Jessica Mendoza, an analyst on ESPN's Sunday Baseball Team and four-time NFCA first-team All-American, will deliver the keynote address- "Breaking the Mold For The Future of Our Sport"- at the 2017 NFCA Convention, Dec. 6-9 in Las Vegas. Read thefinal installment of the three-part feature about Mendoza.
By Rhiannon Potkey, special to NFCA.org
Jessica Mendoza was standing in the dugout at Anaheim Stadium waiting to film a segment for ESPN when the cameraman approached.
Tears began welling in his eyes and he fumbled to find the words to start talking.
Mendoza was initially taken aback, unsure of why this complete stranger was getting so emotional right before she was scheduled to broadcast a Wednesday night Angels-Yankees game.
The cameraman told Mendoza her father had coached him in baseball 20 years ago in college. He said he probably doesn't remember his name, but could she please tell him hello and thank him.
“He told me my dad had changed his life, and that he appreciated everything he had done for him,” Mendoza said. “I can't tell you how many times that happens. Guys come up to me all the time with stories about how my dad impacted their lives.”
Mendoza, the keynote speaker at the NFCA National Convention Dec. 6-9 in Las Vegas, learned the value of great coaching from an early age.
Her father, Gil Mendoza, was a longtime football and baseball coach who taught Mendoza how to play softball.
He laid the foundation for other coaches to build upon throughout her life. In pieces big and small, they molded Mendoza as a player and a person.
Their wisdom guided her through high school, a record-setting All-American career at Stanford and two Olympic medal-winning appearances. It inspired her to become a trailblazer in broadcasting and a positive role model to young girls. It continues to instruct her each day as a wife and a mother.
“There are so many coaches I took things from, but my dad elevated it to another level as far as his instilling in me how much sports can be a catalyst and starting off point to something bigger,” said Mendoza, who received a master’s degree in education from Stanford. “He showed me how you can use sports to get an education and gain confidence. He instilled the idea that success in sports is only going to lead to other successes.”
Gil Mendoza knows because he lived it.
His parents were born in Mexico, and moved to the United States for a better life.
Gil and his six siblings grew up in South Central L.A. surrounded by gang violence. All of his male cousins were killed, and Gil's father didn't want his children suffering the same fate.
He moved the family to Long Beach, with 11 people living in their small house at one point. Gil's father worked hard to pay the bills and put food on the table, which often consisted of just rice and beans.
Gil struggled with a learning disability and needed an outlet to help him focus.
Bob Myers, a former professional baseball player, was the gym teacher at Gil's junior high. He noticed Gil's potential and took him under his wing.
He encouraged Gil to play sports and pushed him to strive for greatness. Gil used football as his ticket to a college education. He received a scholarship to Fresno State and earned a degree in physical education.
Without Bob Myers there may be no Jessica Mendoza.
“He was the biggest influence in my life outside of my father,” Gil said. “He gave me a chance and saw something in me. The things I learned from him helped me get to where I am.”
Inspired by Myers, Gil knew he wanted to teach and coach. He worked at Fresno State, Cal State Fullerton and two high schools before settling down at Moorpark College, a community college located 50 miles outside of L.A.
Gil never imagined he would even graduate high school, yet alone become an educator himself because of his learning disability.
“I still have it today. I can't pronounce some words. I kept a dictionary at my desk all the time at work because I didn't want to sound like a dummy,” Gil said. “But I used it to teach my players. I would chew them out if they didn't get good grades just because they were lazy. I reminded them of all the advantages they had compared to some others.”
Gil coached baseball, football and softball at Moorpark College, with Jessica a regular visitor at his practices and games.
She grew up watching how hard her dad coached his players on the field, and the soft touch he displayed once they left the field.
Gil saw a lot of himself in his players. Many of them came from rough backgrounds and were trying to overcome long odds. Some had been in jail, dropped out of high school or had drug problems.
“My dad would have guys come live with us so he could love on them and let them know they were important,” Jessica said. “From the outside, they looked like someone who could kill you. But I would end up wrestling with them and laughing with them all the time. They were really awesome people.”
Gil still recalls one of the pitchers on his baseball team rushing up to him after a tri-tip dinner at the Mendoza house and leading him out to the back deck.
“Jessica was up on the piece of plywood above the Jacuzzi break dancing,” Gil said. “I thought she was going to break her neck. She was up there throwing her body around and spinning. She looked like she was having a fit and the guys were all biting their lips trying not to laugh.”
The batting practice sessions were a regular routine for Lonni Alameda and Jessica Mendoza.
Mendoza always wanted to get in a few extra swings while she was playing at Stanford, and Alameda, a Stanford assistant at the time, gladly wore out her arm to provide live pitching.
On their way back to the team hotel after one outing, Alameda spotted a vehicle broken down on the side of the road and began to pull the rental car over.
“I thought, 'What are you doing?'” Mendoza said. “If he needs help, there is no way I can do it. Here I am 18 years old. How am I going to help him? I don't know anything about cars. I thought she was crazy. I thought we were going to get kidnapped or something.”
Alameda reassured Mendoza everything would be fine. If people need help, Alameda said, you figure out a way to help them.
The driver had blown a tire and Alameda assisted him by getting the jack out of his trunk. She talked to the man like they were old friends while Mendoza stood off to the side holding any tool handed her way.
“To this day, more than any X's and O's, that resonates with me. The feeling that you can help people, no matter the situation,” Mendoza said. “Just having people know you are there and care about them because that is what people should do. To me, that is coaching.”
For Alameda, it wasn't meant to be a lesson. It was simply the right thing to do.
“We are given the opportunity to learn so much through the game of softball or the game of football or baseball. It teaches you so much about life,” said Alameda, now in her 10th season as the head coach at Florida State. “Through sports, you learn how to treat people and how you handle yourself when things go bad and when things are good. There are so many teaching moments.”
Any time she's asked by young coaches for advice, Alameda tells them “just be who you are.”
“I have never picked up a coaching hat and put aside who I was. I am doing Lonni things when I am coaching and I am coaching when I am doing Lonni things. I am the same person,” Alameda said. “I never change who I am because I think kids see right through that.”
Coaching through adversity
The players sat in stunned silence once they received the news.
Two weeks before the 2004 Olympics, the wife of Team USA head coach Mike Candrea died from a brain aneurysm.
Sue Candrea was with the team in a Wisconsin airport during its pre-Olympic tour when she fell ill. She underwent surgery at a local hospital and never recovered.
The players had grown to consider Mike Candrea like a father. Mendoza said his coaching style brought out the best in them. He could be critical without being demeaning.
His wife's death devastated the players, yet motivated them. Something that could have broken the team apart, brought it even closer together.
The team traveled to Athens not only representing the U.S., but representing its head coach and the resiliency he showcased the world amid his grief.
“To feel him go through such a loss, I had never experienced anything like that before. That was beyond the game,” said Mendoza, who helped Team USA capture the gold. “But there was a magic to everything we did because we became so connected and genuinely loved each other because we had gone through this together.”
Having a coach display inspiring resolve wasn't entirely new to Mendoza.
At Stanford, assistant coach Sara Pickering was diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma and underwent a life-saving stem cell transplant in 2001. She was only a few years older than Mendoza when she joined the Stanford staff.
“She didn't miss a game. She had no hair and lost like 50 pounds, but she showed up every day,” Mendoza said. “She would go through treatments and come back to the field for a doubleheader that same day without complaining. How can you not give it your all after seeing that? That's toughness.”
The fear of failure has always been Mendoza's greatest motivator. She never felt her spot in the lineup was secure at any level.
She spent hours in the batting cage perfecting her swing or taking extra fly balls in the outfield. Nothing was left to chance. Nothing was taken for granted.
Rather than making Mendoza work harder at Stanford, Alameda realized she needed to help Mendoza kick her intensity down a few notches.
During Mendoza's freshman year, her family - about 30 strong - came to watch her play in a tournament. Mendoza desperately wanted to impress them, and finished 1 for 4.
“She immediately lost it. She was so embarrassed that she didn't perform for them. She really had an emotional breakdown,” Alameda said. “I told her, 'Jess, your family loves you for how you carry yourself day in and day out. Not because you go 4 for 4.' It was her figuring out she can still do great things in her life through daily successes and not base her entire value on an outcome in softball.”
The words of advice eased Mendoza's burden and unlocked her ability. She drove balls all around the field the rest of the tournament.
Mendoza knew Alameda had her best interest at heart beyond just results on the field.
“That is how you get the most out of your players,” Mendoza said. “That is such an influential stage in your life – your high school and college years - and coaches can have a powerful impact. (Former UCLA coach) Sue Enquist used to say your words are like a Sharpie on the brain to these kids. They are permanent.”
Paying it forward
Mendoza's passion oozes from her pores. It's been that way since she was a kid.
Gil Mendoza knew his daughter wanted to be the best, and he wanted to help her get there. He told Jessica he would coach her, but it wouldn't always be easy.
“Jessica struggled with everything at the start, and we clashed a lot,” Gil said. “She was strong, but she was awkward. She looked like Bambi in the batter's box. I thought she would break a leg coming out or fall down running to first base.”
Every coach needs a trusted assistant, and Gil was no different. His wife, Karen, kept the father-daughter relationship on steady ground by running interference when necessary.
“I pushed and pushed and Karen was the one to tell me when Jessica had enough. I respected her stepping in because I needed to be told,” Gil said. “If it hadn't been for her mother, I may have pushed Jessica too far and not been able to get through to her anymore.”
Gil didn't let Jessica swing away during her first few years playing softball, making her slap to get on base. He finally loosened the reins at a travel ball tournament when she was 12.
“In her very first at-bat, she hit a home run,” Gil said with a laugh. “The ball went out of sight, and I am going, 'Oh my God, I've been cheating this girl all this time.'”
In the ensuing years, Gil has watched his daughter hit many more opportunities out of the park, athletically and professionally.
He's still her coach. She still goes to him for advice.
“I could have gone in a lot of different paths. I had a lot of bad influences and peer pressures that come with the wonderful high school years,” said Jessica, the first female Major League Baseball analyst at ESPN. “If it wasn't for sports and my passion for it, which was instilled by my dad, I don't think I would have stayed on the line that got me where I am.”
Things have come full circle for Jessica. She is now coaching her son, Caleb, in baseball. She is trying to lay the foundation for others to eventually build upon.
“It's one of the hardest things I've ever had to do that's for sure. I understand now why my dad used to get so mad at us,” Jessica said. “But I had a great example to learn from. If I can coach my kids half as well as my dad coached me, I will be happy. He set the standard.”