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NFL trailblazer Tom Fears came full circle with return to Mexican hometown

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Tom Fears proud of his Mexican heritage (0:25)

Dan Fears discusses his father, Tom Fears, who was the first Mexican-American NFL head coach and the only Pro Football Hall of Famer born in Mexico. (0:25)

Any time Tom Fears heard the homage to his hometown -- considered to be the cradle of mariachi music -- he would stand up and sing and get everyone to join along.

"Guadalajara, Guadalajara," the song begins, and the late Pro Football Hall of Famer's eyes would well up.

"Tienes el alma de provinciana, hueles a limpia rosa temprana," it continues.

"You are the heart of the province, your fragrance is that of the pure early rose."

And one day, his years advancing and his time precious, Fears decided he needed to take it all in for himself. See it again, that is. And touch it, feel it, smell it.

Because while his name might be remembered by few NFL fans today, Fears -- who once set a record with 18 catches in a game and who was a key cog on the Los Angeles Rams' first NFL championship team -- never forgot where he came from.

The game originally scheduled for Monday night in Mexico City between the Rams and the Kansas City Chiefs would have served as the perfect backdrop to recall the accomplishments of the first Pro Football Hall of Famer and first NFL head coach born on Mexican soil. Instead, the NFL announced earlier this week that it would move the game to Fears' adopted hometown of Los Angeles because of poor field conditions at Estadio Azteca.

Born in Guadalajara on Dec. 3, 1922, Fears and his family moved to Los Angeles when he was 6. His mom, Carmen, was Mexican, and his father, Charles, was a U.S. citizen who spent years working as an engineer in Mexico.

Fears played football at Manual Arts High School and in college for one year at Santa Clara before being drafted by the Army Air Corps in 1943. He originally wanted to be a fighter pilot, hoping to fight in the Pacific theater. The cause was near to Fears' heart: His father was at the time a prisoner of war of the Japanese, who had captured the elder Fears while he was mining in the Philippines as a civilian (Charles was released by the Japanese in August 1944).

Instead, Fears' football talents were put on display for his fellow soldiers. He served in Colorado Springs, Colorado, for three years as a flight instructor and saw no time overseas.

After his discharge from the Army, he fulfilled a commitment to attend UCLA, where he starred for the Bruins. On the side, he appeared in Hollywood movies, including a role as a fighter pilot in a Humphrey Bogart film "Action in the North Atlantic." In his later life, Fears cracked that when he eventually signed with the Rams in 1947 for a $500 bonus and a $6,000 salary, he "took a cut in pay."

Fears, a split end, turned into one of the NFL's early 1,000-yard receivers when he caught 77 passes for 1,013 yards in 12 games in 1949. He topped that NFL record a year later with 84 receptions for 1,116 yards.

On Nov. 12, 1950, he caught 18 passes against the Green Bay Packers for what would be an NFL record for a half-century, until Terrell Owens caught 20 while with the San Francisco 49ers against the Chicago Bears on Dec. 17, 2000.

The next season, Fears helped the Rams win their only title in Los Angeles, as his 73-yard touchdown reception broke a 17-17 tie in the fourth quarter.

"What made Tom great as a player was his determination, his desire to win at anything," said Danny Abramowicz, who played for Fears when he coached the expansion New Orleans Saints.

Fears played five more years in the NFL, retiring in 1956. He began his coaching career with the Packers in 1959, though business interests took him back to Los Angeles midway through the season. After two years as an assistant with the Rams, he was back with Green Bay from 1962 to 1965, helping them to two NFL championships. He then joined the Atlanta Falcons' staff for the 1966 season, before being named the expansion Saints' first head coach.

***

All Abramowicz wanted was a fair shot. Never mind that the wide receiver from Xavier was 5-foot-11, 170 pounds and a 17th-round pick of the expansion Saints in 1967.

"They never even told me they drafted me," Abramowicz said. "Several weeks later, someone else contacted me and asked me if I was signing with the Saints."

When Abramowicz met Fears, he pleaded with his new head coach to give him his chance, just one -- to which the coach shook his hand and agreed. But three preseason games in, Abramowicz had barely touched the field, used only on special teams. Preparing for the fourth of six preseason tilts (NFL teams played six exhibition and 14 regular-season games at the time), he got a knock on the door. Fears wanted to see him, and Abramowicz was told to bring his playbook.

"I didn't bring [my] playbook, and I go to Coach Fears and I say, 'I'm not leaving, you didn't give me a fair chance. I thought you were a man of your word,'" Abramowicz said. "Coach says, 'You're serious aren't ya?' 'I'm serious as a heart attack,' I told him. And he says 'OK, you're starting this Saturday night,' and that Saturday I caught six passes and made the team, because Coach gave me my chance."

In his first regular-season start in Week 7 against the Pittsburgh Steelers, Abramowicz caught 12 passes for 167 yards.

"Once I made an impression on him, I think he was rooting for me," Abramowicz said. "I was taught to fight the good fight, and he was the same way."

Fears and Abramowicz grew to be close during their time in New Orleans, even becoming racquetball teammates.

"We'd play in tournaments as partners, and he'd put the pressure on me," Abramowicz said. "On the racquetball court, we were just two guys. But as soon as the game was over, he was the head coach."

Fears lasted three seasons with the woeful Saints, winning just 13 games. After one year away from the sidelines, he returned to serve as offensive coordinator for the Philadelphia Eagles in 1972 for one year and as head coach for the World Football League's Southern California Sun in 1974. He eventually coached for Chapman College, served as part owner of the Orange Empire Outlaws of the California Football League and was named player personnel director of the United States Football League's Los Angeles Express, with whom he helped discover future Hall of Fame quarterback Steve Young. Fears even coached the Milan franchise of the International League of American Football.

He battled Alzheimer's disease in his later years. He died in early 2000 at age 77.

His last involvement with the NFL came in 1979, as he was building a football scouting service, with the Packers, Pittsburgh Steelers and Houston Oilers among his clients.

The Los Angeles-based Fears maintained his connection to Hollywood, serving as a technical adviser for films. It was in that role on the movie "North Dallas Forty" that Fears drew the ire of the NFL, which was not a fan of the film that revealed the tawdry side of the game and its players. Fears never worked in the league again and claimed he had been blacklisted.

"It filtered down to me," Fears told the Washington Post's Tony Kornheiser at the time. "I took it with a grain of salt until it happened to me. I was working in an advisor situation with the Packers, the Redskins and the Oilers. I had agreed to an agreement with Bum Phillips. Within a week, all three fell out on me.

"I'm very upset. I don't have anything concrete, but it makes you think there's something to it."

Only one thing took his mind off it.

The trip of a lifetime.

***

The trek began, as his adventures always seemed to, on a hunt for Mexican food. Fears couldn't get enough of it.

After his playing days with the Rams ended, and before he became the NFL's first Mexican-American head coach with the Saints, Fears opened two Taco Thoms restaurants in the Los Angeles area and, later, Coach's Corner in the famed South Coast Plaza in Costa Mesa, California, the largest shopping mall on the West Coast. Family legend has it that Fears, a close friend of Taco Bell founder Glenn Bell, was even offered a chance to take over Taco Bell's Southern California franchises in the mid-1960s for $10,000. Fears passed on the opportunity.

In 1979, with his NFL career in flux, Fears brought along his three sons with him to Mazatlan to scope out potential restaurant locations and meet with local officials. His boys -- Patrick, Daniel and Jonathan -- had helped run and manage Coach's Corner, and they thought there might be opportunities down south.

Fears had another plan, too: Introduce his sons to the place of his birth, his treasured hometown of Guadalajara.

His childhood was molded by those two things: his Mexican heritage and poverty. The family was so poor in those days, Daniel Fears said, that they'd get their Christmas trees on Dec. 26, when other families had discarded theirs. Tom Fears and his older brother Charles -- his idol who preceded him as a UCLA football star -- sold flowers and newspapers on the side of the road, and Fears would remain frugal for the rest of his life.

Fears had often talked about his hometown, and he and his assistant coaches and players frequented Tijuana when the Saints had their training camp in Point Loma, located in the San Diego area, in the late-1960s.

"Tijuana was one of my first opportunities to see him interact with the Mexican people, and I realize that connection he had," Daniel said. "He loved the country and being part of it, speaking in the language he retained, and he retained it not only because it was his first tongue, but his mother, Carmen, and his aunt, Maria, they spoke it in the home."

But Tom had not been back to Guadalajara, so one morning during the trip to Mazatlan, he coaxed his sons out of bed and they began a their 300-mile journey south. They weaved through Tecualilla and Ojo de Agua de Palmillas, through Rosamorada and Ixtlan del Rio, and survived a near-carjacking when someone tried to run them off the road.

Hours later, they found his tiny village on the outskirts of the big city.

"His memory was remarkable, and this was pre-GPS, pre-Google, but he gets us to this town, and it's familiar to him, but he doesn't know where his house was, so he was so bold as to just knock on doors," Daniel said.

They knocked on door after door, with Tom laughing and conversing with strangers, his sons in awe, until finally they found an elderly woman who remembered Carmen and Maria and little Tom, just a boy at the time. They ate the food of his youth and talked about the bandidos and the old mines and about the people -- and what Tom had left behind.

Years later, Daniel recalled, Tom would look back on the journey as one of the most important of his life.

"It was just one of the most precious moments I've ever had with my father because he truly was connecting with his childhood," Daniel said. "Reconnecting with the folks, there was just magical -- it was magical.

"It was a special trip that opened some doors a little bit, and but for time and distance, we would've wanted to open a lot more of those doors."