Mercedes Tiger Football Builds Traditions & Memories
Ubaldo Pena grew up in a neighborhood where the lights of the old Tiger Stadium beckoned as a place where he could someday shine.
“We use to cut holes in the (stadium) fence to get glimpses of our heroes,’’ said Pena, who today is an assistant football coach at Edcouch-Elsa High School. “Football for us was a way to get out of a downtrodden area of the community.’’
Pena would himself be a Mercedes Tiger from 1969 to 1973, playing under the lights of the neighborhood stadium that was part of the Rio Grande Valley Livestock Show grounds. Football would be that shining light for him in high school and he would take it from there to a career as an educator and coach.
“I’m in it (coaching) to develop young men and get them ready for life,’’ he said. “It started for me on that old football field where a lot of us sweated blood and tears as Mercedes Tigers.’’
The old stadium – long a Friday night fixture – has been replaced by a new and much bigger stadium that’s located by the high school. The community’s passion and connection to high school football and their Tigers has transferred across town with all of its Friday traditions and attraction to historical rivalries with adjacent communities.
Local businesses like Coach’s Pharmacy and Mid-Valley Pharmacy prominently feature Tiger football helmets and employees customarily wear orange shirts in a show of support for the high school’s predominant color. The new stadium is awash in orange on Friday nights just like the neighborhood stadium by the livestock show use to be for generations.
“Football is big in Mercedes,’’ said Rick Reyes, a retired educator and former Mercedes High School principal. “It’s a way to support the kids, and not just the football players, but the band and everyone who has a part in making it special.’’
The decades of high school football in the community have seen rivalries come and go and then ignite anew. For many years, Reyes said, Weslaco was the big neighboring Mid-Valley rival. The high schools of the two communities were in the same district for decades, which heightened the rivalry in addition to the proximity of the two cities.
Then in the 1980s, the Mercedes/Edcouch-Elsa rivalry took off in a yearly battle that featured brother against brother. Pete Vela was the Tigers’ head coach and he faced off his against his brother Robert who led the Yellowjackets.
“Brother versus brother,’’ Reyes said. “The community gobbled it up.’’
Pena was an assistant coach on Pete Vela’s staff and recalls vividly the intensity of those years of the Tigers going up against La Maquina Amarilla of E-E.
“They were real students of the game,’’ Pena said of the Vela brothers. “They revolutionized their programs and the rivalry that has not diminished one iota to this day.’’
Reyes lauds the new stadium for its added seating and comforts, but like Pena, fondly recalls the old days at the original stadium.
“Oh my gosh, all the memories,’’ Reyes said. “We use to have victory dances at the National Guard armory by the stadium after home games.’’
And Pena, even now as the offensive coordinator for the Yellowjackets, harkens back to his boyhood days of dreaming what it would be like to be a Mercedes Tiger.
“We use to jump the fence (at old stadium) on Saturdays and Sundays and get on that football field and think, `this is where the Tigers play,’ ’’ Pena said. “And one day, we got our chance to be Mercedes Tigers and it helped guide us toward a better life.’’
- Ricardo D. Cavazos