Latinos love American football, but almost none make it to the NFL

NOGALES, Ariz. — Benjamin Ley-Shipley is like thousands of teenagers in America. He plays football in high school, he loves the game and hopes to compete in the next few years at the college level.

He stands out as a running back, defensive back, and member of special teams. In addition, he suffers watching the games of his favorite team, the Chicago Bears.

And like a growing proportion of the US population, it is also Latino.

“I tried football in the eighth grade and just fell in love with it, with the teamwork that went into it,” Ley-Shipley said. “There is nothing like this. If you are weak in one aspect, it could affect everything else.”

The popularity of American football in this town of about 200,000 on the Arizona-Mexico border often takes a backseat to soccer, baseball or basketball. But there is no doubt that American football has gained substantial presence in recent decades.

Ley-Shipley, whose father is Mexican, had just finished his senior season of high school when he received signs of interest from some NCAA Division III college programs.

“I just hope they know there are some good players around here,” said the 18-year-old.

There’s a curious phenomenon in American football: The sport continues to grow among an already substantial base of Latino fans, particularly Mexicans and Mexican-Americans. But that hasn’t translated into more Latinos playing in the NFL or even at the college level.

It is clear that Latinos love American football, particularly in Mexico. That passion will be on display Monday night when the Arizona Cardinals take on the San Francisco 49ers at Estadio Azteca in Mexico City.

The stands are expected to be packed for this game, one of five the NFL will play abroad this season — the others in Europe.

According to a report from the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports, in 2021 there were only 12 players in the NFL who identified as Latino. It is less than 1% of the league total.

The number has remained practically the same in the last 20 years, although categories have been modified and added. About 10% of league participants identified as having “two or more races” in 2021.

The numbers for NCAA Division I college players are slightly better, with 3.4% identifying as Latino.

But those statistics fall far short of the 18.7% of the US population that identifies as Latino, according to the 2020 census.

Nogales coach Jake Teyechea said he has worked hard to get more players watched by college coaches. Ley-Shipley and offensive lineman Esteban Acevedo could well make it to a college team, he said.

“This comes down to having coaches here,” Teyechea said. “We all want the same thing for them. We want them to grow up, to be better men and to help where they can. I want these schools to step up and provide an opportunity. I think they would be surprised at what they can find.”

Monday’s duel between the 49ers and Cardinals comes 17 years after the two teams were part of the first NFL regular season game played outside the United States, precisely at the Azteca.

Arizona beat San Francisco 31-14 in 2005, in front of more than 100,000 fans.

This will be the fifth game of the regular season to be held at the Azteca Stadium and the first since 2019.

Rolando Cantú was part of that 2005 Cardinals team as a member of the offensive line. Currently, he is an analyst for Telemundo. He’ll be working on Monday night’s game and says he’s looking forward to seeing Mexico City once again as an NFL hotspot.

“Instantly, the atmosphere becomes playoff-like or Super Bowl-like, no matter what teams are involved,” Cantu said. “Everything has changed a lot, the fan base is very young. The NFL has done a great job building this new support with the kids’ camps.”

“Every year the fans get more involved.”

Cantú also credited the NFL for expanding the reach of flag football in Mexico, a more affordable variant for some children, because it does not require the purchase of helmets and other equipment that is prohibitively expensive for many.

As the NFL looks for expansion opportunities outside the United States, Mexico City could make sense. One advantage is that time zone considerations would not be an issue (as they might be with a team based in some European city).

Also, getting to Mexico would require a rather short flight for many teams, particularly those that play in Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Phoenix or Houston.

“It’s a regular business trip,” Cantu said. “When you go to London or Germany, you really have to plan the logistics.”

The Cardinals’ roster includes two Latino players — Max Garcia and Will Hernandez. Both are part of the offensive line.

Garcia’s father is Mexican, and the 31-year-old is proud of his heritage. Last week, in the Cardinals locker room, he wore a hoodie that said on the front: “Yea…I’m Latino.”

Garcia is confident that the number of Latinos in the league will grow.

“As this sport progresses and we reach more countries, this will evolve,” he said.

Cantu agreed. In the mid-2000s, when he played, it was rare to see a Latino last name on the numbers of an NFL jersey. This is beginning to change, although progress is slow.

“It’s a process,” Cantu said. “Will (Hernández) is a perfect example. His parents are from Mexico City, he grew up in Las Vegas and worked his way up this football ladder. American football opened the doors for him. Most Latino communities have student-athletes who can do this. And I think we’ll see him more in the league.”

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Latinos love American football, but almost none make it to the NFL