The year was 1965. On Cinco de Mayo, newspapers across the country reported that Secretary of Labor W. Willard Wirtz wanted to recruit 20,000 high schoolers to replace the hundreds of thousands of Mexican agricultural workers who had labored in the United States under the so-called Bracero Program. Started in World War II, the program was anagreement between the American and Mexican governments that brought Mexican men to pick harvests across the U.S. It ended in 1964, after years of accusations by civil rights activists like Cesar Chavez that migrants suffered wage theft and terrible working and living conditions.
But farmers complained — in words that echo today's headlines — that Mexican laborers did the jobs that Americans didn't want to do, and that the end of the Bracero Program meant that crops would rot in the fields.
Wirtz cited this labor shortage and a lack of summer jobs for high schoolers as reason enough for the program. But he didn't want just any band geek or nerd — he wanted jocks.
"They can do the work," Wirtz said at a press conference in Washington, D.C., announcing the creation of the project, called A-TEAM — Athletes in Temporary Employment as Agricultural Manpower. "They are entitled to a chance at it." Standing beside him to lend gravitas were future Baseball Hall of Famers Stan Musial and Warren Spahn and future Pro Football Hall of Famer Jim Brown.
Over the ensuing weeks, the Department of Labor, the Department of Agriculture, and the President's Council on Physical Fitness bought ads on radio and in magazines to try to lure lettermen. "Farm Work Builds Men!" screamed one such promotion, which featured 1964 Heisman Trophy winner John Huarte.
Local newspapers across the country showcased their local A-TEAM with pride as they left for the summer. The Courier of Waterloo, Iowa, for instance, ran a photo of beaming, bespectacled but scrawny boys boarding a bus for Salinas, where strawberries and asparagus awaited their smooth hands. "A teacher-coach from [the nearby town of] Cresco will serve as adviser to all 31," students, the Courier reassured its readers.
But the national press was immediately skeptical. "Dealing with crops which grow close to the ground requires a good deal stronger motive" than money or the prospects of a good workout, argued a Detroit Free Press editorial. "Like, for instance, gnawing hunger."