ALICE — Billy Riojas Sr. has deep roots in Alice.
Grassroots, to be more accurate.
More than 30 years ago, a novice Alice groundskeeper rescued a sorry stretch of patchy crabgrass covering the Coyote’s home field. And since then, Riojas, 77, has fertilized the playing surface with his sweat, devotion and heart. As a result, Alice (Texas) High School’s perfectly trimmed and mud-less Bermuda grass is the envy of coaches, players, and football fans near and far.
Groundskeepers from around the state and beyond are especially aware of Riojas’ reputation for maintaining a playing surface that is not only greener, more durable, and virtually impenetrable, but also safer than most other fields, natural or artificial, Alice coaches say.
Alice’s football field has been on the cover of Texas Turfgrass Magazine, a publication of the Texas Turfgrass Association, which has chosen Memorial Stadium many times as its Football Field of the Year.
Alice football coach Kyle Atwood said he considers the natural turf at Memorial Stadium a major part of the home field advantage. Atwood’s coaching career began years ago in Alice as an assistant under former head coach Brent Davis.
Both coaches accepted coaching positions in San Angelo, but Atwood returned to Alice last year as the Coyotes head coach. During his absence, Atwood said he learned to appreciate Riojas’ magic with grass.
“I discovered how good we had it in Alice,” Atwood said. “We’re extremely blessed to have Billy here. But I had no idea how spoiled we were until I left.”
In Alice alone, he tends to all 12 of the district’s practice fields, soccer fields and baseball diamonds. But today, he’s got a lot more help than he did when his career began in 1985.
Riojas actually retired in 2009 from his position at the school district. But he continued to spread his grass seeds in Alice as owner of Riojas Turf Care, which performs contract work and consulting for the Coyote athletic fields, along with about a dozen other schools, including West Oso and Floresville, and several in the Rio Grande Valley.
Riojas’ son Henry does most of the travel and heavy lifting for the company, while Riojas maintains an office under the seats at Memorial Stadium.
What’s his secret to success?
Riojas said over the years he’s created a secret recipe of safe chemicals to stave off harmful insects and plant disease, while designing a family recipe of fertilizers, which he’s passed on to his son, Henry.
“I keep it all up here,” said Henry Riojas about his dad’s secret formulas, while pointing to his head. “It’s not written down anywhere.”