Thursday, August 27, 2009

Ghosts of the Orange Bowl: Carlos Alvarez

Carlos Alvarez wasn't the first athlete, nicknamed "The Cuban Comet". That distinction belongs to former major league baseball player Minnie Minoso. But to University of Florida fans, he was truly an original. For a short time, he was college football's best and most dynamic receiver. He set records that would last for decades at UF and he did it in an era when few college teams threw the ball frequently. He was the pride of Miami's Cuban community and his homecoming in 1969 against the Hurricanes would turn into one of the great indivdual performances ever by a receiver in the Orange Bowl. The Cuban Comet was launched.

Alvarez arrived in Miami when he was ten-years-old and he barely knew a word of english. His family had just fled Cuba following the Castro Revolution. As a young boy new to the United States, he recalled sitting in classroom behind a student named Paul Armstrong. Alvarez copied everything from Armstrong's paper, including his name. Adjusting to life in Miami wasn't easy. But what made the transition smoother was his love for sports. Alvarez was always athletic and was blessed with good foot speed. He was an accomplished basketball player and track athlete. But the sport that he loved most was American football.

At North Miami High School, Alvarez became one of the best athletes in Miami-Dade County. He played running back and his blazing speed made him one of the best high school players in the state. During his senior year in 1967, he was named to the Miami Herald's All City Team and became the subject of an intense recruiting war between the Universities of Miami and Florida. He grew up watching the Hurricanes and was a fan of quarterback George Mira. But during the recruiting process, there was one incident that made him a Gator for life.

"My dislike for Miami started when they were recruiting me and at the office of their head coach at the time, Charlie Tate," Alvarez said. "There was a stuffed Gator hanging---right in the middle of his office. When it upset me right away, I knew immediately I was Gator bound." Alvarez said.

Another factor that helped steer Alvarez to Gainesville was the recruiting efforts of UF assistant coach Lindy Infante, who was a graduate of Miami High and of Cuban descent. "Lindy said to my mother that he was Cuban, then my mom really pushed to go there."

The awkward young boy who once struggled with english developed into a stellar student in the classroom. He scored a 491 out of a possible 495 on the state placement test, making him one of the state's brightest student athletes as well one of its best. When he arrived in Gainesville, freshmen were ineligible to play varsity football. Because he didn't have great size, UF coaches decided to move him from running back to receiver to better utilize his speed. In high school, Alvarez caught only one pass in his career. But just as he adapted to American society as a young immigrant, he made the smooth transition to wide receiver. He was a quick study.

In 1969, Alvarez exploded onto the college football scene. He was one of a talented group of sophomores who helped energize the University of Florida football program. This group included quarterback John Reaves and running back Tommy Durrance. Together they were known as "The Super Sophs". In his first college game, Alvarez and the Gators crushed the University of Houston 59-34. Alvarez caught a 70-yard touchdown pass from Reaves on the very first pass play of their college careers. Game after game the combination of Reeves to Alvarez was shattering SEC records. By the end of the 1969 season, Alvarez caught 88 passes for 1,329 yards and 12 touchdowns--all SEC records.

But the highlight of his great sophomore season came in the Orange Bowl against the Miami Hurricanes. As a high school player, Alvarez had never won a game at the Orange Bowl. His North Miami High teams lost twice there. His freshmen team at UF had also lost to the Hurricanes in the Orange Bowl. But on November 29, 1969, Alvarez turned the Orange Bowl into his house. A crowd of 70,934 packed the stadium and many of them were Cubans watching their first American football game waiving Cuban flags. Alvarez turned in amazing record performance. He caught 15 passes for 237 yards and 2 touchdowns. The Gators won 35-16 and finished the season with an 8-1-1 record.

"I knew in the beginning when we were warming up that something was going to happen in that game," Alvarez said. "Then the whole evening, we just couldnt miss. Having all your relatives there and a lot of Cubans up in the stands, it was pretty magical."

He was named to the Kodak All American Team and was the youngest player and only sophomore selected to the squad. Alvarez seemed to be on his way to breaking every receiving record in college football. But a knee injury he suffered in high school while playing basketball became worse. "There was no injury per se," Alvarez said. "My right knee just started to swell." It was deteremined by doctors that the end of Alvarez's bone was beginning to wear out. He was never quite the same player again. He was limited in practice and his play began to decline. He continued to be a productive receiver, but his numbers would never approach what he accomplished as a sophomore. During his junior year in 1970, he caught 44 passes for 717 yard and 5 touchdowns. He caught 40 passes for 517 yards and 2 touchdowns his senior year.

Off the football field, Alvarez was a brilliant student and was a campus activist. It was during the Vietnam War era and America's youth began questioning the social order. He formed a group called the Florida League of Athletes. Many thought it was type of union for players to make demands of coaches and administrators. But according to Alvarez it wasn't.

"That was probably the most misunderstood group that ever got together on a college campus," Alvarez said. "All it was ever meant to do was to apprise people that athletes were students too and that we could participate in campus activties whether they were controversial or not.

Due to his chronic injuries, Alvarez never made it to the NFL. But he followed in his father's footsteps and became an attorney. He graduated from Duke University Law School in 1975 and currently practices law in Tallahassee.


mi patria es la literatura said...

Good story! This is some obscure Orange Bowl tales you're reporting.


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wbemmons said...

An amazing talent his whole career - I recall the explanation that his knee swelling was due to gout . . .