I was helping my son set up his booth at a Fairchild Gardens festival last weekend. He mentioned casually, "See that older man selling conch fritters? I met him earlier, he used to play in the NFL".
George Mira was one of my boyhood heroes. As a teenager I'd watch the Key West native play quarterback for the University of Miami. In 1963 he led the nation in total offense and tied a NCAA record for passes completed.
They called him "The Matador" because of his Spanish heritage, good looks, and his scrambling ability. In '64 he was drafted by the San Francisco 49ers and spent 7 years in the NFL (including backing Bob Griese in Super Bowl VI for our hometown team).
When I walked over to his pink trailer, the former Dolphin was busy selling fritters with his son Jason. Five for $5. I felt nervous waiting in line, like a fifteen-year-old hoping for an autograph.
When I finally met him Mr. Mira could not have been nicer. He invited me into the booth (the size of a small bathroom) to chat. While Jason worked the fryer his dad and I exchanged stories. His were much better than mine. We soon realized we had enough friends in common (Ted Hendricks and a few Key West natives) for me to call him "George".
For two days I stopped by to pepper him with questions about conch cooking, football, and the old days in Key West. He has seen the UM's Jacory Harris play the night before and knew exactly what Harris had to do to improve his game.
I learned that, in the old days, it was impossible to starve in the southernmost city ("Fish, conch, and coconuts were everywhere!"). His friend "Papo", now in his 80's, had once owned the meanest fighting chicken in the Keys. As the festival was winding down on Sunday I asked the most important question, one shrouded in decades of mystery.
Bum Farto had been the Key West fire chief in the early 70's. Rumored to have been heavily involved in the drug trade, he disappeared on February 16, 1976. For years after that t-shirts asking, "Where is Bum Farto?"were big sellers in the old town.
Here was my chance to get the answer. I asked George, "So, what really happened to Bum Farto?" He laughed as I continued, "Does he sleep with the fish or did he move far away?" George gave it his best shot. He said he had heard that Chief Farto had moved to Costa Rica. He had family there. "Is he still down south?" I asked. George did the math and answered, "I dunno, it's been almost forty years . If he's still alive he'd be 90 now".
Football was good to George Mira -he is a healthy, happy man with many friends- but it never was a money maker. As the festival was ending he visited our booth and explained,
"Back then we played because it was fun. I was the first QB drafted in "63 and I got $12,000 a year. Many of the players on the San Francisco team had second jobs. They'd practice 'til five then go sell shoes or somethin'. Guys like me started to change things, we paved the way. If I was the first quarterback drafted today, I'd get ten million dollars to sign".
The Matador was laughing at the thought as he headed back to help pack up the trailer.
George Mira and Jason, one of
his three sons.