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¡Viva! football

Baxter is a Times staff writer

Frank Gonzalez’s small, cluttered office is on the second floor of an abandoned concrete warehouse known simply, according to the sign out front, as “the cave.”

It’s an environment unbefitting the winner of 13 national college football championships. Stranger still is the building’s location: on a street corner across from a park in Monterrey, Mexico, a place where football is spelled futbol and is played primarily with a round ball and a rectangular goal.

But futbol americano, despite its name, is no longer foreign to Mexico, where the NFL says it has 20 million fans -- more than anywhere else outside the U.S.

“We have a great fan base down there,” says Mark Waller, the NFL’s chief for international marketing. “There’s just an increasing interest in things American.”

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Which may be why Mexicans are now angling for more than just a seat in front of the television set each Sunday. They want a place on the field too.

And that’s where Gonzalez comes in.

With a 210-34 record in 22 seasons at Monterrey Tech, Gonzalez has turned a school that was already the country’s most prestigious academic institution into Latin America’s top football school as well. Three of his former players are among the five Mexicans on NFL practice squads this season. Another, Rolando Cantu, became the first Mexican citizen to appear in an NFL game at a position other than kicker when he played guard on an extra-point attempt for the Arizona Cardinals in 2005.

OK, so it’s a humble start -- the University of Miami sent that many players to the NFL in just the first round of the draft one year. But for Mexicans it marks a major breakthrough, one that has them dreaming of bigger things ahead.

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“I still think that there’s a mark on the players, ‘Oh yeah, he’s from Mexico,’ ” Gonzalez says. “Until we end up with somebody really giving a kid a chance . . . it’s going to take time. But we’re getting closer.”

There are 18 players of Latino heritage on active NFL rosters this season and nine have Mexican roots, including offensive lineman Roberto Garza of the Chicago Bears and quarterback Antonio Ramiro -- better known as Tony -- Romo of the Dallas Cowboys.

But those players grew up playing high school and college football in the U.S. And that, Gonzalez says, gave them a huge advantage.

“When you graduate junior high and you go into a football program in the United States, you’re going into some of the best gyms or some of the best weight-training facilities that the city has,” Gonzalez says. “You have full-time coaching staffs that are teaching these kids. And we didn’t have that.”

When Gonzalez first came to Tech as an assistant coach in the early 1980s, the program didn’t even have weights. Players trained by lifting paint cans filled with cement.

On the field, the gap between Mexico and the U.S. was even wider, with the college team scheduling games across the border with junior varsity squads from Texas high schools.

“And we couldn’t beat them,” Gonzalez says. “We would beat three, four teams in Mexico, but we would lose against JV high school [teams] in the United States.”

They couldn’t beat them, but they learned from them. When a 29-year-old Gonzalez was hired as head coach at Tech before the 1986 season, he began copying what he’d been taught as a high school player and coach in Laredo, Texas.

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He commandeered a squat building that used to house the school’s printing office and turned it into a weight room. He began recruiting along the border for Mexican-born players and coaches, and sent his staff on fact-finding trips to major U.S. colleges or on summer internships to work with the likes of the Philadelphia Eagles and Minnesota Vikings.

He handed out inspirational slogans and thick playbooks, both written in English, and established a scholarship program -- at the time, a unique concept in Mexico -- that has become so ingrained that each player on Gonzalez’s 65-man roster is getting up to 90% of Tech’s $12,000 annual tuition.

There are also innovations outside the school. Tech coaches work with youth teams in the Monterrey area, helping that program grow to 32 clubs and more than 8,000 players. And a dozen years ago Gonzalez helped persuade Prepa Tech -- the blue-blood private high school affiliated with Monterrey Tech -- to field a football team as well.

A football team, the school’s administrators are quick to make clear. Not a football factory.

“Academics should be the priority. Academics is the priority,” says Prep principal Rafael Abrego from the sideline of the school’s football field, which sits in the shadow of the Cerro de la Silla, the 6,000-foot saddle-shaped peak that has helped define Monterrey as “the City of Mountains.”

But Abrego adds with a wink, “We’re delighted to have the people in the States peek over south of the border and say, ‘OK, there’s some kids there playing good football.’ ”

They may be better than good. That first year, Prepa Tech was pounded, 42-7, by Del Rio High, a school two hours west of San Antonio. But by 2005, with Roberto Rodriguez, a Gonzalez assistant, running the program, Prepa was winning all three of its games in Texas by a combined score of 126-26.

Many of the players from that team are now playing for Rodriguez and Gonzalez at Monterrey Tech, which heads into Saturday’s regular-season finale in Mexico City with a record of 9-0 and having won 26 consecutive games dating to 2006.

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If Tech follows Saturday’s game with two wins in the playoffs, Gonzalez will have his 14th national title and seventh in eight seasons.

Championships, though, aren’t the big prize for Tech any more. They’ve become so common that the team lists the national title game on its schedule each season. So with most of Mexico no longer providing much competition, the coaches and their players now must validate themselves on a bigger stage: the NFL.

It won’t happen overnight.

“They’ve improved a lot over the last 10 years,” says John Beake, a former NFL general manager who is a consultant to the league in international player development. “The players are eager. They’re getting better.

"[But] a player from Monterrey Tech going right to the NFL, that would be difficult.”

In 20 years, Tech has gone from losing to high school JV teams to a level of play Gonzalez compares with that of top-level NCAA Division III teams in the U.S.

But the obstacles remain numerous. Mexicans aren’t included in the NFL draft, for example. And even if they were, it’s unlikely any would be taken since no teams scout in Mexico.

The demise of NFL Europe has cut off another proving ground, one that paved the way to the NFL for Cantu and fellow Tech alums Ramiro Pruneda and Salomon Solano.

“Is the NFL just kidding us?” says Ricardo Garcia, the Panamanian-born English-speaking, play-by-play man for Tech’s football broadcasts, which can be seen nationwide as well as in parts of the U.S. “We don’t see [Mexican players] on Sunday. And the kids need to see that.

“We have to break down that barrier. Or jump over it.

“We have to find a way to get the NFL to pay attention to Mexican college football and stop thinking that the only source of talent is the U.S. colleges.”

The NFL’s Waller said that has already happened, citing the league’s five-year-old international practice squad program, which this year auditioned more than 100 players from Europe, Asia and the Americas for 16 spots in NFL camps.

But, he conceded, more can be done.

“We have a framework there. [But] I don’t think it’s robust enough,” he said. “I’m not sure that you have to be two or three times as good [to get noticed]. I do think you have to be two or three times as passionate, committed and dedicated to finding a route forward.

“There’s a system in the U.S. There’s a clear progression for you through high school, college and into the NFL. That’s a much harder route if you’re a foreign player.”

But it’s one Cantu and others have successfully navigated over the last three years. And that’s inspired others to follow.

“They’re opening big doors for us,” says Armando Villarreal, a 6-foot-5, 253-pound offensive lineman who played at Tech with the three players currently on NFL practice squads. “Obviously, that motivates us more. If our teammates can go, we have an opportunity to go too. We just have to prepare ourselves.”

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kevin.baxter@latimes.com


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