Fields of dreams: How farming and football helped Eloy harvest NFL talent

Photo By Andrew Lwowski/Cronkite News: The Eloy water tank stands tall over the town as a landmark and symbol of the work in the fields it took to build the city and its success.

By Andrew Lwowski/Cronkite News

ELOY – Midway between Phoenix and Tucson along Interstate 10 sits the small city of Eloy. It’s home to just under 16,000 residents and is mostly known for world-class skydiving and copious amounts of dust. But a rich history can be found deeper in the city off Exit 208.

Santa Cruz Valley High School has produced some of the best football talents to come from Arizona. While it is the only high school in Eloy and has a yearly enrollment of roughly 400 students, the football program has produced five NFL players – the most per capita in Arizona.

Photo By Andrew Lwowski/Cronkite News: Main Street was a tough place to grow up around during the 1960s. Now, it’s a quiet strip with slow traffic and a handful of small shops. Just a shell of what it once was.

Of those five, there is a set of brothers: Art Malone (class of 1965) played seven seasons in the NFL with the Philadelphia Eagles and Atlanta Falcons, while his brother, Benny Malone (‘69), played six seasons with the Miami Dolphins and Washington. And there’s a set of cousins: Mossy Cade (‘79) played two seasons with the Green Bay Packers. Eddie Cade (‘89) played one season with the New England Patriots. Levi Jones (‘96) played eight seasons for the Cincinnati Bengals and Washington (Commanders).

The extraordinary athletes put Eloy on the map, but the school’s hard-nosed mentality started on a different kind of field before the city became known for more than just agriculture.

“(Traveling on the road for games) was like the movie ‘Hoosiers,’ where they would go there would be a line of followers. It was the same thing here,” said Charles “Nap” Lawrence, a former Santa Cruz athlete who is a philanthropist still involved with farming in Eloy and a major contributor to his alma mater and Arizona State athletics. “There would be vehicles backed up for miles to come and watch the game, and same thing in Globe or Miami (Arizona).”

However, the five players that would make it to the next level only begin to scratch the surface of talent that Eloy has produced in its heyday. Paul Ray Powell (‘66), Rufino Sauceda (‘67), and Ernie Hernandez (‘67) helped usher in the new identity for the farming city during the 1960s.

A small town with big dreams

Eloy was initially established as a railroad town for the Union Pacific railroad during the late 1800s, before being formally established as a city in 1949. It was during that time that the city established its new reputation and workers would come from all over.

Jeff Dean, a Santa Cruz graduate in 1977 and a current Eloy resident, said it was the “perfect example” of a small-town melting pot, with kids from all races and socio-economic backgrounds coming together to farm and play sports.

The low humidity and flat terrain provided an opportune settlement.

“In the early 50s, it was called Cotton City,” said Lawrence, adding at some points there would be “as many as 100,000 (farmers).”

What brought so many to Eloy was the year-round opportunity to work. “If you wanted a job, you came here,” Hernandez said. “Once we had cotton, we got potatoes with onions. And if you had a large family that we did and (Ernie) did, too, guess who the workers were and guess who helped finance the living standards?”

Work opportunity is what brought Powell’s family to Eloy as well. His parents traveled from across East Texas in an open bed truck before making it to the desert. “When they stopped in Florence, they had tents,” Powell said. “My mom and dad had a tent and they went through the line and they got one fork, one knife, one spoon, a tin plate, and a tin of coffee. And that’s how they started.”

Photo By Andrew Lwowski/Cronkite News: Eloy was once dubbed Cotton City, and one of the biggest agricultural places to be. Decades ago everyone in the city took to the fields and built a community of hard work and discipline.

Much like the families of Powell, Hernandez, and Lawrence, Eloy was built off migrants and became a hot spot for agriculture with workers coming from California, Mexico, and Oklahoma.

Hernandez recalled that his father traveled to Oklahoma with two covered trucks and may have coincidentally brought the Malones to Eloy. “(He) brought many negro families to Eloy, where they settled,” Hernandez said. “And they worked in the cotton fields along with the rest of us. I want to say that one of those families that my father brought back, their last name was Malone. No kidding.”

Back then, it was unruly and only the toughest survived. “Even if you were a teacher teaching English, you had to be more physical than your students,” Lawrence said with a chuckle.

Until the city of Eloy established its own council in the 1950s, there was no organized law and it was the last municipality to have martial law applied, Powell said.

“It was a difficult place to live,” he added. “Coolidge, too, all of the smaller towns. You’d have to learn very quickly how to protect yourself.”

Added Sauceda: “They had shootouts here on Main Street.”

Frontier Street had “bar after bar after bar,” and when he was age “14 or 15,” Powell and his cousin got a shoe-shining kit and would shine shoes for tips to make extra money.

“Guys would tip us pretty good-sized tips in those days because they were drunk,” he said. “And so we would take that and we went back to our primary residence, and my dad looked at it and said, ‘Where’d you get this money?’ I said, ‘Well, we earned it.’ ‘Well, how’d you earn it?’ ‘Well, we were shining shoes in one of the drinking establishments,’ I said. We were going to be out there again. He said, ‘The hell you are.’ So that was the end of that. We couldn’t go back.”

Photo By Andrew Lwowski/Cronkite News: The railroad along Frontier Street carried workers and the life of the town during its heyday. It has always been a symbol of the town, marked by Picacho Peak, just a few miles south toward Tucson

Eloy was the wild wild West, where the sheriffs were wary of sending deputies to town, but the disciplinary teachings that Santa Cruz instilled spread into the community. Though the early risings of Eloy were coarse, Lawrence said he “had never seen a bigger thrill and more exciting place to be raised.”

It was a close-knit community where everyone knew nearly everyone on a first-name basis. When Lawrence’s parents moved from Peoria, Illinois, to Eloy in 1958, they ran the A&W Root Beer stand that his brother-in-law built. Powell said that the stand became the most social gathering place in town and remembered cars would drive around waiting for a spot to open because of limited space.

The busiest street in Eloy was Frontier Street. All outside traffic went through Frontier Street, which runs parallel to the railroad. However, with the introduction of the I-10, traffic into Eloy began to slow and the hustle and bustle started to dissipate.

“(My parents) had a brother-in-law that just built the A&W Root Beer stand at 310 W Frontier, which was the main highway from Phoenix to Tucson,” Lawrence said. “And they said the reason they wanted to sell it is because they wanted to retire and it’s too busy. So mom and dad thought they struck oil, and they opened it up, and a month later they built I-10 and moved it. They had no traffic except people from the town. You can’t win them all.”

Photo By Andrew Lwowski/Cronkite News: The weight room was never a major factor in the Dust Devils’ success on the field. However, as the times change, so did the time in the weight room.

A dynasty in the making

The football players never spent any time in the weight room, but out in the fields along with everyone else at Santa Cruz.

“But you know, you’d see guys that would leave weighing 150 pounds and come back after a summer pitching melons weighing 175,” Dean said. “By the time they went to two-a-day football practices, that was fun because working like some of these guys did, they weren’t afraid of it.”

Photo By Andrew Lwowski/Cronkite News: Located off Main Street, Santa Cruz High is home to only 400 students a year, but the small school is home to big football talent and dreams.

Dean, whose parents moved to Eloy in 1958 and taught, essentially grew up in the Santa Cruz gym. His father, Howard, spent more than 40 years at Santa Cruz, as a teacher, coach, and athletic director.

“We were out there 55 hours a week (in the cotton fields),” Sauceda said. “So when it came time to play football, we were in shape because we walked all day.”

Workers in the field would carry “50- or 100-pound” sacks and make three cents per pound of clean cotton or a penny and a half for dirty cotton, Sauceda said. The intensive labor it took farming molded the athletes at Santa Cruz to produce a team that struck fear into its opponents.

Back then, Santa Cruz had a “football-loving superintendent” who bolstered the Dust Devils into an elite company. “When you’re in a community like Eloy, you want to find out what your strength is and capitalize on it,” Lawrence said. “We had the right managerial team at the school and we were very fortunate.”

It was “gratifying” when the Dust Devils hit paydirt with their first state title in 1965, said Hernandez. The team was loaded with talent at every position and it was “easy” with players like Art Malone and Paul Ray Powell. “I mean, we outscored the team by a whole lot of points. As Paul Ray said, Art (Malone) didn’t play in the second half. Paul Ray played more on defense in the second half because we were playing the other offensive players that needed to play.”

Photo By Andrew Lwowski/Cronkite News: Paul Ray Powell may be the most decorated athlete that Eloy has produced. Powell was a four-sport letterman athlete and earned numerous awards throughout his athletic career before playing 10 years in the major league. 

However, Hernandez recalled that it was the championship run during his senior season that was special.

“Why? I think the second one, we probably worked a little harder,” he said. The seniors that led the 1965 team graduated and the 1966 team was undersized. But what they lacked in size they made up for in determination and courage.

The Malones and Cades were electrifying athletes that played major roles in the school’s dynasty. Hernandez described Art as the power back to run through defenders, while Benny was more “shifty.” Art had 37 touchdowns in a single season, but Powell swore that he would have had 100 if he played the entirety of games. Mossy set the high hurdle record at 13.7. That record stood for 30 years, according to Lawrence.

Santa Cruz won state titles in 1965, 1966, 1969, 1978, 1979, 1980, 1990, and 2020. By the time the Dust Devils had established their throne as a football city, they had developed a formidable rival.

Photo By Andrew Lwowski/Cronkite News: Santa Cruz Valley High’s trophy case has been growing since the 1960s, with its last title coming in 2020. Santa Cruz’s Thomas Cortez hopes to add to the Dust Devils’ trophy case as he enters his first season as coach.

Just 18 miles north was Coolidge. Former Santa Cruz star athlete Levi Jones remembered the animosity when the two cities collided on the field during his senior year.

“I was talking it up and it was like, they had me ready to hurt somebody on the field,” Jones said sarcastically with a laugh. “I just remember being on such an adrenaline rush, and when I fractured my ankle, I didn’t want to evaluate. I literally was going to play that game regardless.”

Jones is arguably the most accomplished athlete to come from Eloy, academically and athletically, walking on at Arizona State and graduating with a degree in exercise science before starting 97 games at left tackle for the Cincinnati Bengals.

The rivalry extended beyond the gridiron, though. There was a bar in Coolidge where there were “probably thousands of dollars in bets” between farmers on their city’s football team, Dean said.

Growing up in Eloy was a mentality. “You know, it is definitely a sense of pride and we will not be counted out,” Jones said. “No matter what people or our competitors try to do to us, and that’s kind of the motto of Eloy. We’re not gonna back down. We’re gonna fight. We’re gonna work. We’re gonna do whatever it takes to basically get the job done and didn’t change when we got on the football field.”

Photo By Andrew Lwowski/Cronkite News: Cortez is heading into his first season as coach, and he is expecting to instill the same discipline and teachings that he learned to his team to carry on the tradition of Eloy.

Current Santa Cruz coach Thomas Cortez understands the history behind the city and its football program as an alumnus and resident himself.

“You know, your dad played 20 years ago, his dad played 20 years ago,” he said. “My dad played in the early ’80s when the dominance was really going on. He grew up watching the ’70s team that won three state championships in a row. That culture led onto me.”

Heading into his first season, Cortez plans on distilling the same discipline and pride that built the program decades ago.

“The kids learn to win every day and winning is not just winning on the football field,” he said, “but winning in the classroom or whatever you’re doing at that moment. Hopefully, we develop some great men and along the way we develop some great athletes.”

A ‘ripple-down effect’

Fifty years ago, Eloy was a self-dependent city centered on farming and football, but things are not what they once were.

“They used to say like farmers (in Eloy) were the best cotton farmers in the United States,” Dean said. “You know there were no Walmarts, there were no Kmarts. You shopped (for) groceries in Eloy, and bought furniture in Eloy. You know, everything was on Main Street and, so as the farming situation changed, a lot of those guys had to move out, you know, they had to sell their land. And so that took a lot of money out of the community.”

Photo By Andrew Lwowski/Cronkite News: Frontier Street used to be the busiest street in town. Since the introduction of Interstate-10 which runs parallel, the traffic slowed and the town’s main hub of attraction wilted.

The expansion of Casa Grande in conjunction with mega stores had a “ripple-down effect” in Eloy. Eloy also became one of the cities to get hit hard by the war on drugs, said Jones.

“It was kind of a good place to grow up and I had a good upbringing there,” he said. “But there were pitfalls at every corner and if you fell in them, they got you, you know. So it was anything and everything there, should you want to partake in and go that route, was available. The ones that did succeed and did you know steer clear of that, that’s a huge kudos.”

Now, Eloy is a quiet city. Agriculture is not as big as it once was and the main attraction in town is no longer football, but skydiving. While the football program is still striving to regain the title for football city, Arizona, those who built the town and continue to live and work there, will always support their home and Santa Cruz football.

“Everybody should feel good about where they grew up,” Dean said. “But most of the people that I know were proud to be a part of it. Football kind of was the thing that everybody rallied around because the whole town did.”