I’m sitting across from a rock star—Eric Zamora—a guy I once saw on a Chicago stage when he played the sax for Save Ferris, the iconic Ska band popular in the 90’s. This is a guy who traveled the world, who co-founded a band at the age of 18, who played with Foo Fighters, who hung out with Green Day, who shared screen time with the late Heath Ledger, who played the Conan O’Brian show, who decided that he wanted to teach high school … what?
Zamora is an underdog. The guy hails from parents who didn’t even graduate from high school. Yet, the love, dedication, and encouragement of his mother drove him and his sister to work hard in order to appreciate the education that she never had the opportunity to obtain. When he talks about her, Zamora turns fervent, “My mom sacrificed her life to make sure we got everything we needed to be successful. She made me feel like I could do anything.” And just about everything is what this man has accomplished.
In junior high Zamora picked up the saxophone. He did it because his grandmother liked the smooth sounds, and he wanted to play songs for her. The kid played his heart out until some big bully kid waited for Eric outside the practice room and told him that he’d beat the hell out of the sax player at the upcoming band camp. Afraid for his life Zamora quit the sax. Reflecting on this pivotal moment he looks incensed, “Bullies can have such an impact on you that they can change your whole life’s path.” The saxophone stayed in his closet until he enrolled in Loara High School. Until that time he clandestinely played the guitar, an instrument in his blood, an instrument that he desired to play after observing his cousin strum a few chords of Richie Valens’ “La Bamba.”
Right around the same time that No Doubt made Orange County, California the nucleus of ska in the 90’s, Eric snatched his sax out of the closet. He and his friend, guitarist Brian Mashburn, jammed and formed Save Ferris. They started off in a battle of the bands and rode their beats from the Los Angeles Regionals to the Nationals in New York City. Save Ferris became champions and signed with Epic Records in 1997. A few ordinary high school graduates hailing from the same high school as Gwen Stefani, they traveled the world and found themselves keeping company with bands like Green Day, and in the spotlight of Conan O’Brien.
In 2002 when the demand for ska dwindled and the members of Save Ferris couldn’t support themselves playing full-time, they dismantled the band and went to work. Eric became a valet. Sometimes, as he sunk into the leather of some suit’s Porsche, he’d hear himself on KROQ’s Flashback at Noon.
About that time Save Ferris musicians, except the singer, started Starpool with former No Doubt vocalist Alan Meade. They named the band after T-Bone Willy’s star-shaped pool. T-Bone Willy’s Starpool House was an established venue of sorts during the early 1990’s. Several popular local acts found themselves performing live sets in T-Bone’s kitchen.
HOW BAD DO I WANT THIS?
The saxophonist continued his passion while parking cars and attending Fullerton College. He picked his way through a few courses trying to uncover his calling. He set out to become a teacher during a time when huge cuts hit education. While many aspiring educators dropped the program and attempted to drag him down, Zamora would not quit. His calling, he knew, was teaching.
After a year at Fullerton College Zamora turned ill. Diagnosed with diverticulosis, a disease usually associated with older folks, Zamora found himself in the hospital for six months breaking medical records. He would have to quit school. After a surgery that left him split open to allow his digestive system to heal, he woke to find his Starpool band members, friends, and family surrounding his hospital bed. They were told that he would die. But, they underestimated the will of this man.
With over $200,000 in medical expenses, Zamora’s good friends in Starpool organized a benefit concert that would raise funds to support the months that he’d have to spend convalescing. In addition, he took out loans and went back to college.
Still playing with Starpool, Zamora and the band organized an annual event at the Anaheim House of Blues called the Ska Luau. This show features dancers from the Polynesian Club at Magnolia High School. “The band is happy to support high school culture,” Zamora says, “and to inspire kids.” About this time Starpool’s trumpet player, Oliver Zavala increased his involvement with a Mariachi Academy in Anaheim, R.H.Y.T.H.M.O., that he started with his father in 1996–a non-profit public charity dedicated to uplifting youth through their heritage.
Finding himself inching through college now, once receiving poor academic counseling advice that made his educational journey unnecessarily longer, Zamora fought the urge to give up. But he had a mantra, “How bad do I want this?” He wanted it bad—to be a teacher, so he slogged on. It took him seven years to graduate from college.
Less than a month before his graduation ceremony, Eric’s diverticulitis kicked him into the hospital again. It is there where he typed his final essays with an I.V. streaming from his veins. In May 2007 Eric Zamora walked in Cal State Fullerton’s graduation ceremony with a Bachelor’s Degree in English.
Eric currently teaches English at Tustin High School where this Starpool rock star rocks teaching. He continues to play with Starpool; they’re working on a third album. Because he’s always had an interest in film, Zamora offered to make the For Underdogs Only book trailer. He filmed, produced, and edited the entire thing on an underdog budget. As far as his health—“I’m good to go. Always.”