A Mexican Football Team Tackles Misperceptions
By Eli Saslow
The coaches had spent the previous two weeks teaching their players how to handle this moment -- how to cover their ears, or close their eyes, or pretend they were back on an empty field in Monterrey, Mexico -- but now that advice had been overwhelmed by a sensory overload. Thirty-nine kids from a private school in the Nuevo Leon province had spent four hours riding across the desert on a bus without air conditioning, blue shades pulled tight over the windows to block out the sun. The kids raised the curtains, looked through the glass and found themselves here.
The concrete grandstands of 14,000-seat Memorial Stadium had filled with fans banging yellow ThunderStix. A 125-piece band played the McAllen High School fight song while girls twirled flags to the beat. Twenty cheerleaders clapped and tumbled across the FieldTurf, which had been installed for $725,000 only a few months earlier. Hundreds of face-painted McAllen students locked arms in the bleachers and rocked from side to side, so that the stadium appeared to shake with them.
Players for the Prepa Tec Borregos, the best high school football team in Mexico, walked across the field 15 minutes before kickoff and marveled at what they called "un gran palacio," a great palace. The Borregos played their home games in front of fewer than 100 fans on converted soccer fields, and their classmates sometimes confused football with rugby. The players and coaches had crossed the border seeking to validate themselves -- to legitimize Mexican football -- by challenging one of the biggest high schools in the Rio Grande Valley of south Texas.
Borregos Coach Roberto Rodríguez dropped his clipboard on the visitors' sideline and kneeled. He asked his players to gather around and lock eyes with him, so they couldn't look into the stands. Many of them had played in Texas before with Prepa Tec, but Rodríguez had nonetheless prepared them for what he considered a dual foe: the McAllen team, and the pandemonium that surrounded it.
"You must ignore these distractions," the coach told his players in Spanish. "We have a job to do here. You must forget the fans. Forget the stadium. Forget all of Texas. We came here to ..."
Rodríguez's speech was interrupted by what sounded like a cannon's blast, and his entire team whipped around to look back at the field. The Borregos turned just in time to see 70 McAllen football players sprinting through the mouth of a giant, inflatable bulldog. They emerged through a cloud of dry ice and entered Memorial Stadium to a standing ovation.
Arturo Abrego, Prepa Tec's 18-year-old defensive captain, turned back to face his teammates.
"Esto está loco," he said.
Crazy. That's what McAllen Coach Tony Harris thought in June when he looked over his team's 2007 schedule and saw the Borregos listed for Week 4. All of the other schools on McAllen's schedule were from south Texas, led by coaches Harris considered friends and star players Harris had studied since junior high. But then, jammed into a previous bye week that once promised rest and recovery, Harris and McAllen's administrators had scheduled a lucrative home game against Prepa Tec. A virtual unknown.
During his 12 years as head coach, Harris had built one of the most consistent programs in Texas by refusing to be caught unaware. He had moved from Minnesota to Texas in 1986 to become a high school assistant coach before eventually landing the $85,000-per-year gig at McAllen. He met a local woman, got married and had two kids. His son's first word was "touchdown." Most residents in McAllen called him "Coach." His office sat near the center of town, under a white water tower decorated with a painting of the McAllen bulldog.
Folks in McAllen -- a city of 130,000 with a suburban feel and a dormant downtown -- considered Harris a celebrity. On the sideline at games, the redheaded coach wore a canary-yellow shirt, a purple McAllen tie and black sneakers. "I like to stand out," he said.
Harris followed the same meticulous routine each week during football season. After Friday night games, he gathered 13 assistant coaches at the school for 10 hours on both Saturdays and Sundays and crafted a game plan for the upcoming opponent. Then, each weekday morning, Harris met with the varsity players to study film of upcoming opponents during a 50-minute academic class called Football. The Bulldogs installed new plays on Monday afternoons and rehearsed them during two-hour afternoon practices for the rest of the week.
So what to do now, Harris wondered, with the Bulldogs scheduled to play a team from over there -- a team that never traded game film and rarely sent over its official roster? The game would count for McAllen in the regular season standings, and Harris told his players they would be responsible for representing "their team, their state and their country." Harris called other Texas coaches who had played against Prepa Tec during the last five years, and he pieced together a history that expanded the pit in his stomach.
After losing badly to Texas teams in 2001 and 2002, Prepa Tec had started to play competitive games ... and then actually scare teams ... and then, yes, even win some. By the time Prepa Tec traveled to play an undefeated team at Rockport-Fulton High School outside Corpus Christi in 2005, dubious Texas coaches had concluded that the Borregos were cheating by bringing college-age players. How else, coaches mused, could a team from Mexico beat Americans in their sport? And how could they ever win in Texas, the state that cared about football most and played it best?
The coaches at Rockport-Fulton conspired with local police to set up a makeshift sting. They stopped the Borregos' bus in the stadium parking lot and demanded to check the birth date on each player's visa. Indignant Borregos players pulled out their visas and proved they were all 18 or younger, but Texas coaches remained incredulous. One school canceled a game against Prepa Tec the following year.
"You can try to check visas and ages all you want, but there's no way to know what really goes on down there," Harris said. "It makes me a little uncomfortable not to know exactly what we're getting."
Harris had orchestrated nine winning seasons at McAllen, but his success came with a drawback. McAllen's loyal fans packed the home stands at Memorial Stadium, even for the occasional Tuesday night game, and they expected a winning team. Each winter, Harris watched as about one-third of south Texas head coaches were fired, usually for losing. He called his position a "dream job," and he planned to stay at McAllen as long as he could satisfy its fans and administrators.
Like him, they didn't appreciate surprises.
Two days before the Borregos traveled to play their Sept. 20 game against McAllen, 150 Mexican players shared two well-tended fields in Monterrey. Rodríguez, the Prepa Tec head coach, wore a straw cowboy hat and jogged between the two fields with a clipboard tucked under his right arm. Thirty years on the sideline had softened his muscular arms and broad shoulders, leaving him with a hefty paunch that he blamed on his beloved corn tortillas.
Around Rodríguez, mountains rose out of the desert like walls protecting the city -- Cerro de las Mitras to the west, Cerro de la Silla to the east -- and trapped the stale September heat. On this weekday afternoon, the on-field temperature was 102 degrees. Rodríguez saw a group of languid, sweaty Borregos players to his left and sprinted over to them. "Vámonos!" he said. Let's go! "Rápido, rápido, rápido, rápido, rápido!"
The Borregos program started as a college team at Monterrey Tec in the 1940s. Three decades later, the university added a high school feeder team at Prepa Tec, an elite private school located five miles away in the suburbs. The two schools work together to distill the top talent in Monterrey. Thirteen full-time coaches recruit players from youth leagues and offer them scholarships to play for Prepa Tec; the best performers for Prepa Tec eventually play for Monterrey Tec, which has won three consecutive Mexican college championships.
The schools share coaching staffs and a ram as their mascot, and they practice at the same time on adjoining fields at the college's complex. Players work out year-round for about two hours each day, resting for only two weeks at the end of football season. Coaches receive an annual three-week vacation, which they spend traveling as a staff to watch spring football practices at colleges such as Rutgers, Virginia and Iowa.
Prepa Tec coaches modeled their program after those in the United States, because they have few Mexican examples to follow. Even in Monterrey, Mexico's football epicenter, the sport remains a private school phenomenon. The city's 12 high school football teams compete for field space with more than 1,300 soccer teams. Even at Prepa Tec, the soccer team plays in a packed stadium on Friday nights, while the football team plays Saturdays in front of a few dozen students.
Ten years ago, the Borregos took over an abandoned printing plant on the college campus and filled it with dumbbells and free weights. Each Prepa Tec and Monterrey Tec player does a daily routine of squats, bench-presses, dead-lifts and shoulder lifts -- even during the season. Most Borregos enter the weight room as scrawny 14-year-olds for Prepa Tec. By age 22, a few thousand consecutive days of weightlifting later, they sometimes look like professional bodybuilders in their Monterrey Tec uniforms.
"We don't want to just be good football for Mexico," Rodríguez said. "We want to be good football -- for anywhere."
Both Borregos teams play run-heavy power football, and they bully local competition. Monterrey Tec has advanced to 11 consecutive national college championship games. Prepa Tec eviscerates most Mexican high schools by 40 points or more, even though it has no home stadium.
The search for a competitive game eventually took Prepa Tec Athletic Director Ramón Morales to south Texas in 2001. He stood up in front of about 20 Americans at a coaching convention, passed out his business card and said Prepa Tec wanted to schedule a few games in Texas each season. A few other Mexican high schools regularly competed in the United States in other sports, but they only made the long trip for tournaments. Morales suggested something new: Prepa Tec would travel to Texas to play single regular season games. It would pay the bulk of its own travel costs.
To some Texas coaches, that sounded like a promise of an easy win and easy money, because ticket and concession sales for one home game in south Texas sometimes total $75,000. Morales left the meeting with a long-term deal to play a few teams from the Rio Grande Valley each year.
"Maybe," Morales said, "they thought we would show up in leather helmets."
Prepa Tec hosted a party in honor of its annual student elections the day before the football team left for McAllen. One candidate for student body president at the $4,500-per-semester school had hired a rock band to play in the student parking lot. Another had arranged for a professional wrestler to grapple against students. Yet another was sponsored by a local BMW dealership, which had brought a fleet of cars to the school for promotional test-driving.
Arturo Abrego, the Borregos' senior captain, walked through the party with four friends, stopping to high-five boys dressed in tight jeans and hug girls in high heels. He wore an American Eagle shirt and a designer trucker cap, which he cocked sideways on his head. In his back pocket, he carried a Louis Vuitton wallet flush with cash. Sometimes, during moments like this, he found himself thinking, If only those Texas coaches could see me right now.
"Over there," Abrego said, gesturing north, "they think we don't have cars and we ride on donkeys and wear the big sombreros and we're all day drinking the tequila. ... Every time we go to the U.S., it's a chance to prove that's not what it is here. If we beat one school in Texas, then we're okay, too. Then we can play football, too."
Abrego had wanted for nothing during his youth in Monterrey, Mexico's wealthiest big city, and he detested the idea that anyone -- any American -- might pity or patronize him. He spoke fluent English. He listened to Tim McGraw and Kenny Chesney. He drove a new car with a holographic speedometer. He returned home from school each afternoon to eat a three-course lunch prepared by Andrés, his parent's hired helper.
His enrollment at Prepa Tec practically guaranteed Abrego's admittance to a top Mexican university, which he hoped to follow with a prosperous career in law or business. Abrego and most of his friends crossed over to the United States every month or so for what they called "America weekends," good for shopping or beach time at South Padre Island. Each time, Abrego crossed with a tourist visa. And each time, he looked forward to returning home.
Abrego's father, a life insurance salesman, had played college football in Mexico, and he introduced his son to the game at age 4. Abrego grew to 6 feet 2 and developed into a standout linebacker. He traveled with his eighth-grade team to a tournament in Cancun, and a Prepa Tec assistant coach noticed him there. A few months later, the Borregos offered Abrego a scholarship to Prepa Tec.
Now a senior, Abrego had matured into Prepa Tec's defensive play-caller -- a hard hitter with a knack for anticipating the direction of plays. Largely because of his work ethic, coaches expected Abrego to become an eventual star for the Monterrey Tec college team. He had not missed a practice in three years. Most of his 18-year-old friends, legal drinkers in Mexico, stayed out at clubs until 4 a.m. on some weeknights; Abrego, who abstained from drinking during the season, usually stayed home. Like all Prepa Tec players, he needed to maintain a B average to keep his football scholarship.
On this weekday afternoon, Abrego's schedule required constant motion. He returned home from the election party, ate a quick meal, checked his e-mail and then headed back out the door. Because Abrego drove to practice during Monterrey's epic rush hour, he allowed 90 minutes for the five-mile trip.
Abrego piled his football equipment into his trunk and backed out of the family's driveway. He turned right and weaved through his suburban neighborhood, descending from the foothills of suburban San Pedro. He turned his radio to 100.3 FM, his favorite country station. It was an American station, based out of Brownsville, Tex. But the radio waves carried south to Monterrey, unaffected by the border.
The Borregos left for McAllen at 9:45 a.m. on the day of their game, and coaches instructed each player to clutch his visa in hand for the duration of the ride. Adrián Bladé, a junior defensive end, sat near the front of the bus and twirled the plastic card in his hand. At the bottom of the card, underneath Adrián's photo, a message was inscribed in big red letters: "US employment NOT authorized."
"Good," Bladé said. "I don't want to work for them anyways."
Bladé gathered a group of freshman teammates near his seat for an impromptu lesson on how to talk trash in the United States. During his five previous trips to Texas, Bladé had discovered a method to infuriate: Talk trash in Spanish at the start of the game, he said. Then, when the Borregos steal the lead, switch to insults in English. "That's two surprises right there," Bladé said. "They're losing and you speak English."
The players laughed and then reclined in their seats to watch a dubbed version of "The Benchwarmers" as the bus driver lit a cigarette and steered out of town on the Highway Garza Sada. Later in the day, a caravan of Prepa Tec parents would trace this same route on their way to watch the game, driving alongside the dry bed of the Santa Catarina River, past oil refineries, past the run-down border-town bars of Reynosa. By the time the team bus pulled over at the U.S. border just after 1 p.m., the temperature onboard topped 90 degrees. Players shook sweat from their shirts -- "hace calor, hace calor," they complained -- and then got off the bus.
Coaches had planned for an hour at the border on account of possible lines, and the players carried their football equipment into an empty brown stucco building. They showed their visas to customs officials and then placed their equipment in an X-ray machine. Nine minutes later, the team emerged on the other side of the building, welcomed to Hidalgo, Tex., by an EZ Pawn and a Whataburger.
With five hours left until kickoff, the Borregos stopped for the $6.95 lunch buffet at Golden Corral. Then they spent two hours shopping at a McAllen mall. Bladé was just about to walk into the mall -- into, finally, some air-conditioning -- when an assistant coach stopped him.
"You need to shave," the coach, Jose Luis Gascon, said in Spanish.
"But I've been growing my beard for two weeks," Bladé said. "It looks good."
"You look old," Gascon said.
"But I'm still 17 with a beard," Bladé said.
"Yes, I know," Gascon said. "You are as young as everybody else here, but that's not the point. We don't want them to have suspicions."
Bladé shook his head in a final protest. Then he walked into the mall, borrowed a razor from a friend and spent 10 minutes shaving in the public restroom. When Gascon saw him a few hours later in the visiting locker room at Memorial Field, the coach nodded in approval. Bladé looked like a teenager again.
During their week of preparation, McAllen coaches had referred to the Prepa Tec game as a defining moment in their season. After losing 35 seniors to graduation, the Bulldogs had started the year 2-1. Their young skill players had shown both tantalizing talent and a penchant for inexplicable mental lapses. Harris craved consistency before McAllen played its first district game the next week.
"Do you want to go into the heart of our season with momentum, or with a thud?" Coach Harris asked his players before they played the Borregos. "Let's stand up and defend our house!"
But when Harris spoke privately to his assistant coaches, he remained convinced that the game hinged largely on the ages of the Prepa Tec players. Had the Borregos brought any college kids? How many? And how old? Even though each Borregos player had showed a visa with an age of 18 or younger to a customs official at the border, one McAllen assistant saw a group of Prepa Tec players with ripped muscles and wondered out loud: "Are they 17? Nineteen? Twenty-three? Who knows?"
The Borregos started the game on offense, and Rodríguez called for a series of power runs up the middle. During the next five minutes, the Borregos coach rotated three running backs, and McAllen stopped none of them. Prepa Tec moved 76 yards in 14 plays for the game's first touchdown, attempting only one pass.
One sideline erupted in celebration, and the other devolved into chaos. Harris paced and jabbered into a sleek black headset. His assistant coaches huddled together in the press box and reviewed digital printouts of their defensive formations, searching for flaws. Manny Udor, a running back, threw his water bottle onto the McAllen bench. "Come on!" he said. "They can't be this good."
Udor and the Bulldogs' offense went backward more often than they went forward. Abrego made 12 tackles, and the Borregos forced a safety, two fumbles and an interception. Late in the fourth quarter, as he watched his McAllen team lose yards on another running play, Harris pounded his right fist into his left hand. "Their kids should be wearing license plates," he said, "because they're running over us like trucks."
With three minutes left, Abrego exited a 19-0 blowout and wrapped Rodríguez in a hug. The linebacker sat down on the bench, closed his eyes and tilted his head skyward. The McAllen fans had left, and the big stadium was eerily quiet. The cheerleaders were packing their bags. The band had set down its instruments. All Abrego could hear were the cheers of 20 Prepa Tec parents, the team's only die-hard fans. They chanted high in the section above him -- "BO-RRE-GOS, BO-RRE-GOS, BO-RRE-GOS" -- and their words echoed off the aluminum bleachers and bounced across the stadium.
"It sounds," Abrego said, "like we're playing back in Mexico."
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