SAN ANTONIO -- Tony Soto was a sophomore at Harlandale High School in 1997 when he started helping the Indians’ football team as a manager.
Nineteen years later, Soto is still at it.
“Tony does so many things for us that I don’t know what we’d do without him,” longtime Harlandale head football coach Isaac Martinez said this week. “After he graduated, I told him he didn’t have to keep coming out here, but he said he wanted to continue being part of the program.
“The players love him because he takes care of them. He has a genuine concern for them and the program, and the kids care about him. He loves being out here. He just loves Indian football. He doesn’t get paid anything at all, other than the memories and friends he makes. He’s pretty important to us. He's really a special young man."
Now 36, Soto said he’ll “retire” when Harlandale wins state or head coach Isaac Martinez and offensive coordinator Oscar Cardenas retire.
But then in the next breath, he added: “I don’t know. If they leave, I might still be coming here.”
Soto graduated from Harlandale in 2000 and works part time at the H-E-B on the corner of Southwest Military and Pleasanton Road, less than a mile from the Harlandale campus. A former special-education student, Soto makes the Indians’ workouts an average of two days a week and is on the sideline for every game.
“He works his schedule at work around our schedule,” Martinez said. “The manager is kind enough to give him the days off that Tony asks for. When our players or their parents go to H-E-B, they always make sure to say hi to Tony. He’s pretty well known.”
“Fans always come up to me at work and ask me how Harlandale is going to do this season,” Soto said, smiling. “I tell them to come to our games and support the team.”
Without question, the highlight of Soto’s week is when he runs on the field with the Indians before a game.
“I really like that,” Soto said. “It’s exciting. Harlandale is just close to my heart.”
Soto’s association with the Harlandale football program started after a conversation with former Indians defensive coordinator Rey Madrigal, who had Soto in one of his math classes. Madrigal is now superintendent of the Harlandale ISD.
“Rey always looked for kids he thought would benefit from coming out here,” Martinez said. “I remember Rey saying, ‘I’ve got a kid, coach. I’m going to bring him out here. He needs this more than we need him right now, but hopefully it’ll help him out.’
“I told him, ‘Bring him, Rey. He can fold some T-shirts or fold some towels, or he can sort out our pants by sizes. We’ll just give him something to do and make him part of the team. Maybe the kids will take to him.’ From there, it just took off. He never left.”
Soto handles a variety of tasks during workouts and games. In addition to ensuring that players and coaches get enough water at practice, he helps assistant coach Oscar Valenzuela in the equipment room and works as a ballboy at games.
“I see him all over the field during games,” senior cornerback Isaac Barrera said. “He’s everywhere. You can see the excitement in him all the time, from being there and being with us. He’s very happy.”
Only 5 feet tall, Soto is dwarfed by most of the players on the Indians’ roster. But he commands their respect with his dedication and commitment.
“Everybody looks up to him,” senior offensive guard Danny Garza said. “He means a lot to the team. He’s almost like another player for us. He’s like our 12th man.”
Barrera also expressed admiration for Soto.
“He helps out a lot,” Barrera said. “On the field and off the field, he’s always helping coaches with things. Over the three years that I’ve been on the varsity, I’ve had a great relationship with Tony.
“Every time he comes in, he says hi to everybody in the locker room. He’ll ask us what’s up and how are we doing. He’s real cool. He puts himself out there with us, and lets us know that he’s here with us. He motivates us.”
One of two children born to Mercedes and Antonio C. Soto, both deceased, Soto lives with an aunt. He doesn’t drive a vehicle, so he rides his bicycle to work and Harlandale football practice. On game nights, Martinez or one of the other coaches on his staff give Soto a ride home.
“We put his bike in the back of the truck,” Martinez said. “We’re not going to let him ride his bike home when it’s dark.”
The seniors on the 2013 team pitched in and bought Soto a new bike, which they presented to him at the annual night pep rally before Harlandale’s game against district rival McCollum in the Frontier Bowl.
“I was very surprised,” Soto said. “I still have my bike.”
Soto has a close relationship with Indians assistant coach James Forestier, who treats him to dinner every year on his birthday.
“Tony is also in Coach Forestier’s taco club,” Martinez said. “When Tony comes in on game days, he’ll have two tacos waiting for him from Coach Forestier. He’s in my taco club, too. He probably has five or six tacos lined up and he saves them for lunch. The coaches pitch in and pay for his pregame meal with the kids. He sits down with the team and eats, and then helps coach Valenzuela in the equipment room.”
Martinez, in his 23rd season as Harlandale’s head coach, said Soto embodies the spirit of people who work behind the scenes to help make high school football the tradition it is in Texas.
“People just go to the games and don’t know what transpires during the week,” Martinez said. “They don’t know who’s responsible for what, but there’s a lot of preparation that goes on before we get to that point. Tony is one of those people who help us get ready each week. It wouldn’t be the same without him.”
No doubt, Martinez’s players and assistant coaches would agree with him.
(© 2016 KENS)