SELMA, Calif. — The lunchtime crowd is filtering into Sal's.
There's Pat Thornburg. Her son, Andy, played football with Todd Santos at Selma High School. Andy caught that rub-their-noses-in-it pass on the last play against Chowchilla. Santos, a cocky sophomore quarterback in 1979, was supposed to run out the clock.
"How about we go for it?" said a voice in the huddle.
"Yeah," said Santos. "Go deep."
And so he threw deep, and the deflected ball fell into Thornburg's hands for a touchdown.
Here comes Leslie Nabors and her 10-month-old son, Tyler. Nabors was a junior when Santos was a senior at Selma in 1981-82. She was known as Leslie Johnson then.
Look who's pulling up a chair. It's Karl Salazar. He played guard when Santos was at Selma. His father was Sal, who started this restaurant 45 years ago. Once the site of many pregame team meals, today, Sal's is a place to renew old acquaintances and eat what many in Selma will tell you is the best Mexican food in Fresno County. "Hey, Todd, how you doin', man?" Salazar asks. "That Sweeney, he's going to eat your dirt."
Big laughs all around, a fresh basket of chips and another glass of water for Santos, the quiet, record-breaking San Diego State quarterback. Around Selma, they figure it's only a matter of time before Santos, their small-town hero, breaks the National Collegiate Athletic Assn. record for career passing yardage set by another quarterback from the San Joaquin Valley, Kevin Sweeney, that city kid from Fresno. Sweeney finished his career at Fresno State last season with 10,623 yards.
"Todd, he's going to get that record," Salazar said. "Everybody in Selma knows that."
And everybody in Selma, it seems, knows Santos and his family.
The Santos are something of a sports legend in this farming town of 13,500, located 15 miles south of Fresno. That's what happens when you have one or another of three sons start at quarterback for five straight seasons for the Selma Bears.
Bob and Nita Santos' parents grew up in Selma and raised their children there. Now Bob and Nita have raised their children--Jill, 29; Todd, 23; Roby, 22, and Ron, 20--in Selma. Todd is set to report to San Diego State's preseason camp Thursday to prepare for a season in which he hopes to break Sweeney's record.
Santos has a school-record 7,493 yards and needs to average 261 yards in the Aztecs' 12 games for the record. The first game is not until Sept. 5 against UCLA in the Rose Bowl, but already the publicity push is under way, led by a regional cover of a national preseason football magazine.
This past two-week vacation has meant simpler times for Santos.
This is his last summer back in Selma before the hype of the record chase builds momentum, before professional football turns from a dream into a job, before it might seem a little too silly for a big-time quarterback to drive his 1981 Honda Civic down McCall Street to Fosters for a shake.
"I love San Diego," Santos said. "But Selma is where I see my family and friends."
So last week, Santos was back in Selma--eating at Sal's, sweating in the 104-degree heat, hanging out in his parents' living room, lifting weights in the gym, playing catch on the high school field, walking around downtown, stopping at Roby's roadside stand for a fruit-flavored shaved ice, playing a round of golf at Selma Valley Golf Course, loafing with his childhood friends.
Darrick Wells grew up with Santos, lived on the same block until they were 4, played wide receiver at Selma. It was Wells who caught that fourth-and-10 pass their senior year that would have beaten Selma's rival, Kingsburg, but his foot was out of bounds and the touchdown was disallowed.
"Todd just held onto the ball too long," Wells said. "I was open, he saw me, but he waited. I'd kid him about it more, if it wasn't so hard to take. That game meant so much."
Wells, whose tee shots this afternoon tended toward slicing, screaming risers, went on to play receiver at Rice. He is about to enter medical school in Milwaukee, a couple thousand miles from Selma. He, like Santos, has grown up in the small town, and is finding his future in the big city. Coming from Selma takes some explaining in Houston and Milwaukee.
"When people find out that I'm from California, they ask, 'Are you from Los Angeles?' Then they ask, 'Are you from San Francisco?' They're sort of disappointed when I'm not. They all want to know if I've been to Disneyland and the beach, and I've been to both. Finally, I tell them I'm from Selma, in the central part of the state. We grow raisins."
Raisins are everywhere in Selma. Drive south from Fresno down Route 99 and it doesn't take long before nothing but vineyards stretch along both sides of the freeway. In Selma, an errant tee shot can land among grapes. No wonder the signs say, "Welcome to Selma. Raisin Capital of the World."