Voices: Latino Football Fans Are Nothing New

Image: Preparations for Super Bowl XLIX
A golf cart passes outside the stadium in preparation for Super Bowl XLIX at University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Arizona. LARRY W. SMITH / EPA

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BOSTON, Mass. -- I first learned of American football in 1973, when I was about 4 years old and my dad had come back from some IBM conference in Dallas with a reddish-brown official NFL game ball, Calvin Hill edition. I remember it vividly: my rather loud Papi in his sharp navy blue '70s executive suit giving me this humongous football (everything looks gigantic when you’re 4) in the backyard of my abuelos’ home in Guaynabo, Puerto Rico.

I had no idea what Papi had given me. What was it? And who was Calvin Hill? I knew about the great baseball player Roberto Clemente, who died months before. I knew about Cepeda and Marichal and the Alou brothers, but Calvin Hill?

“He plays for the Dallas Cowboys, America’s Team,” my dad told me.

I shrugged and grabbed the football with both my hands. I could barely hold it.

Three days later, my Dad turned on the television in the middle of the afternoon on a Sunday. A Sunday! My abuela let him do it because he was the youngest of four children, and still in his 20s.

“You have to see these Cowboys,” Papi said. “I was at the stadium two weeks before.”

And that’s how it began.

Texas Stadium. A team with stars on its helmets and stars on the field. Roger Staubach. Calvin Hill. Bob Hayes. A stoic coach named Tom Landry. The Cowboys won easily, 31-10, over the Philadelphia Eagles. We became Cowboy fans in Guaynabo, Puerto Rico. Even my abuela.

The N.F.L is trying to gain more Latino football fans. But in 1973 in Guaynabo, Puerto Rico, even my Abuela was rooting for the Cowboys.

A few years later, when I was a middle schooler living in El Bronx, Nueva York, my mom and stepdad gave me a real-life Cowboys helmet, shoulder pads and a Staubach jersey for my 12th birthday. During that time, sandlot football — you know, when neighborhood kids would just go out and play — was all the rage where I lived.

Everyone had their uniform: Cowboys, Raiders, Steelers, Jets, Giants, Dolphins — one kid even had Buccaneers gear. We would play until it got dark. In the rain. In the snow. Then we would run to the local luncheonette to eat and revel in our feats.

It was pure joy.

Eventually, I took a chance at organized football, trying out for my freshman high school team. At the time, I wanted to be a wide receiver like Chris Collinsworth, the Cincinnati Bengal who was having a monster year. All my dreams of being the boricua Collinsworth dashed away the moment I got hit going after a football.

My football career was over. It had never begun.

To this day, as the NFL becomes the most popular (and most hated?) sports league in the United States, I still follow the game. Not with the same joy as before now nor with the same passion as real fútbol, but it hasn’t hurt that I live just 30 minutes from Gillette Stadium, where Tom Brady and Company have spoiled Bostonians for years. Even as the rest of the country calls the New England Patriots cheaters, I guarantee every other fan of every other team would take Brady and Bill Belichick in a heartbeat.

U.S. Latinos have become a “target audience” for the N.F.L., but we have been here all the time.

My stories from Guaynabo and The Bronx? Similar ones played out in the homes of my friends growing up, whether it was in Houston, Los Angeles, Miami, Chicago or DC.

It seems a bit bizarre to me that we hear more and more about “fútbol norteamericano” when in fact, the children of the '60s, '70s and '80s already knew about greats such as Joe Kapp (“The Toughest Chicano”) Tom Flores, Jim Plunkett, Antony Muñoz and Ron Rivera. We would also joke around whenever the placekicker would come out, too. They always seemed to be Latin American.

But here we are. The NFL is going Latino on us, whether by hyping Victor Cruz’s tropical moves or embracing new fans through an exclusive Spanish-language Super Bowl broadcast.

Fact remains, we have always been here, and a lot of us still remember those simpler times. Now there is the NFL and El Gran Tazón. But as for me, I don’t need the flash to remind me of that first day, 42 years ago, when I started my love-hate relationship with this country’s most popular sport.