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American football grows in Mexico

Nov 20, 2007, 11:29 AM 0
It's Saturday afternoon,the hot dogs are slathered in jalapenos,and the stadium is already rocking two hours before kickoff.In the sprawling suburbs of Mexico City,it's time for some college football.Although it toils under the imposing shadow of soccer,college football is blossoming south of the border,selling out stadiums from Monterey to Mexico City.Its fiercely loyal fan base is spawning a generation of young people who prefer pigskin to penalty kicks."The sport is just tough,it's exciting," said Luis Angel Gamboa,a third-year student at National Polytechnic Institute."The emotion,the adrenaline,the nerves.I like the way they blast each other." On a recent game day at a stadium perched dramatically in the hills of the valley of Mexico,fans scream themselves hoarse with off-color taunts and wave giant team flags.It's the Savage Sheep vs. the White Eagles,a semifinal playoff game featuring hardscrabble public university National Polytechnic Institute and its working-class fans vs. the posh Monterey Tech campus in the state of Mexico."This is a good as it gets for us," said Daniel Flores,a retired professor at the National Polytechnic Institute,decked out in full White Eagles regalia."It's just like up [ in the United States ],but the spirit is even more fanatical here." Football's roots in Mexico run deep,fueled mostly by returning migrants and the emergence in the 1970s of televised NFL games.Mexico City's Azteca Stadium boasts the NFL's alltime attendance record (112,376 for a 1994 exhibition game between the Dallas Cowboys and Houston Oilers) and Mexican TV networks broadcast NFL games every Sunday.A popular Mexico Ciy movie theater chain even shows "Monday Night Football" on its big screens.But for live football,serious fans turn to the nation's 12-team college league,which is fed by hundreds of pee-wee teams and a growing number of high schools."It's a very passionate fan base," said Alejandro Morales,director of the Mexican football hall of fame. "We have a big infrastructure for football in Mexico that a lot of people don't know about." Mexican universities have been playing the sport since the 1920s.The ONEFA,Mexico's football-only version of the NCAA,was formed in 1978.The league originally drew its popularity from Mexico City's massive public schools,but private schools in the north have dominated in recent years.Stadiums resemble the fields at large U.S. high schools,and the level of play is comparable to small U.S. colleges.For the past 20 years,Mexican college all-stars have played NCAA Division III standouts in the annual Aztec Bowl.Thi year's game will be played in Chihuahua,Mexico,on Dec.6.The league's quality is steadily improving,analysts and scouts say.The ONEFA has sent two offensive lineman,Rolando Cantu and Ramiro Pruneda,to the NFL in recent years.More than 20 graduates of the Mexican league have played in NFL Europe,which folded earlier this year.Mexican coaches regularly travel to coaching clinics at American universities like Florida State and Texas,learning the latest strategies and techniques."Obviously,that's helping the quality of the league," ONEFA president Alfredo Trejo said.The league also imports players from the U.S. mostly from high schools in the Southwest.Mexico's most succesful.After graduating from high school in Califonia's Imperial Valley,the Mexico-born Padilla ended up in Monterey after being recruited by Tech coaches.He said he didn't know college football existed in Mexico while growing up,but he's gotten a chance to shine so much that he will try out for NFL scouts next spring."I see Monterey as a good jump to the next level," Padilla said."We have great players here... In five years you're going to see a lot more [ Mexican players in the NFL]."

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