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In July 1927, during his fourth year in Tampico, Herrera was spiked during an industrial-league game and wound up in the town's American hospital. Within a month he had married the head nurse on the floor, Mary Leona Hatch, an Anglo who had been orphaned as a girl near Opelousas, La. A year later Herrera took a job as baseball and basketball coach at Lanier High in San Antonio's West Side barrio, where he would spend 18 years, including all of the Depression. His basketball teams rarely had much size, so he introduced what later generations would recognize as a full-court press, "only we called it a man-to-man-all-over-the-court defense," Herrera would say. Five times his teams reached the state final four, winning titles in 1943 and '45. Herrera acquired enough of a reputation for Texas A&M to offer him its basketball coaching job, but he turned it down for the stability of public school work. In 1946 Bowie came calling, offering a better salary and the benefits of a desert climate for Mary Leona, who suffered from hay fever, and Bill, one of their two sons, who had asthma.
Herrera's new high school belied the squalor of the Segundo Barrio. When the city expanded the school in 1941 onto what had once been a slag heap, a complex of athletic fields girdled by cottonwoods and elms bloomed in the floodplain of the Rio Grande. Signs throughout the school warned students to speak only English, and special pronunciation classes walked them through phonemes and diphthongs. "I once asked the girl sitting in front of me for a piece of paper in Spanish," Sambrano recalls. "I got suspended, and my mom and dad said, 'This was the first time, and it'll be the last!'"
La Bowie, as it was called, was a temple of assimilation. When President Franklin D. Roosevelt federalized the all-Hispanic Company E of the Texas National Guard's 141st Infantry Regiment late in 1940, half the soldiers had been Bowie Bears. Forty former Bowie students gave their lives during World War II, most of them as members of Company E, whose ranks were steadily thinned through the Italian campaign, from Salerno to San Pietro to the slaughter at the Rapido River, where over two days in January 1944 German soldiers killed, wounded or captured virtually every GI not swept to his death by the current. At the outset of the 1948--49 school year Bowie dedicated a memorial to its fallen 40, and an ROTC color guard concluded each day with a retreat ceremony, lowering the flag that flew above that cenotaph.
Herrera worked to make baseball one of Bowie's tools of Americanization. He set up a summer league in the barrio and placed kids on American Legion and commercially sponsored teams. Then he bird-dogged the games, nudging prospects he liked to go out for the Bowie varsity the following spring. (A decade later, after Brown v. Board of Education forced El Paso to close all-black Douglass High School, Herrera enticed a bilingual African-American kid from the South Side to enroll at Bowie; future NCAA-champion basketball coach Nolan Richardson would star for Nemo in hoops as well as baseball.)
El Paso was a military town, and eventually Nemo took his guys to play base teams at Fort Bliss and Biggs Field, where they often outperformed their older, bigger, stronger hosts. "We went out on the field against those base teams not knowing any better," says Morales, attributing many of the Bowie boys' victories to Herrera's enforced obliviousness. Always the Bears ate at the mess. "Those were the only days we'd get three square meals," Morales says.
The Growler, the school newspaper, could have taken its name from the sound in a Bowie student's stomach. Mary Leona Herrera would pack her husband off to work each day with extra sandwiches, which he left in plain sight so they could be "stolen" by his famished boys. As their stomachs filled up, so did their heads. Molding his baseball teams in the image of his basketball squads, Herrera played small ball before it, too, had a name. "We used to work on some plays for hours and hours," says Morales. "We won games on details, not because we hit the ball out of the park."
Herrera spent Saturday mornings chasing down truants. "He'd say to me, 'I'm gonna kick their butts if they're not back in school,'" remembers Bill Herrera, 77, who would accompany his father on his rounds. But back at Bowie, Nemo would just as doggedly plead the cases of those same kids to principal Frank Pollitt.
The coach treated his baseball diamond like a drawing-room carpet, picking stray pebbles off the infield. And he encouraged teasing for its democratizing effect. One day first baseman Lorenzo Martinez showed up at practice with a new glove, bought across the river in Juárez. "It smelled like a dead salmon," Morales recalls. "Nemo said, 'You paid for that?' The madder Martinez got, the more Nemo encouraged us to give it to him.
"Nemo had a wide nose with huge nostrils, and when he got mad he looked like a raging bull. We used to joke that we should all get toreador capes." One day, as a few Bears nursed beers in a Juárez cantina, Herrera walked in. They figuratively reached for their capes. "I'll tell you the truth," he said. "I'd rather see you guys drink beer than soda pop. Soda pop will ruin your health."
If a Bear took only one thing away from his coach, it was a credo that became an incantation. "It's not who you are or where you're from," Nemo would say. "It's who you become." The last of those words synced with the striving of the postwar generation, with the American Dream, with all those cars whizzing east and west on Highway 80.