Los Borregos hacen touchdown en los medios estadounidenses

En vísperas del regreso de la NFL a México el próximo lunes 21 al Estadio Azteca con el partido de los Raiders de Oakland contra los Texans de Houston, los medios voltearon a ver el futbol americano en México. El periódico The New York Times y el sitio web de ESPN, hablan extensamente sobre los Borregos del Tecnológico de Monterrey.

The Alabama Crimson Tide of Mexico
The Rams of Tec de Monterrey are a college football power. Ask Cam Newton.


MONTERREY, Mexico — Like many football-crazed boys, Luis Carranza grew up with a poster of Emmitt Smith, his hero, on his bedroom wall and vowed to emulate him.

He took a one-hour bus ride to football practice, starting at age 4, and the discipline of study, running, study, running earned him a spot first on an elite high school team and then on what may as well be Mexico’s Crimson Tide: the Rams of Tec de Monterrey.

He is now a star running back, and pint-size fans cried out his name and engulfed him for autographs after a recent victory, even though an injury had knocked him out of the game early. A star is a star.

“It’s such a big tradition here,” Carranza said. “Everybody is committed, even the little fans.”

Carlos Flores, relaxing in the dormitory where many Tec de Monterrey athletes live, on the morning after the Rams won their regular-season finale. They enter Saturday’s playoffs at 6-4.

There is no tailgating here, but the stadium tacos aren’t bad. Nobody cries “Gooooool!” at a big score, but the “touch” in “Touchdown!” gets more gusto. Instead of billion-dollar television deals, the games are limited to local TV and streamed on an internet site. And whatever signing bonus these players have in their future will probably come not from the N.F.L. but from the law firms and businesses many are headed to after graduation.

The addiction to the other fútbol — “fútbol soccer,” as people make the distinction here — is better known in this country. But the fever for American football — “fútbol americano” — feeds a vibrant subculture rooted in college teams that attract thousands of fans and players for the Tigres (Tigers), the Potros (Colts), the Aztecas (Aztecs), the Pumas, the Águilas (Eagles) and, one of the oldest and winning teams, the Borregos Salvajes (Rams.)

“The big difference with the Americans is size and speed, in which they have an advantage over us,” Carranza, 23, said, explaining the appeal. “But here we play with heart.”

On Monday, the N.F.L., picking up on the American football passion here, will play its first regular-season game in Mexico in 11 years, the Houston Texans versus the Oakland Raiders at the famed Azteca Stadium in Mexico City.

The game, the first Monday Night Football contest to be played outside the United States, is sold out, with 76,000 expected to attend.

American football does not have the global reach of basketball and baseball, but it is played in dozens of countries. In an international tournament of college teams, Mexico has won back-to-back championships, this year defeating a team from the United States made up of Division III players. Mexico has also done well in postcollegiate international tournaments.

This surprises nobody in Monterrey, where the Borregos Salvajes have long exemplified the best football in the country.

It was only a scrimmage, but the team’s 2009 defeat of Blinn College in Texas, which featured Cam Newton at quarterback, is still recalled here with the fervor of the Catch and other great N.F.L. plays.

“We didn’t know anything about the team, but we heard all this talk about this great Division I quarterback playing for them,” said Sergio Cantu Muñoz, a Tec coach and former player who intercepted Newton, then playing for Blinn between stops at the University of Florida and Auburn.

Pulling up the video of the play he keeps on his cellphone, he added, “I didn’t realize until later how important it was.”

A handful of its players over the years have landed on practice squads in the N.F.L., but Mexico has had only fledgling professional leagues, including one that started in February but has only four teams.

Most players here know that college is the pinnacle of the sport. And then they graduate and move on to careers.

The league gives players seven years of eligibility as long as they remain enrolled in classes, meaning some are earning master’s degrees.

Carranza is studying to be a lawyer, as are several of his teammates, while other players are working toward jobs in finance, engineering and other professions. The team claims a 90 percent graduation rate.

It makes Tec de Monterrey, one of the highest-ranking universities academically in Latin America, something more of a Stanford, then. But, with more championships than any other college, it can brag of the winning tradition of an Alabama.

“I would say they are like a midway Division II team or a strong Division III,” said Frank Gonzalez, a former longtime coach who unsuccessfully sought to have the university join the N.C.A.A. “There have been many players good enough to play in the N.F.L., but there are many more players good enough in the United States. There is no pipeline here to send them to the league.”

The players say they are in it more for the game than for the fame.

Unlike soccer, with a powerful professional league and a system of clubs and academies to recruit and mold young players, the American football pipeline is more ad hoc.

Many have followed a similar progression, the sons of players who joined one of the hundreds of youth football clubs in the country and then landed on high school and college teams, most often with the help of scholarships.

Tec de Monterrey has had a football team for nearly 70 years, an outgrowth of the sport carried to Mexico by American visitors years before.

Television, and more recently the internet, have helped stoked interest in the game; N.F.L. and college games have regularly aired for years, and cable and satellite television has expanded the offerings.

With Tec and the proximity to the border — about a three-hour drive to Texas — Monterrey has been a football hotbed.

On a recent night, hundreds of children clad in helmets and pads raced up and down a field under stadium lights, aspiring to join Tec or one of its rival teams. Some of the Rams coach the younger players.

Concerns about concussions and their serious consequences into adulthood have been raised by parents here, though the issue has not been as extensively covered as in the United States.

Hugo Barberi, the coach of one of the largest teams here, said that membership had dropped off about 15 percent after the 2015 movie “Concussion,” about a forensic pathologist’s fight against the N.F.L. to recognize brain disease in players linked to their years of playing but that it had rebounded in recent months.

The club reduced contact at practices and changed tackling techniques to de-emphasize head-to-head collisions.

Likewise, at the college level, neurological testing has been introduced before and during the season, and coaches said efforts had been made to curtail dangerous hits.

The thinking here is that while the level of awareness of the health consequences might not be the same as in the United States, neither is the intensity of the game.

“The game is not as physical here,” said Alberto García Castillo, the owner and editor of Receptor.com.mx, an online publication in Mexico that covers American football. “There are hits, but it is done without losing valor and respect for the other side.”

Still, teams want to win, and the dominance of Tec and its sister campuses — fed in part by robust scholarship offers — resulted in the college league’s being divided several years ago.

Tec campuses — they all wear blue-and-white uniforms and have the same Borregos nickname — joined with a handful of other private universities, while the public universities have their own league.

They are fierce rivals and, García Castillo said, have accused each other of unfair recruiting practices.

This year, there were some interleague games — some of them drawing thousands of fans — and the champions of the two conferences will meet in a “super bowl” for the first time since the split.

For the Rams in Monterrey, the pressure is on to win it.

They enter the playoffs Saturday with a 6-4 record, while they have previously been undefeated or have only one or two losses.

But it has been a trying season. Carlos Altamirano is the third coach this season, after one was fired for manhandling a player in practice and an interim one did not get the top job.

“Eso! Eso!” That’s it! he barked, pushing the quarterbacks through a set of scrambling drills as “Highway to Hell” and other rock and hip-hop hits blared from speakers.

Instruction — and cursing — in Spanish mixed with the usual English football terms: touchdown, quarterback, lineman. Plays are written and called in English, as well, partly because many are adapted from the team’s American counterparts and several of the coaches have attended training clinics in the United States. For a time, coaches wanted the players to “play in English” so they would be familiar with the terms if they earned a tryout with an American team.

That largely remains a dream.

Carlos Martell, 23, a linebacker who is Carranza’s classmate in legal studies, grew up surrounded by football memorabilia, and his father invites friends and family members over every Sunday to watch N.F.L. games. Martell has been playing the game since he was 4, but he knows he is not big or fast enough to play at the N.F.L. level.

“Here, the main thing is school, your studies,” he said. “We may have dreams about playing in the N.F.L., but we also know so few have made it.”

Before the last regular-season game, the Rams players gathered for a vulgarity-laced pep rally among themselves in the stands of the football stadium, which was set to host its final game. After 66 years, it will be demolished and a new football stadium built. The players hung a banner reading “Always Home” and signed it.

“Leave everything on the field,” said one. “What happens tomorrow, keep it in your heart, man,” urged another. “Let’s rip this mother up, boys!” said another.

And so they did, demolishing their opponent, the Rams of Tec’s Mexico City campus, 28-0. In the fourth quarter, when the stadium loudspeaker played “Jump Around,” that is what the Monterrey players did on the sideline.

Only a few hundred people attended the game; Tec usually wins, after all, and many players and coaches believe the leagues should reunite so that the best teams across the country face each other more regularly.

“The level of competition needs to improve,” said Eduardo Marcos Califa, 23, who scored one of the touchdowns. “If that happens, the interest will grow more.”

Carranza ended up on the sideline for much of the game, and not for the first time. He had torn a ligament in his knee a couple of years ago but managed to bounce back.

“The ups and downs, this is what American football teaches you,” he said. “Don’t give up; overcome challenges. Our classes give you constant challenges, and you have to find solutions. You have to try something different. That’s the same on the field. That’s been my life on the field.”

How Monterrey Tech became heart of Mexican college football
Monterrey Tech players are cheered on as they pass through the stands on their way to the field before a recent game. Jonathan Levinson for ESPN

Nov 15, 2016
Eric Gomez ESPN.com

MONTERREY, Mexico -- The University of Alabama, with 16 national championships, is a logical place to start when talking about college football dominance. But there's a team much farther south -- one with 21 national titles, 17 in the past 30 years -- that shouldn't be left out of the conversation.

Tecnológico de Monterrey -- or Monterrey Tech, as it's known colloquially in English -- is a private educational institution at the heart of a nationwide network of high schools and universities. Its main campus boasts some of Mexico's leading academic facilities.
And in a city that's a hotbed for American football, an ambitious coach with NFL connections and aspirations built Monterrey Tech built into a national powerhouse.

Approximately 140 miles from Laredo, Texas, Monterrey's location as well as its strong middle class have long made the city a hub for so-called American sports. In 1996, it hosted the first MLB regular-season games played outside the U.S. and Canada. 

That same year, a sellout crowd at the city's Estadio Universitarios at the Kansas City Chiefs beat the Dallas Cowboys in an NFL preseason game.

Today, football is among the most popular sports in Mexico, ranking second only to soccer in parts of the country. And while Monday night's NFL game between the Houston Texans and Oakland Raiders will be played in Mexico City, the sport's biggest success at the college level can be found 600 miles to the north at Monterrey Tech.

Across the street from the campus' eastern limit is the Estadio Tecnológico, a six-decade-old, 36,000-seater that hosts Monterrey Tech's football team, the Borregos Salvajes (Wild Rams). On campus, there are constant reminders of the team's prowess. Mascot logos are prominent on merchandise, apparel, in-house promos and, of course, posters for upcoming games and pep rallies. The practice fields and stadium are branded with the team's colors and logo and motivational slogans in both Spanish and English.

The facilities -- and the program itself -- are modeled as closely as possible to NCAA and NFL standards, an initiative spearheaded by former coach Francisco "Frank" Gonzalez, a Mexican native who grew up in the United States and first came to Monterrey Tech in 1975 after gaining a scholarship while playing high school football in Texas.

"I was inspired by John F. Kennedy and his pursuit of doing something great for the American people," said Gonzalez, who became Monterrey Tech's head coach in 1986. "He came up with putting a man on the moon, and my version of that was to get one of my players into the NFL."

Gonzalez's clubs won 16 national championships in his 26 years at the helm. His recruiting tactics were so effective that the university developed satellite football programs in more than a dozen campuses across Mexico to accommodate all the players who wished to play for Monterrey Tech.

"There are so many things across the program that still bear his mark," said Carlos Altamirano, the team's current head coach and a Gonzalez recruit who quarterbacked Monterrey Tech in the late 1990s.

Taking cues from the north

One of Monterrey Tech's advantages comes from its network of prep schools. Prepa Tec, the high school-level team, recruits and generates scholarships for players hopeful to move on to the program's next level. Prepa Tec's relative proximity to the U.S. border makes it possible to schedule annual games against top Texas teams.

"One year, we played Woodlands, and after the game, I had their coach come up to me asking if I wanted to study and compete for them," said Adrian Lamothe, a former Prepa Tec punter who in 2013 walked on at the University of Alabama as the first Mexican-born player to be recruited by the Crimson Tide.

It wasn't just the high school team that gained experience and exposure by venturing up north. Gonzalez often made trips to observe top college programs -- and eventually NFL teams -- in the States.

"Frank changed scouting, coaching and player training in Mexico with the things he learned in the NFL," said Tony Salazar, a friend and colleague of Gonzalez who now calls games for crosstown rival Auténticos Tigres.

One thing Gonzalez quickly learned was how much room there was for improvement at Monterrey Tech. "I saw that my players were more or less playing at a high school level," he said.

Throughout the late 1980s and early '90s, Monterrey Tech would reach out to college campuses across the United States, starting nearby in Texas and ending up at powerhouses in the Northeast. Gonzalez would bring knowledge back across the border and indoctrinate his staff and squad until he was confident they were ready to push on to the next level.

After years of mostly successful visits, Gonzalez hit a roadblock at Penn State in 1998, where Joe Paterno's staff afforded him only a few game tapes that didn't reveal much. Undeterred, Gonzalez cold-called Juan Castillo, a former Monterrey Tech teammate who had become Andy Reid's offensive line coach with the Philadelphia Eagles.

"He remembered me," Gonzalez said. "I told him what had happened at Penn State, and Juan asked me if I would be interested in visiting the Eagles and learning something."

That led to an internship with the Eagles, providing Gonzalez with the opportunity to assess NFL talent up close and compare it to his own. "I saw their players and told Juan that I had a couple of players who weren't too far from this level," he said. Castillo recommended that Gonzalez contact scouts at NFL Europe, the now-defunct developmental league.

One expert who took notice of Monterrey Tech's talent was Jim Tomsula, an NFL Europe scout at the time who went on to become head coach of the San Francisco 49ers. Tomsula signed off on the first wave of Monterrey Tech players who entered the NFL's pipeline in Europe: Rolando Cantú, Eduardo Castañeda and Ramiro Pruneda.

It was through the NFL Europe connection that Gonzalez landed his man on the moon, albeit for a short visit. It would be Cantú, an offensive lineman who played for the Berlin Thunder before being signed to the Arizona Cardinals' practice squad in 2004. He made history as the first player from a Mexican college to appear in a regular-season NFL game when he played in the Cardinals' 2005 season finale. Cantú, whose career was cut short by a knee injury in 2006, now works in Arizona's front office.

While other Monterrey Tech products have made it as far as training camps and practice squads, Cantú is still the only one to have hit NFL pay dirt. Former Monterrey Tech kicker Diego Gonzalez, who received a scholarship from the University of Colorado and was the Buffaloes' starter in 2016, might be the next best hope. But he suffered a season-ending Achilles injury in the Buffaloes' third game.

"Scouts are starting to look at Mexican players," Salazar said. "Guys down here are getting bigger, faster and stronger. They just need to continue to have a stage to be noticed."

Diego Gonzalez had to sit out a year after transferring from Monterrey Tech to Colorado in 2013. That highlights another barrier that separates Mexico from big-time U.S. college football and beyond: the tangled web of eligibility rules. "There's a serious lack of information," Lamothe said. "Parents, coaches, the players themselves -- none of them know what it takes to become eligible for the NCAA. It's very rigorous."

A league of their own

Monterrey Tech has done more than just dominate Mexican college football on the field; it completely changed the landscape of the game off it. By 2008, there were rumblings that most of the public universities, discouraged by their inability to competitively recruit against private schools such as Monterrey Tech, wanted to defect from ONEFA, which had been the country's primary college league, the closest thing in Mexico to the NCAA.

After the 2008 season -- and another title for the Borregos -- Monterrey Tech's main hub and satellite campuses beat the public schools to the punch by leaving ONEFA and forming a new league for private schools, CONADEIP, which debuted in 2010. The split remains today, although local rivals often organize interconference games to keep old flames alive. "We're looking to reunite. I know that's something I've wanted and asked for since [coaching in ONEFA]," Altamirano said.

Monterrey Tech's armor hasn't been quite as impenetrable since Frank Gonzalez retired after the team's 2012 championship. The Borregos lost in the 2013 championship game and failed to reach the 2014 final, but they rebounded to win the CONADEIP title last year.

This season, however, Monterrey Tech has encountered woes both on and off the field. When Altamirano took over midseason, he became the team's third head coach in the post-Gonzalez era. The Borregos won their final two games to finish the regular season at 6-4, third in their division. They open the playoffs Saturday.

"We know the fans aren't accustomed to [a subpar season], but we have to give credit to our competition, too," said Altamirano. "There are some very good teams in this league."

And that, perhaps, is the bigger challenge for the future. Monterrey Tech's blueprint is being successfully replicated across the country. That means the next players to make the jump from Mexico to the NCAA or NFL might come from another program.

"It's clear that teams in the United States will be looking elsewhere," Salazar warns.

Despite potential twists in the tale that could spell the end of its lengthy dominance, Monterrey Tech will always be known as the cradle of college football in Mexico, and the school's impact on the sport is likely among the reasons the NFL is returning to the country more than a decade after its last visit.

*Con información de 
The New York Times y ESPN