On the wall of Alex Esquivel's small office near Montebello City Hall hangs a caricature drawn by a local restaurateur that reads: "Now he's carrying the ball for Montebello."
The former professional football player used to carry the ball as a running back and punt return man for the Baltimore Colts, but now he lines up against poverty, ignorance, juvenile crime and the problems of old age as Montebello's first human services manager.
Esquivel, 56, created most of the city's programs that help youths and senior citizens, as well as programs that provide residents with everything from family counseling to help in finding affordable housing.
When Esquivel took the job in 1971, the city had few social service programs. Now there are more than 20, including programs that offer classes for preschool children, summer jobs for youths, nutrition for senior citizens and training for developmentally disabled adults.
With the exception of the Play School for preschoolers, which costs from $37 to $77 for an eight-week session, all the programs are funded by grants or the city and are free to residents, Esquivel said.
"At the time I was hired there were beginning to be some problems" in the city, including a need for early childhood education, said Esquivel, who responded by establishing two instructional programs for preschoolers.
"This is what human services is all about, to make sure things are going right for the community," he said.
Esquivel's efforts draw praise from city officials.
"He's one of those people who's always there when you turn around," Mayor William Molinari said in a recent interview. "He's very beneficial for the community. It's just a way of life for him rather than a job."
One of 10 children in his family, Esquivel grew up in Alvin, Texas, and attended a nearby military academy before going to college in Mexico City.
As a quarterback, Esquivel led the Mexico City College Green Wave to a Major League championship in 1949, and won the Heraldo trophy, the Mexican equivalent of the Heisman Trophy, in 1950 and 1954.
As a collegian, Mexican sportswriters described Esquivel as "the greatest football player ever to play in Mexico." Just last year, a football youth league in Mexico City and a stadium in Pachuca, Mexico, were named after him.
The Colts used their 24th draft choice to select Esquivel and signed him for the 1955 NFL season. He was the first player from a Mexican team to be drafted by the National Football League.
The 5-foot-10, 185-pound halfback played sparingly for the Colts, before a foot injury ended his career in his second season with Baltimore.
"I wasn't a starter," said Esquivel, a sturdy man whose stomach has rounded a bit since his playing days. "What I used to like to do was return punts. I was just happy to be drafted."
Despite his athletic prowess, Esquivel knew hard times and prejudice in Texas; that, he says, has made him more sympathetic to others. He quietly describes how he was made to walk to school because school buses would not pick up Latino children, and how children were punished for speaking Spanish in school.
Esquivel moved to Montebello with his wife and four sons in 1964. When he took over as human services manager for Montebello, Esquivel believed education was the city's most pressing need. The education programs for preschool children that Esquivel spearheaded continue to be his pride and joy.
In addition to Play School, Montebello has Azteca, a federally funded Head Start program that is offered without charge for children of low-income families. The programs help children learn English and rudimentary skills before kindergarten, improving their chances to succeed in school and avoid dropping out later.
"Some of the kids didn't understand English so well, so they had problems (in school) and were dropping out," Esquivel said.
In addition to his administrative duties, Esquivel frequently finds himself in the role of youth and family counselor.
On a recent afternoon, Esquivel interviewed and counseled the parents of a 17-year-old Montebello boy; they were referred to Esquivel after their son was arrested for shoplifting a cassette tape.
He often acts as a liaison between youths in trouble and the Police Department. Esquivel established a juvenile diversion program through which youths are offered counseling and summer jobs instead of Juvenile Hall.
"Ninety-nine-point-nine percent of them are good kids," Esquivel said. "We try to prevent them from going to Juvenile Hall and getting a bad record."
Esquivel said his football background has helped him in his dealings with juveniles.
"When they find out you've been a professional they really listen," said Esquivel, who holds a degree in psychology. "That's why it's kind of bad a lot of these professionals are taking drugs, because kids look up to them."
A little later in the afternoon, Esquivel was confronted with another task when a woman walked into his office seeking help finding an affordable apartment for her family of 12 children.
Esquivel says it is through such personal contact that he stays in touch with the needs of residents and draws ideas for the city's next program. As Esquivel sees it, city taxpayers have a right to expect adequate human services, just as they expect good fire and police protection, and smooth roads.
"If I go down the street and find holes, I'm mad," Esquivel said. "It's the same with our services."
Asked what problems will draw his attention next, Esquivel said, "There's a big need in Montebello for day-care centers."