Monday, October 11, 2010

Death of "Chelo" Huerta, 10/8/85

On September 21, 2010, the Tampa sports community lost a giant when Sam Bailey, the former University of Tampa football coach and athletic director, died at the age of 86. It seems sadly appropriate that his death would fall so close to the 25th anniversary of the passing of his colleague and fellow Tampa sports icon, Marcelino "Chelo" Huerta, Jr.

On the evening of October 8, 1985, Huerta attended a regularly scheduled meeting of the Tampa Sports Club at the Holiday Inn on Cypress. Accompanied by his son-in-law Andy Alfonso, the two chatted that night with friends such as Bernie and David Epstein, E.C. Smith, and another former football coach, Fran Curci.

Just three-and-a-half hours after parting ways, Huerta suffered a fatal heart attack. Doctors worked on Huerta for just over two hours, but were unable to save him. One of the most vibrant and beloved men in all of Tampa had died just three weeks shy of his 62nd birthday on October 31.

Although of short and stocky build, Huerta had a distinguished athletic career at Hillsborough High School. In addition to being student body president, Huerta also served as captain of the football team and earned all-state honors as an offensive lineman.

Like so many men of his age, Huerta volunteered for military service during World War II. A proud patriot, Huerta served as a decorated B-24 Liberator pilot in the European Theatre and eventually achieved the rank of 1st Lieutenant during his active service from 1943-45.

Following his discharge from the United States Army Air Force, Huerta made up for lost time by enrolling at the University of Florida. While in Gainesville, Huerta played football for the Gators during a dubious time in their history.

The so-called "Golden Era of Florida Football" featured a 0-13 losing streak from 1946-47 matched only in futility perhaps by the winless Gators of 1979.

Huerta's love of the game led him back to Tampa, where in 1950 Frank Sinkwich hired Chelo on as an assistant coach for the University of Tampa Spartans. It was there that Huerta met the man who would become such a big part of his life, fellow assistant coach Sam Bailey.

It would be a short apprenticeship under Sinkwich, as Huerta took over as the head coach in 1952, a position he held until 1961. He then spent three seasons as the head coach of Wichita State (1962-1965), earning Missouri Valley Conference Coach of the Year honors in 1963, followed by three seasons at Parsons College (1966-1968) before leaving the world of coaching and returning home to Tampa.

Beginning in 1969, Huerta became involved with the MacDonald Training Center, serving as its Executive Vice President. The facility, with its programs for individuals with developmental disabilities, became the passion of Huerta's post-football life.

At the time of his death, the MacDonald Center was in the process of moving from the Westshore area to a new facility on the campus of the University of South Florida.

"That was Chelo's dream project," said Jerry Fogarty, the MacDonald Training Center's chairman of the board. "How painful the thought that he will not be here to see it through."

As one might expect of the Tampa Sports Club Citizen of the Year in 1969 and the Outstanding Young Man of Tampa in 1954, friends and colleagues effusively praised the late Huerta.

"He was small in size, but he was a giant in his nerve and in his achievements," said Gator teammate Jimmy Kynes. "His loss is beyond estimate."

"No one on this earth ever helped me more," said Rick Nafe, the former operations director for the Tampa Sports Authority. "To me he was like a coach, father and good friend. I was privileged to sit at his right hand."

His close friend George Levy, however, may have said it best.

"There was only one Chelo. There cannot be another. A big slice of this town left us this week."

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