.
"When you make the Hall of Fame, you don't make the Hall of Fame. You and your family make the Hall of Fame. And your friends, and your coaches and your players. We all go in together.
"I'm just a representative of a wonderful group in a wonderful game."
Take a look back at photos of Raiders legend and Hall of Famer Tom Flores' historic career with the Silver and Black.