HARLINGEN — Harlingen High football has had five undefeated regular seasons in its long, storied history — the first of which came under Jesse Longhofer in 1976, and the most recent with Manny Gomez at the helm in 2011.
Only one person can say they’ve been on the sideline for all five of those magical seasons.
That man is none other then longtime athletic trainer Raul “Doc Z” Zamarripa, who this Saturday will be inducted into the RGV Sports Hall of Fame for his 40 years of service to Valley athletics.
“I don’t know. I’m just honored,” Zamarripa said while holding back tears. “I’m looking at the list and I’m going, ‘Man, I’m with this group?’ I must’ve done something right.”
Zamarripa’s career as a trainer started at Pan American College (now UTPA) after graduating from Brownsville High in 1970 and spending one year at Texas Southmost College.
As Zamarripa describes, it was a different era back then. Vietnam was in full force, so there weren’t many options for men his age.
“Back in the 1970s there wasn’t a whole lot for the graduating seniors because the only choices you had at that time was you graduate, go find you a job, try to go to college, or you get drafted and go to Vietnam,” Zamarripa said. “Your destiny could be changed in the matter of when that little ball came and your number was drawn.”
Zamarripa enrolled in a year-to-year deferment program that kept him from going overseas as long as he made the grades to stay in college.
After a year, his old high school coach, Joe Rodriguez, set him up with a job as a trainer for the Pan American basketball team that came with a partial scholarship.
At the time, the athletic trainer profession was not even in existence, so Zamarripa really didn’t know what his newfound path would lead to. But the Broncs had a strong team at the time.
So strong that at one point in 1974, they were No. 2 in the nation behind Bob Knight’s Indiana Hoosiers, so Zamarripa was more than glad to be along for the ride.
“Back in those days, Pan Am was the mecca of basketball in South Texas. There was no Vipers, there was no pro leagues. Pan Am and that fieldhouse, which was brand new at that time, was the place to be,” Zamarripa said. “That house would be 4,500 every night.”
Zamarripa worked for a couple years under legendary Pan Am coach Sam Williams (who coached Pan Am to its NAIA national title in 1963) before future University of Texas basketball coach Abe Lemons took over prior to Zamarripa’s senior year in 1974.
Lemons continued the tradition of Broncs basketball. He took his team across the country to play all kinds of legit Division I programs.
Zamarripa said UTPA was putting more players in the NBA than the entire Southwest Conference during that era.
“Before Lemons left, you couldn’t get a ticket to a Pan Am game,” Zamarripa said. “More than anything else, (the Pan Am experience) prepared me to begin my career hanging around people who had work ethic. Coach Sam, Coach Lemons, they were some strict guys, and I learned a lot from them.”
Because Pan American didn’t have an athletic training program, Zamarripa went to Texas A&I (now Texas A&M University-Kingsville) for a year to get an official license.
The plan was to then go back to UTPA to work as a graduate assistant on Lemons’ basketball team. But before that happened, Zamarripa got a call from Longhofer, Harlingen High’s football coach, who wanted to make “Doc Z” the first athletic trainer in Harlingen High history.
Zamarripa took the job, though he still wonders what would have happened had he stayed with Lemons at UTPA, who eventually went on to coach at the University of Texas.
With his hiring at Harlingen High, Zamarripa became just the second athletic trainer in the Valley. The first was the legendary Larry Lohr, another RGV Sports Hall of Fame inductee who worked with the 1961 Donna football state championship team.
Soon thereafter, Brownsville became the third school to hire an athletic trainer (Larry Brunt), and for the next decade, Zamarripa, Brunt and Lohr took care of every high school athlete in the Valley.
“That’s kind of how our profession got promoted. Here in Harlingen they used to bring me kids from La Feria, Lyford, Rio Hondo, Port Isabel,” Zamarripa said. “On Saturdays we would do the track circuit … We would have our little corner, a little tent, whatever, and then we’d have a line of kids. Mr. Lohr and I, and Larry (Brunt) would take turns assisting anybody who needed something.”
Since the athletic training profession still wasn’t completely licensed, Zamarripa had to teach six math classes on the side.
As time passed, however, other schools started to realize the advantages of having an athletic trainer.
“Other schools wanted to have the leverage that they felt Harlingen had. They thought those kids at Harlingen are talented and good, they must have something we don’t,” Zamarripa said. “Next thing you know other schools are looking for the position.
“Brownsville, Harlingen and McAllen were the only ones with trainers, and they were all successful programs.”
In 1982, Zamarripa received a call from Edinburg High football coach Richard Flores, who was tired of losing to Harlingen on the gridiron.
He offered Doc Z a job as a full-time trainer (no teaching) and got his wife, Nora Zamarripa, a job as the head girls basketball coach.
Edinburg High had lost to Harlingen High eight years in a row before Raul came on board. Flores felt Raul was the reason why. When Raul came on board, Flores had one simple question for him: ‘What is the secret?’
“It’s conditioning,” Raul Zamarripa told Flores. “Your kids are faster and more talented, but they were out of shape. Our big secret to our competitiveness is that we would stress the conditioning factor.”
Flores put Doc Z in charge of conditioning with the specific instructions to do whatever he felt was necessary, and that was the moment when the tables turned in the Harlingen High/Edinburg High series.
“That was the start of Flores’ run, and the only thing he did different was put me in charge of conditioning,” Raul said.
Zamarripa takes a lot of pride in the success of the teams he works for. He also takes a lot of pride in the work he does for the Valley Athletic Trainer Association, an organization which he helped found in 2001 and was the first president for.
Doc Z returned to Harlingen High in 1989, but it was during his first tenure with Big Red that he met his wife, who was an assistant coach for the Lady Cardinals at that time.
“She came onto the staff, and I was still single then, and it just kinda happened,” Raul said. “She crossed my path, I guess.”
Nora, a Lyford native, said it was Raul’s sense of humor and work ethic caught her eye.
“He was always actively involved in all aspects of athletics. You saw him treat the girls fairly, and be concerned about their injuries,” Nora said. “He showed compassion for the student athlete, and I admired him as a teacher. Look at all the stuff he does and he’s got a good sense of humor.
“I thought he was a cool dude.”
According to Nora, their first date was the 1981 football banquet, though Raul wasn’t so sure.
“She remembers those things a lot better than I do,” Raul jokingly said.
On July 29, 1982, the happy couple tied the knot, and “The Z Team” was born.
Nora was inducted into the RGV Sports Hall of Fame in 2005. With Raul’s induction this Saturday, Raul and Nora will become the first husband-wife couple to make the Hall.
Nora credits Raul keeping his teams well conditioned and is extremely proud that her husband is finally being recognized for his decades of hard work.
“One day, when Raul leaves this school, I think people are going to realize for the first time everything that he did.” Nora said. “No one realizes all he does because he does it behind the scenes without desired recognition or anything because he thinks that’s what he’s supposed to do and he does it with heart.”
Lucky for Harlingen High, Raul has no plans on leaving soon.
“People say when are you going to retire? I don’t know, when are we going to win our first state championship?” Raul said with a smile. “I’ll go month to month, year to year, and then if we win a state championship, then I’ll get out.”