Everardo Carlos “E. C.” Lerma, distinguished Mexican American high school coach, educator, and school administrator, son of Mauro Lerma and Carlota (Gonzales) Lerma, was born in Kleberg County, Texas, on June 2, 1915. Lerma’s parents, who were migrant workers from Mier, Tamaulipas, Mexico, lived in Bishop, Texas, at the time of his birth, but later relocated to Kingsville in 1918. E.C., as he was best known, lost both of his parents before the age of ten and was raised by his older siblings in a house near the E. M. King High School football field. Lerma, who attended segregated, Mexican-only public schools as a child, became enamored with football in his youth and dreamed of becoming one of the first Mexican American football players to play on the King High School field.
In 1930 Lerma was allowed to enroll at E. M. King High School, where he was the only Hispanic student. He made the school’s football team but was not initially welcomed by his teammates. Lerma, feeling alienated, quit the team at one point during his freshman year only to return later. During his sophomore year his high level of play as both an offensive and defensive end earned him the respect and friendship of his teammates. In Lerma’s senior year he was the only player from Kingsville named to the all-district team, and he subsequently received a scholarship offer from Texas Christian University (TCU). At the time, TCU was a football powerhouse that would go on to win the inaugural Cotton Bowl in 1937 and the national championship in 1938. However, Lerma declined the scholarship and chose instead to play for the Texas College of Arts and Industries in Kingsville (now Texas A&M University–Kingsville) so that he could stay home and support his family.
In 1934 Lerma began college, where he was likely the first Mexican American to ever play football for Texas A&I. As a member of the freshman squad, he again had to prove himself worthy of playing on the varsity football team and was subjected to frequent hazing by the varsity team members, who questioned why he was given a scholarship. Throughout his college football career Lerma endured verbal abuse on the field from teammates during practice and from opposition players, as well as heckling from the fans during games. However, his ability on the field eventually won over his teammates, who began to protect him from the abuse of players and fans alike. Lerma lettered at Texas A&I from 1935 through 1937, and his team won multiple Alamo Conference championships. He graduated with a bachelor’s degree in history and education in 1938, and would later return to Texas A&I to earn a master’s degree in education.
In 1938 Lerma began his forty-two-year career in education as an assistant coach for Benavides High School in Duval County, Texas. In 1940 he received a controversial promotion to head coach, which made him just the second Mexican American, after William Carson “Nemo” Herrera, to be named head coach of a Texas high school sports program. Like Herrera, Lerma’s coaching style was strict and paternalistic. It also brought the Benavides football team an undefeated regular season and a district championship in 1942. This unexpected success convinced the school board to build a modern football stadium for the team and to retain Lerma as head coach. Lerma remained at Benavides until 1955 and won seven district football titles and four bi-district titles, as well as two regional titles in 1943 and 1949. At that time, there were no state-level championships for Class A and Class B high school football programs in Texas, so this was the highest level of play available to Benavides High School. Lerma’s success was not just limited to the football team. He also coached the baseball and track teams to individual district titles and led the basketball team to one regional title as well.
After 1955 Lerma left Benavides to coach at Rio Grande City High School—another majority-Mexican American community whose underfunded and understaffed football program had only managed eighteen wins in the previous fourteen seasons. Although he did not experience the same level of success at Rio Grande City as he did in Benavides, Lerma turned a struggling football program into a perennial playoff contender. Coincidentally, after his departure from Benavides High School in 1955, the Benavides football team failed to return to the Texas state football playoffs until 1984. At Rio Grande City Lerma also continued to coach multiple sports and was a director of several state and regional track tournaments, as well as a leading member of the Texas High School Coaches Association.
In 1966 Lerma left coaching to become a school administrator. From 1966 to 1969 he served as the coordinator of physical education as well as the director of migrant education, adult basic education, and the summer Head Start program for the McAllen Independent School District. Following that, Lerma was an elementary school principal in the McAllen, Edinburg, and Dallas independent school districts. He then served as principal of Robstown High School from 1974 to 1975 and as superintendent of the Benavides Independent School District after 1975. Lerma retired in 1980 and he lived the remainder of his life in McAllen, Texas.
In the years since Lerma’s retirement, historians and social commentators have characterized his athletic and coaching career as indicative of a turning point in the history of Texas sports. At the beginning of Lerma’s career, prevailing social attitudes held that Mexican Americans were intellectually and physically inferior to Anglo student athletes. As a result, Mexican Americans were largely excluded from participation in high school and collegiate sports—especially football. This same social bias prevented Mexican Americans from attaining head coaching positions. Moreover, coaches throughout the state considered head coaching positions in the majority Mexican American communities of South Texas and the Nueces Strip as undesirable, given the perceived lack of available talent. Lerma, however, proved that Mexican Americans were capable of high-level athletic competition. In turn, he opened doors that were previously closed to Mexican American athletes. In fact, within three years of his graduating from King High School as the only Mexican American player on the football team, there were four Mexican Americans on the varsity squad. Additionally, the number of Mexican American head coaches in Texas grew substantially after 1955, along with the number of collegiate football players—several of them coached by Lerma while in high school.
Outside of his career as a coach and school administrator, Lerma was actively involved in a number of community and scholastic organizations. He was a fourth-degree member of the Knights of Columbus and a founding organizer of the Knights of Columbus council in Benavides as well as an organizer of several Columbian Squires circles in Benavides, Corpus Christi, and Alice, Texas. Lerma was also a member of the El Cid Caravan No. 106 of the International Order of the Alhambra, a Catholic organization in Rio Grande City. Additionally, he was a one-time president of the Benavides Rotary Club, a delegate to the Rotary International Convention in Mexico City in 1952, and was an active member of the Parent-Teacher Association, the National Education Association, the Texas Association of Elementary and Secondary School Principals, and the American Association of School Administrators.
In recognition of his achievements as a coach and educator, Lerma was inducted into the Texas High School Coaches Association Hall of Honor in 1968. He was again just the second Hispanic, after William Carson “Nemo” Herrera, to receive this award. In addition, he was inducted into the Sports Trail Century Club in 1957, the International Platform Association in 1972, the Latin American International Hall of Fame in 1973, the Texas A&M—Kingsville Athletic Hall of Fame in 1977, the Rio Grande Valley Sports Hall of Fame in 1989, and the Coastal Bend Coaches Association Hall of Fame in 1998. Finally, in 1991, the Benavides ISD football stadium was renamed in his honor.
E. C. Lerma married Lydia Olga Campbell in 1941. His wife shared a similar experience with discrimination while in high school, as she was the first Mexican American member of the Corpus Christi drill team. The couple had three children: Patricia, Everardo Carlos Jr., and John. E.C. Jr., who was born with severe mental and physical disabilities in 1945 and died of pneumonia at the Austin State School in 1953. John Lerma, who was coached by his father as a quarterback at Rio Grande City High School, earned a scholarship to play for Baylor University in the 1960s. He later followed in his father’s footsteps and became a well-known and successful Texas high school coach.
Everardo Carlos Lerma died from cancer-related complications on April 11, 1998, in McAllen, Texas, and was buried at Valley Memorial Gardens Cemetery.