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, Jos�, 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. Jos� 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 Jos� 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 ever graduate.
Juan was an exception. He started at linebacker for the Tigers, earned a BA. with a major in sociology and a minor in business, and graduated a semester early. When Pacific played at Arizona State in 1980, Jos� 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. Jos� 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."