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Lathrop football field honors Gatto, Wiggin & Spartans
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LATHROP – It might be a mouthful, but Lathrop High School’s football stadium finally has an official name.

Even though it went against the recommendations of a committee formed to come up with a recommendation for the Manteca Unified School Board, the Trustees decided to go a different route – naming the stadium after Lathrop native and football great Paul Wiggin. They then named the field after longtime community servant Bennie Gatto. And then they attached “Home of the Spartans” at the end of the title to show solidarity with the student body.

Arnita Montiel, who made the push to get Wiggin recognized for this achievements, can’t wait until the first week in September when the Lathrop Spartans run into a facility that honors a man’s contributions to the game and onto the field named after a man who waited more than a decade to see that school get built.

Paul Wiggin Stadium and Bennie Gatto Field, Home of the Spartans – its official.

“I’m thrilled that he’s not forgotten by the people of Lathrop and the people of Manteca,” Montiel said of the native son who went to high school at Manteca High. “I think that he’s part of our heritage, and when people from our town make a name for themselves they should be recognized. I think that he’s a role model – it allows kids to look at his name and say, ‘If he could do that then so could I.’

“In the end I’m glad that he’s a part of it, that Bennie (Gatto) is a part of it, and that the Spartan mascot is a part of it.”

In a 5-1 vote – with trustee Nancy Teicheira absent – the board approved a three-part name for the stadium at the district’s newest high school. Wendy King cast the lone dissenting vote.

Wiggin – a member of the College Football Hall of Fame, Manteca Hall of Fame,  and the Manteca Sports Heroes Hall of Distinction – spent more than a decade as a defensive end for the Cleveland Browns and was a member of the 1964 team that upset Johnny Unitas and the heavily favored Baltimore Colts to win the NFL Championship.

He went on to serve as an assistant coach for the San Francisco 49ers under Dick Nolan before leaving to take a job as the head coach for the Kansas City Chiefs. He would later join Nolan’s staff again in New Orleans as the defensive coordinator for the Saints.

And he would return to his alma mater as the head football coach of the Cardinal during John Elway’s tenure at Stanford University. Wiggin was dealt a blow when in 1982 when he watched the University of California execute “The Play” – the five-lateral exchange on the game’s final kickoff that led Cal to a 25-20 victory in The Big Game.

He is currently a personnel consultant for the Minnesota Vikings.

Retired Manteca High School Principal Steve Winter remembers being a kid and going to watch Wiggin work out at Pennebaker Field – Manteca High’s original football field – before reporting to training camp near Cleveland.

When Wiggin was selected to participate in the Pro-Bowl – which was played on a Sunday – Winter said that not only did he make it back to Manteca to emcee the Manteca High School varsity football banquet, but be brought several of his all-pro friends with him.

He said that he’ll always remember him as somebody who never forgot their roots, even when given the chance to ply his craft on the biggest stage possible.

“Outside of my parents, he’s my idol,” said an emotional Winter. “They talk about the professional athlete today as a role model, but I see Paul as a role model. I think that kids should be able to look at his name on that stadium and want to emulate him and do what he did – he would be a great person to aspire to become.

“My hope is that in 20 or 30 years when somebody asks who Paul Wiggin is, that they’ll learn that he’s somebody from that community that achieved goals that some people think were unreachable. That it was done. He’s a great, great man.”

Not everybody, however, feels the same way that Winter does.

Lathrop Mayor Joseph “Chaka” Santos – who was part of the stadium naming committee – felt that the school board didn’t give adequate consideration to the ideas that the committee submitted.

Wiggin was not part of their recommendation.

“We wanted it to be Bennie Gatto as the field and keep it Spartan Stadium. It should have been kept that way,” Santos said. “After all of the things that he (Gatto) has done in this community – spending all of that time at East Union and helping out with the booster club.

“Paul Wiggin is Paul Wiggin and I’m glad that he had a great success story. But I don’t see him here in this community passing out brown bags and commodities or going up to the fish hatchery to bring back salmon. It should have been Spartan Stadium, Bennie Gatto Field. I give kudos to that man (Wiggin), but he’s not here and people don’t know who he is.”

Santos said he’ll have to check with representatives from the Lathrop High School student body to see whether they plan to further pursue the matter that was formally adopted on Tuesday night.