By Ben Alkaly
My teenage years were generally a blur of hating math class, crushes on girls way outta my league and the occasional bout of acne. But one memory – involving a truly random sports pro – stands out like a beacon of light.
One Friday morning circa 1992-93, I was flipping through the LA Times Sports section, and there on page 10 or so (when newspapers actually had 10+ pages of sports) was a two-inch tall, one-column ad reading “SATURDAY: MEET RAMS KICKER TONY ZENDEJAS AT CARL’S JR. IN CULVER CITY”.
Mainly because of its location – at a fast food restaurant many miles from Orange County – I was rather perplexed by this public appearance by a semi-celebrity, but also intrigued. At that time in my adolescence I was a blossoming Raider fan, however I had a healthy respect for Tony Zendejas, who had previously booted balls for the LA Express of the USFL. He was Mexican-American and a SoCal native, and I’ve always felt sports teams should at least somewhat reflect the region they represent, even in this era of high-priced free agency, luxury suites and corporate sponsorships.
Not to mention, Tony Z. was enjoying a nice little career with Los Carneros. In 1991 he became the first kicker in NFL history to nail every field goal attempt on the season, however the fact that he only went 17-for-17 suggests the Rams’ offense was rather impotent that year. Actually, their 3-13 record in 1991 confirms as much.
Anywho, that Friday at school I made a bee-line for my friends Allan, Larry and Eli – also fellow Silver and Black supporters – and could barely contain my bizarre enthusiasm.
“Dude, for some reason Tony Zendejas is signing autographs tomorrow at the Carl’s Jr. five minutes from here…we gotta go!”
It didn’t take much persuasion – they were all in for Operation Meet Zendejas. Since we didn’t yet have our driver’s licenses, and nobody’s parents agreed to drive us to (and wait around at) such an absurd event, we took the bus down Venice Blvd. We arrived early to beat the expected crowd, four Jewish boys chowing down on Western Bacon Cheeseburgers and fried zucchini (tangent: while dining at CJ’s, I always opt for zucchini over fries – it’s such a unique menu item among fast food establishments).
Sure enough, at the stated time of 1 p.m., in walks Zendejas and a Rams’ team handler. He plops down at a booth in all its vinyl and linoleum glory, and a small-but-steady stream of football fans approached the proud Chino Hills High School alum who had emigrated here from Curimeo, Michoacán, Mexico (thanks, Wikipedia!).
When it was our turn to meet the man, all I could muster was “So, um, why are you out here all the way in West LA?” which was met with a reply of “The Rams asked me to be here.”
That was that. I left Carl’s Jr. with an autographed card that made its way into a Protecto sleeve and placed among my other sports collectibles, as well as lingering questions about why it was necessary for a 10-year NFL veteran to hold a meet-n-greet at a burger joint. There didn’t even appear to be a promotional tie-in to Carl Karcher’s empire.
Fast-forward to 2008, and while thumbing through that same LA Times Sports section, I was met with this dismaying headline: “FORMER RAM TONY ZENDEJAS ARRESTED ON RAPE CHARGE”. Had I, 14 years earlier, exchanged pleasantries and a handshake with a sexual predator? At his ensuing trial, I almost wanted to stand on the courthouse steps and re-enact the legendary (and mythical) “Say it ain’t so, Joe!” exchange from the Black Sox Scandal.
Without taking “Random Pro of the Week” too far to the dark side, let’s just say Zendajas was acquitted of all charges in 2009, and we at Throwback Attack hope the accuser has been able to move on with her life.
Meanwhile, the former Univ. of Nevada standout has clearly put the incident behind him. Perhaps that Carl’s Jr. autograph signing left a lasting impact on Zendejas since he’s now a restaurateur himself, in that famous football-loving suburban enclave of San Dimas, Calif. Tony invites one and all to become his friend on Facebook, and on his behalf, I kindly request that any of you with HTML coding skills help bring the website for Zendejas Mexican Restaurant into the current millennium.
It’s been my pleasure to guest-blog “Random Pro of the Week” this Thanksgiving Eve, and I hope you enjoyed my tale of meeting a most random pro, in a most random location, one random Saturday in the early 1990’s. I’ll never be able to enjoy a Six-Dollar Burger without the word “Zendejas” whispering through my mind …
Ben Alkaly has been a sports industry professional for over 20 years, dating back to working in a baseball card shop at age 14. His Tony Zendejas “Drug Use is Life Abuse” autographed card remains the most valuable item in his personal collection.