Most know my writing bona fides are pretty much tied to sports. As a weekly sports columnist for over 15 years covering San Antonio and South Side-area athletics, I’ve seen and covered it all.
From front-row seats for five Spurs’ NBA titles, to watching and reporting several memorable high school sporting teams and athletes doing incredible things — there have been too many fantastic memories to count.
Two different individuals, however, come to mind that I deem among the greatest athletes to hail from the South Side. Now, these all-time best lists are incredibly subjective, and who’s on mine may not be on yours – but please indulge me for a moment.
What these two athletes did coming from south of downtown was nothing short of incredible in their fields.
With recent world-boxing titles earned by Southwest High School product Mario Barrios and Holmes High School alumni Joshua Franco, it has brought back several memories of the person I know is San Antonio’s greatest pugilist — Harlandale High School graduate Jesse James Leija.
The fighter captured two different world championships during his storied career, which included fights against the best of the best including Oscar De La Hoya, Micky Ward, Shane Mosley, Kostya Tszyu and Arturo Gatti.
His No. 1 highlight came in May 1994 when he defeated Azumah Nelson to earn the World Boxing Council super featherweight crown. In 1998, he fought Nelson again, for the fourth time, and claimed his second belt, the International Boxing Association’s lightweight division.
Recognized as one of the greats during the sport’s most recent golden era, Leija is today just as well known for his work outside the ring.
His philanthropic endeavors include supporting The Miracle League of San Antonio – a baseball organization solely created to provide opportunities for children with severe handicaps. For years, he also has backed Blessed Sacrament’s child care program to help young, single moms trying to finish their high school education.
What Leija meant to boxing is kind of what Southside High School’s Amanda Martinez meant to golf. In a sport dominated by schools north of downtown, she was the brightest of bright spots from a Southside golf program, which competed well as a whole.
In 2004, she was the 4A state champion, following the performance with a bronze-medal finish the next year. Just making it to the state golf tournament at any level is a feat unto itself. Finishing in the top three is incredibly hard – winning it all is nearly impossible.
Her sister, Samantha, a 2010 Southside graduate, was no slouch in the sport herself. Between the two of them, there were seven team district titles, six individual district tournament first-place finishes, eight trips to the Region IV golf tournament, five trips to the state golf tournament, several individual Region IV titles, and three individual Region IV runner-up finishes.
Leija and Amanda Martinez are emblematic of everything good and great about South Side athletics. They excelled in their sports and did it with grace and excellence and, in my opinion, represent the very best of the best to hail from the southern sector.
Farias is a television and radio broadcaster for Texas Sports Productions and a South Side resident.