Covering the Land of Lincoln

How farming & football helped Eloy harvest NFL talent

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
talent 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.

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.

The extraordinary athletes put Eloy on the map, but the school’s
hard-nose 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 when 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.”

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.”

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.”

A dynasty in the making

The football players never spent any time in the weightroom, 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.”

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 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.
Like 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.”

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.

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.”

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 70’s 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, 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.”

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 with 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 was 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.”

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