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New Faces Of The NFL

Slowly, Hispanics Trade Fútbol For Football


November, 2002
Copyright © 2002 HISPANIC MAGAZINE.COM. All rights reserved. 

When he was growing up in El Salvador, José Cortez thought there was only one kind of football–the round kind, with white and black hexagons on it. In his native country, as in most countries, soccer, or fútbol, is the most popular sport, and Cortez dreamed of becoming a professional goalkeeper.

After moving to California, Cortez was introduced to American football–the oblate spheroid kind. But not until his senior year of high school did he actually play, when a coach in need of a kicker saw Cortez booming soccer balls 50 yards through the air.

Cortez joined the football team, adjusted his style for kicking field goals and altered his dream: Instead of the World Cup, why not the Super Bowl?

"I didn’t really know what I was doing at first–I hadn’t even worn a helmet before," Cortez said. "But they told me to just keep kicking it through the uprights and I might get a college scholarship."

Eight years later, after stops at Oregon State University and with the San Diego Chargers, New York Giants, Amsterdam Admirals and Los Angeles Xtreme, and a stint as a roofer with his father-in-law, Cortez is starting kicker for the San Francisco 49ers. He is the first Salvadoran to play in the National Football League.

In the season opener against the Giants, he kicked the game-winning field goal with six seconds left. "It’s been a long road, but it makes me feel good when I go back home and see kids playing football because they’ve heard of me," Cortez said. "I stuck with it, even when I was doing roofing work all day and practicing on my own at night. I guess I’m proof that it doesn’t matter who you are or where you come from as long as you make the most of your talent."

Cortez is still a rarity in the NFL. At the start of the season, only 20 Hispanic players had made the rosters of the NFL’s 30 teams. Hispanics comprise less than 2 percent of the 1,590-player league even though they make up about 13 percent of the U.S. population. Compare that to Major League Baseball, which is about one- third Hispanic.

Eight of the NFL’s Hispanic players are of Mexican descent. Víctor Leyva was born in Guanajuato, Mexico. Brothers Martín and Bill Gramática, kickers who were born in Buenos Aires, kicked game-winning over time field goals within three hours of each other last season for their teams, Tampa Bay and Arizona.

Jacksonville defensive tackle Stalin Colinet’s mother is Dominican and his father was Dominican-Haitian, and he says he constantly has to explain that his family hails from Sammy Sosa’s country.

The league also employs three Puerto Ricans and two Cuban Americans. Tight end Tony González, whom many consider the NFL’s premier Hispanic player, is actually descended from Portuguese Cape Verde islanders on his father’s side.

San Francisco quarterback Jeff García, the best-known Hispanic player, grew up in garlic country in Gilroy, California. He’s a redhead whose father’s parents are from Jalisco, Mexico, and whose mother is Irish.

The positions played by Hispanics are equally diverse. They’re not just converted soccer kickers anymore. Eight are offensive linemen. Four are linebackers. Two are defensive backs.

"Things are changing slowly," said Ron Rivera, linebackers coach for the Philadelphia Eagles and a linebacker on the Chicago Bears team that won the 1985 Super Bowl. "Hispanic kids still gravitate toward the traditional Hispanic sports that were the national pastimes of their parents, and that’s baseball and soccer. But football is such a big part of American culture that it’s only a matter of time before more Hispanics excel at it."

Pro football is the most popular sport among Hispanics in the U.S., according to an ESPN/Chilton poll, way ahead of basketball, followed by baseball and soccer. Ten NFL teams broadcast games in Spanish on the radio. And many teams are aggressively marketing football to Hispanic fans with bilingual clinics. The San Diego Chargers took a team tour to Tijuana. The New Orleans Saints visited Honduras.

Rivera grew up in California’s Salinas Valley, the son of a Puerto Rican father and a Mexican mother. His mother’s brothers played football and he emulated them.

"I was different in that my relatives knew the game and loved it and encouraged me to participate in it," Rivera said.

San Diego linebacker Zeke Moreno also had a mother who knew the game. She played fullback and linebacker for the Mighty Mommas in a Chula Vista, California, women’s league.

Brutal tackles and the risk of injury make many Hispanic mothers hesitant to send their sons out onto a football field, players and coaches say. "The moms are worried about their boys and that’s kept some out of the game," said Pete García, who was born in Cuba and is now director of development for the Cleveland Browns. "When I was recruiting Hispanic players for the University of Miami, it helped that I was Hispanic and could reassure the parents about safety."

Ralph Arza, who coached a powerful, mostly Cuban team at Miami High in the mid 1980s, used to hold seminars for Hispanic parents in which he’d explain how the pads protect the athlete.

Joaquín González said his Cuban mother was initially squeamish and tried to steer him to baseball.

"But I was afraid of the ball," said Miami’s González, a rookie offensive lineman for Cleveland. "And because of my size, football made sense."

The 6-foot- 3, 302-pound González breaks the myth that Hispanics are too small for a game of giants. Green Bay’s Marco Rivera (6-4, 308), Jacksonville’s Colinet (6-6, 288) and Cincinnati’s Leyva (6-4, 315) are more examples of brawn uncurbed by their ethnicity.

"At first I didn’t think I’d like football because of the size factor," said kicker Martín Gramática. "But what I discovered that hooked me was a 170-pound guy like me and a 300-pound guy can play on the same team and find positions that suit our skills."

Gramática spent his first 15 years in Argentina, where the Boca soccer club was his favorite team and its players were his heroes. He was typical of Hispanic youngsters who see plenty of televised highlights of soccer and baseball stars.

"Baseball has Alex Rodríguez, Pedro Martínez, Roberto Alomar, and soccer has Carlos Valderrama, Claudio Reyna, Jorge Campos," said Juan Castillo, offensive line coach for the Philadelphia Eagles. "Football needs more Hispanic role models who will attract kids to the game at a young age. We need another Anthony Muñoz."

Muñoz, a Californian whose grandparents were from Chihuahua, Mexico, is regarded by many as football’s greatest offensive lineman. Muñoz played tackle for Cincinnati from 1980 to 1992, and is the most famous Hispanic player to be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. His son Michael is an offensive lineman at the University of Tennessee.

Hispanics have a long history in pro football. Two years ago, the granddaughter of Ignacio "Lou" Molinet contacted the Pro Football Hall of Fame about donating her grandfather’s 1927 NFL contract. At the time, it was believed that Jesse Rodríguez, a fullback-punter with the 1929 Buffalo Bisons, was the first Hispanic player in the NFL. But research by San Antonio historian Mario Longoría confirmed that Molinet played for the Frankford Yellowjackets 75 years ago. Molinet was a native of Cuba.

Joe Aguirre of St. Mary’s College of California was the first Hispanic drafted when Washington picked him in 1941. Tom Flores was the first Hispanic quarterback in the NFL, when he played for Oakland in 1960.

Hispanic players, then as now, were easy targets for nicknames. Key West’s George Mira, who played quarterback for the University of Miami, San Francisco and the Dolphins, was called "The Matador." Muñoz was tagged the Big Burrito. Rivera’s coach said he looked like Freddie Prinze and called him Chico. González heard Frito Bandito from teammates and worse from taunting West Virginia fans.

"But that stuff never insulted me," he said. "Everybody gets heckled by opposing fans and everybody gets ribbed by teammates."

San Francisco’s García is the most popular Hispanic player today after toiling in obscurity in the Canadian Football League for five years. He was named one of the 25 Most Beautiful People in People En Español magazine. He has promoted the game in Mexico, is a spokesman for the Hispanic Scholarship Fund and holds an annual golf tournament fundraiser for Bay Area Hispanic students.

"I grew up in a community that was 50 percent mexicano," García said in the NFL’s Celebrando newsletter. "When I think of cultures and what I’ve experienced, I have been tremendously influenced by my Hispanic origin. That is why it is such a privilege for me to give something back."

Rivera of the Packers was the son of a Brooklyn, N.Y., butcher. He feels such a strong connection to his Puerto Rican roots that he has conducted four free football clinics in San Juan, makes donations to a San Juan children’s hospital and is building a house there.

He believes the strong sense of family in Hispanic culture makes Hispanics great teammates.

"If there’s one thing that was instilled in my two brothers and me it was that family comes first," he said. "I take that into the locker room and a lot of guys appreciate that."

That same devotion to family has prevented many players and coaches from pursuing an NFL career and the moving-van lifestyle that comes with it, said Castillo, the Eagles assistant.

Castillo saw the game take over his hometown of Port Isabel, Texas, every Friday night when the high school played and knew then he would make whatever sacrifices were necessary to get to the pro level.

Castillo, a Mexican American whose father was a shrimper and whose mother was a maid, became the first person in his family to go to college thanks to a football scholarship to Texas A&M-Kingsville. As a coach at his tiny alma mater, he developed NFL prospects and impressed then-Eagles coach Ray Rhodes by doing summer internships in Tampa, Buffalo and Seattle.

"There’s a lot of people back in Texas just like me," Castillo said. "I want to help pave the way. I want to do a good job for my boss but also for people of my heritage so that the next time there’s an opening, a Hispanic will get a good look."

There’s nothing holding Hispanics back if they want a pro career, González said.

"Don’t use your background as an excuse–‘Hey, the coach isn’t playing me because I’m Hispanic,’ " González said. "Coaches want to win and they don’t care if you’re green or Japanese. Grab your opportunities."

González said his surname may make him stand out in the NFL but he doesn’t think about it. Besides, he’s got García, another Cuban American, in the Browns’ front office. They have persuaded the cafeteria staff to serve Cuban sandwiches once a week. And there’s always Cuban coffee brewing.

Cleveland coach Butch Davis brought his cafecito habit from Miami. "We can’t do without it," García said. "Keeps us wired."

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