HKS’ Fred Ortiz Uses Past Gridiron Glory to Tackle Designs for Modern Sports Venues
HKS architect Fred Ortiz can still hear the commands of his high school football coach, a steady bass that booms in his head like it did in a cramped locker room in El Paso back in the 1980s.
“Gentlemen, find your space,” says Coach Tony Shaw, the burly ex-Marine in charge of the shaggy-haired Irvin High Rockets.
Ortiz sticks his head in his locker while his teammates retreat into their own bubbles. The lights go out.
“Picture yourself making the catch,” the voice says. “Picture yourself making that tackle.”
The coach unreels a victory in his players’ minds and issues an order: “Don’t let these guys come here and beat you.”
Ortiz, 52, has clung to those motivational words as his HKS team competes with other firms to design sprawling college football training facilities, state-of-the-art MLB ballparks and mega recreation centers.
“There’s the idea of the chase, the idea of preparing for an interview – it’s almost like preparing for a game,” said Ortiz, a director of sports at HKS who leads the firm’s work in the collegiate sports market. “I work to align myself with my teammates so we can go out and execute the plays.”
Ortiz — a tight end, defensive end and long snapper for his high school team — had long dreamed of making the roster of the Dallas Cowboys, but that ambition ended abruptly soon after he arrived at the University of Texas at Arlington. Instead he focused on his childhood aspiration to become an architect, launching into a successful career in sports design. He moved to Virginia and raised four children, all student-athletes.
His largest project to date has brought him back to Texas, where he is part of the HKS team designing Globe Life Field, the Texas Rangers’ new 40,000-seat ballpark in Arlington that will also host high school and college games. Ortiz channels his sports background into designs that will dazzle fans and draw talented coaches and athletes — celebrated pros like the heroes of his youth and bright-eyed dreamers like he was.
Heart on the Field
Ortiz grew up in northeast El Paso, the oldest of five boys born to an immigrant couple from Mexico. His parents, who scrounged up a living as factory workers for an apparel company, raised the family in the sand-colored Lyndon B. Johnson public housing complex abutting a park.
The neighborhood children often rallied at the park to play sports, including baseball. Boys from one street would team up against another. Ortiz was the planner, sketching the diamond and the dugouts and marking the players and their positions.
In elementary school, Ortiz declared that he wanted to be “one of those guys that draws buildings.” He went on to take drafting classes at El Paso’s Irvin High School and traveled to Waco his senior year for a statewide industrial arts competition.
But Ortiz felt happiest on the football field, where his Irvin Rockets ran laps and practiced drills and walloped rivals under the shadow of Coach Shaw, a wad of tobacco bulging in his cheek. Shaw spent as much time boosting his players’ self-esteem as he did diagramming Xs and Os.
“What the mind can conceive and believe, it can achieve,” the coach said over and over, instilling a mantra that Ortiz passed on to his own children.
Shaw took a highlighter to a list of Texas universities so he could show Ortiz the ones offering both football and architecture programs. UTA recruited Ortiz and offered a full ride. He packed his bags, the first in his family to go to college.
But Ortiz’s first year at UTA in 1985 turned out nothing like he pictured. A knee injury sidelined him early in the season. Then the university announced that it was dropping the football program.
Ortiz yearned to keep playing. UTA — where he had received good grades in his freshman year — would honor his scholarship, but he had another offer to play football at a Louisiana university.
He called his former high school coach near tears. What should he do?
“Get your education,” Shaw said, urging him to stay in Arlington.
Ortiz stayed. That decision led to a connection that matured into an enduring friendship and a bridge to HKS.
The Right Fit
After getting his bachelor’s degree in 1990, Ortiz joined a small Dallas-area design firm that specialized in health care. Every few years he got an urge to steer his career new places, which led him to two other firms and a life in Virginia. But he stuck to small companies, concerned that a large firm would slot him in a job with little room for professional growth.
In 2007, he went to a college buddy for advice.
Brian McFarlane, now an HKS principal and health business development director, met Ortiz their sophomore year at UTA. The two were fraternity brothers and architecture classmates who had traipsed around Italy together during a study-abroad program. Their bond remained strong after graduation; McFarlane was a groomsman when Ortiz married his college sweetheart.
McFarlane encouraged Ortiz to apply for a job as director of design at HKS’ Richmond office, which would give him a chance to tackle projects in health care, higher education and sports.
“The vision of a client is sometimes hard to convey on paper. Someone may say, ‘I want an open theme; I want this or that.’ He’s able to take that concept and put it on paper, and he’s able to do it quickly,” McFarlane said about Ortiz.
Ortiz got the job and went on to lead HKS’ sports group on the East Coast. His personal and professional worlds collided when he won the job to design the Corps Physical Training Facility at the Virginia Military Institute — an understated indoor athletic facility on a historic campus. His son Nic had decided to accept an offer of appointment to VMI just as Ortiz was preparing to compete for the project. The interview with VMI became even more important to Ortiz, who ended up creating a training facility replete with amenities for his son’s alma mater.
All four of Ortiz’s children played high school or college sports. His two youngest children — twins Antonio and Marco — currently play football for Division I schools Texas Christian University and University of Florida, respectively.
“When I’m talking to facilities staff, an athletics director at a university, I can talk the talk,” Ortiz said.
The Virginia Military Institute is home to one of the country’s elite indoor athletic facilities. The HKS-designed 205,000 square-foot addition to the campus features a six-lane 200-meter hydraulically banking NCAA track, a rock-climbing wall, high ropes confidence course, and full-scale physical training obstacle courses throughout the venue.
Ortiz is committed to giving a winning performance — before a client or in front of a camera.
In 2004, a casting director spotted Ortiz’s towering frame and prominent nose at a Virginia restaurant. He was later cast as an extra playing a Powhatan Indian warrior in the Hollywood film “The New World” about the clash between Pocahonta’s tribe and English settlers. Ortiz agreed to get a mohawk to look more convincing, drawing strange looks from his fellow architects and other people in Richmond.
Now he moonlights as a model for advertisements and stock photography, playing the roles of Hispanic doctor, father and businessman on TV ads, column wraps and brochures.
“Colleagues like Brian McFarlane will be at a health care conference, and vendors put out their booths and their marketing paraphernalia — well, there I am in scrubs, like a surgeon,” Ortiz said with a laugh.
The architecture project that brought Ortiz back to Texas is a dream role: senior designer of the new ballpark for the Texas Rangers. Globe Life Field will feature a retractable roof for climate control, seats that are closer to the field and open views from the concourse — a far cry from the barebones Arlington Stadium where Ortiz spent summer nights in college watching former Rangers Rubén Sierra, Iván “Pudge” Rodríguez and Nolan Ryan play ball.
Shaw, who has retired, follows Ortiz’s accomplishments with pride. The 80-year-old remembers the humble neighborhoods where his players grew up and days long past when they lifted weights on the dirt floor under the bleachers and in a modest locker room. Now he gets news about the gleaming facilities Ortiz designs across the country to propel the dreams of a new generation of star athletes.
“I couldn’t say enough about Fred and the family, all the brothers,” Shaw said. “When you realize where they came from and where they are now, it’s just amazing. It’s what coaches go into coaching for.”