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Bernardo Paez remembers his days as Jefferson’s star QB

But he ran into some tough competition at college

February 19, 2021 Andy Furman
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Forget those old wives’ tales — lightning does strike twice.

And it did.

At least it did to Bernardo Paez.

The former quarterback at Thomas Jefferson High School – nicknamed the Colombian Rifle – led his team to an undefeated season and a PSAL City Championship in his senior season.

That was in the fall of 1971.

Jefferson went undefeated in nine games, averaged 44 points-a-game and won the title.

In that game Jefferson played Bayside –which hadn’t yielded a point in its seven previous games. 

Jefferson won, 48-8.

So where and when did the lightning strike for the now 68-year-old Paez, who has called Lehigh Acres, Florida home for the past 25 years?

It’s a long story – almost as long as the trip young Bernardo made to America from Barranquilla, Colombia when he was 8 years old.

“My mom enrolled me in St. Matthews,” Paez told the Eagle by phone the other day. “I remember like it was yesterday – it was on Utica Avenue and Eastern Parkway.”

It was 682 Jerome Street in Brownsville – that was home for Paez, near Saratoga Avenue. “We were just about a block from Betsy Head Park.”

And that’s where it all started. “That park is where I started playing ball,” he said.

Sheffield Avenue was home when Paez entered the fifth grade, and that was just about a block and a half from Jefferson High.

The marriage between Moe Finkelstein – the legendary Jefferson football coach who passed last summer – and Paez started as early as junior high.

“We played on that Jefferson field every day,” Paez recalled, “I mean every single day – even in the winter.”

And when they played, the Colombian Rifle threw. “I just grabbed the ball and started throwing. I got stronger the more I played.”

Paez tried out for the Orange Wave football team as a ninth grader. “In my second semester,” he remembered.

And as a sophomore he was playing – well not at once.

“I didn’t play the first two games,” he said, “it was Brooklyn Tech and Boys High at night.”

Game three was at Altoona, Penn. “We got clobbered, lost by a bunch, but I did complete 18 passes. But that game taught us a lesson. We needed to play as a team.”

One of the problems, says former Assistant Coach Jeff Schrier. was the crowd. “We played in front of some 23,000 people,” he said. “At Jefferson we were lucky to play in front of 23 for the season.”

The 6-2, 180 pounder completed 59 passes in 104 attempts for 11 touchdowns and 1,047 yards during that championship season, some two years later.

Rice University football stadium, Bernardo Paez’s first stop after high school. Wikimedia photo by Amble

And then the colleges came calling. He made trips to Rice University, Ohio State and the University of Wisconsin.

In all, he had offers of athletic scholarships from more than 200 colleges. In the end he picked Rice, “because I liked Houston’s warm weather, and former Jefferson receiver Eddie Lofton was there.”

Lofton had 112 receptions in three seasons and five touchdowns while at Rice.

A Brooklyn kid playing football in Texas – hard to believe. But it was true.

Al Conover, then the Rice football coach. went into some heavy hyperbole in a 1971 Sports Illustrated article in describing Paez’ Brooklyn background to the Houston press. “The kids have to fight their way to school and home again,” he said. “Those who can’t fight have to pay protection or get beat up. One day when I was there the team was working out on cement, scrimmaging without pads on frozen concrete. They had shoveled the snow off and were doing agility rolls and forward rolls, the entire bit. The team’s field doesn’t have a blade of grass on it. The field house is a converted subway station. Trains rumble overhead every 15 minutes or so, shaking loose dirt and bricks.”

Finkelstein was generally pleased by Conover’s praise, but gently corrected some of his statements in that Sports Illustrated article.

“It isn’t all that rough,” he said. “The kids don’t fight their way to school or pay protection. And it wasn’t a scrimmage on concrete, it was just a workout.”

The field house is not an abandoned subway station but a small building that nestles under the elevated tracks. The subway does rumble overhead, but bricks and dirt don’t shake loose, not really. Finkelstein did concede that the field had no grass.

Oh – almost forgot – the first lightning bolt. 

Tommy Kramer was also at Rice. “His brothers also played there,” Paez said.

He played, gulp, quarterback.

Kramer led the Owls in passing for four straight years and his career and season marks were the standard at Rice for over 30 years until they were shattered by Chase Clement.

In 2012, Kramer was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame.

Great for Kramer – not so for Paez.

Time to move on – and time for the second bolt.

Next stop – the University of Pittsburgh –and quarterback Matt Cavanaugh.

He was a starter for the undefeated  (12-0) Panthers of 1976 – he was on the same team with Tony Dorsett and contributed to the team’s National Championship 27-3 victory over Georgia in the Sugar Bowl. On that day, Cavanaugh was selected as the Sugar Bowl’s Most Valuable Player.

Cavanaugh was also named MVP of the 1977 Gator Bowl throwing four touchdown passes in a 34-3 win over Clemson.

In 1977, Cavanaugh threw for 1,844 yards with 15 touchdowns against six interceptions. Cavanaugh threw for the second-most passing yards in Pittsburgh history, only trailing quarterback Ken Lucas’s 1,921 yards in 1965.

And again, Bernardo Paez just cheered. Or, at least tried to.

“I admit it was depressing at times, not playing,” he said, “but more than that I’ve always felt I was never given the opportunity to show what I had. I was always playing on the second and third teams.”

Bernardo Paez could throw a football 40 yards on his knees, Schrier recalled, and he would have set records in the NFL if given the opportunity.

“He was a first-team All-City selection, a Letterman Magazine All-America and led his team to a city championship,” Schrier said, “but all in all, he was a humble kid. I never met a more talented football player in my life.”

And while Bernardo Paez was watching this year’s Super Bowl, what went through his mind?

“I said to myself, ‘I wish I was born in this era,’” he said.

So do many coaches.

Andy Furman is a Fox Sports Radio national talk show host. Previously, he was a scholastic sports columnist for the Brooklyn Eagle. He may be reached at: [email protected].

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