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Local athlete Hernandez remembered as 'indomitable' family man

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Joe Hernandez, left, is shown here in 2018 with his sister Josephine Hart, center, and her husband, Effort Hart. Hernandez, a distinguished former football player from Bakersfield, died Dec. 7 due to complications from COVID-19.

Joe Hernandez’s relationship was in dire straits.

The love of his young life, Mary Ann Wooldridge, was pregnant with his child, but her parents wanted her to give up the baby. She was set to attend prom with another guy and eventually go off to Smith College in the fall. Her family thought it would be good for her to get some space from Joe.

But they were in love and determined to get married and raise a family. So Hernandez devised a plan.

“What they didn’t know was that my mom’s brother — uncle Jim — and my dad were very best friends,” said Jerry Hernandez. “And so Jim was in on the plot: When they went to the prom, he packed up a suitcase of Mom’s clothes and gave it to my dad.

“At a designated time, Mom went in to take a powder, and at the prom, crawled out the window of the bathroom, met my dad and they drove to Yuma and got married.”

Mary Ann and Joe Hernandez were married for 61 years before Hernandez died on Dec. 7 due to complications from COVID-19. He was 81.

A natural athlete known as “Jackrabbit” who played football at Garces Memorial High School and Bakersfield College before an eight-year professional career, Hernandez lived a multifaceted life during which he counseled prison inmates, founded a kids’ softball league and traveled to spread his Christian faith.

His eldest child, Jerry, said the story of Hernandez’s elopement with Mary Ann speaks to his fundamentally unrelenting nature — which also helped him forge his athletic career. Hernandez became a member of Garces’ inaugural Hall of Honor, the Bob Elias Kern County Sports Hall of Fame and its equivalent in Pima County, where he starred for the University of Arizona.

“He was indomitable,” Jerry Hernandez said. “He lived life in his terms 100 percent of the time, and when he wanted something to happen, he made it happen.”

Hernandez’s siblings saw him show signs of an athletic bent from an early age.

“When he was young, and I’m talking about very young, maybe age 8 or 9, he loved to run, and if he got upset about something, he’d run,” his older sister Josephine Hart said.

Hart recalled that on one occasion, one of Hernandez’s many siblings did something to annoy him enough that he decided to run away. He covered such a long distance that his family had to drive to retrieve him, and they eventually tracked him down — only for him to decide to run back home.

As Greg Hansen of the Arizona Daily Star has noted, Hernandez grew up picking fruit in the fields of Kern County under the guidance of a single mother, Esperanza Ortega. His upbringing “forged who he was,” his son said.

“He really appreciated money and sacrifice,” he said, “and it made him very focused on what he needed to do to get where he wanted to be.”

Hernandez’s football career was kickstarted by a fluky fumble-return touchdown at Garces that allowed him to display his athletic prowess. The path his journey took from then on was equally unpredictable: A standout year at New Mexico Military Institute brought him back to BC, then he found his way to Arizona, where he both ran track and parlayed a stint as the Wildcats’ leading receiver into three all-star game appearances.

He was drafted by Washington in the second round of the NFL Draft, but only found his way there after stints in the Canadian Football League with Toronto and Edmonton. He made his mark with Edmonton later in the 1960s as a two-time All-Pro.

When Hernandez’s career was over, he needed a new way to help provide for Mary Ann and their children.

“He had to go back and get his bachelor’s degree, which was a task in itself … He was working digging ditches,” Jerry Hernandez said, “doing whatever he needed to do while he went through college.”

Though his father was busy and finances could be strained, even with Jerry and his brother Jeff finding time to chip in, Jerry said his father always made time to take his kids on camping and fishing trips.

“I remember him telling me one time, ‘Jerry, if we’d have waited to have money to do things as a family, we’d have never done anything,’” he said.

Hernandez eventually built a long career as an insurance salesman in Tucson, while pursuing other ventures like counseling prison inmates or going on missions as part of his nonprofit Jackrabbit Ministries.

“He had a heart of gold, and he was a wonderful Christian,” Hart said.

In later years, he returned to Bakersfield, living in a house that had been built by his wife’s parents, “a big house filled with memories on both sides,” as Jerry Hernandez called it.

Hernandez died on Dec. 7. Jerry Hernandez said his father had declined to get vaccinated against COVID-19, and when he caught the virus, he regretted his decision and told the children to “'get Mom vaccinated.'”

“If maybe Dad can help someone not go through what we’re going through, what Mom’s going through,” Jerry Hernandez said, “maybe if we can change someone’s pain … it would be wonderful.”

Even after his death, the spacious basement of Hernandez’s house in Bakersfield remains filled with walls that Hernandez erected, plastered with eclectic photos, “a journey through his life.” They feature scenes from his childhood, his teenage romance with Mary Ann, his track career at Arizona, his professional days and his family life in later years.

Jerry Hernandez said that he and his siblings have decided to keep those evocative displays up, the way their dad would have wanted it.

Reporter Henry Greenstein can be reached at 661-395-7374. Follow him on Twitter: @HenryGreenstein.

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