University of Regina Rams head football coach Steve Bryce has some friendly advice for CFL officials attending the league's evaluation camp of Mexican prospects his weekend: Keep an open mind.
Mexico's Liga de Futbol Americano Professional, an eight-team semi-pro circuit, will host a combine Sunday for players hoping to play in Canada. Forty-five players are expected to participate in drills and interviews with CFL officials at Estadio Azul, a 33,000-seat stadium in Mexico City, which has a population exceeding 20 million.
A draft will follow the next day.
The CFL and LFA signed a letter of intent in November during Grey Cup week in Edmonton. The non-binding agreement calls for both sides to work together on several projects, including possible CFL games in Mexico.
For many CFL officials, Mexican football is an unknown entity. But Bryce said league GMs, coaches and personnel evaluators can expect to be surprised.
He should know. Last year, the Rams had two Mexican-born players on their roster — kicker Aldo Galvan and offensive lineman Steven Zambrano, who was redshirted. Bryce also is talking to another two prospects from Mexico about playing in Regina this season.
"Football is a fast-growing sport there, there's no shortage of talent," said Bryce. "It's not the NFL, the NFL is the elite top league of football in the world.
"But if you look up some of the names in the NFL who've been outstanding at their positions, the best offensive lineman was Anthony Munoz and the best tight end arguably was Tony Gonzalez (both Mexican-Americans)."
Prior to arriving at Regina, Bryce spent seven years as the head coach at Etiwanda High School in Rancho Cucamonga, Calif.
"I had many talented Mexican football players on my team," he said. "They're aggressive, disciplined, hard-working young men.
"These guys are unbelievably talented, they just haven't had exposure."
Regina isn't the only Canadian university with a Mexican-born player on its football roster. Diego Alatorre, a six-foot-three, 300-pound offensive lineman, played at the University of British Columbia last year.
"If you look at him, he's been very good," Bryce said.
Joe Kapp, another Mexican-American, is a member of the Canadian Football Hall of Fame. He played quarterback for both the Calgary Stampeders (1959-60) and B.C. (1961-66), leading the Lions to two Grey Cup appearances, winning one, before joining the NFL's Minnesota Vikings in 1967.
Another former CFL star, quarterback Jeff Garcia, is of Mexican and Irish heritage. He began his pro career with the Stampeders (1994-98) before playing for seven NFL teams.
Last summer in Mexico City, Mexico stunned the United States 33-6 in the semifinals of the under-18 world championship before losing 13-7 to Canada. Galvan and Zambrano both played for that Mexican squad.
Head coach Rick Campbell and offensive co-ordinator Jaime Elizondo, a native of Mexico, will represent the Ottawa Redblacks at the combine. GM Marcel Desjardins admits he's unsure about what to expect.
"I've seen very little film and when I say very little I mean very little," he said. "You absolutely have to go there with an open mind.
"It's a venture for all of us and whether it brings one player to the CFL or 10 is to be determined. It's the first step in what will probably be a multi-pronged approach to doing things internationally. You have to start somewhere."
John Gregory, a former CFL head coach with Saskatchewan and Hamilton, echoed Bryce's sentiments regarding the state of Mexican football. In 2017, Gregory served as commissioner of the National Arena League, an indoor circuit that operated with a franchise in Monterrey, Mexico.
Gregory was pleasantly surprised with the support he received conducting a coaching clinic in Mexico earlier this year, prompting him to write a book about coaching football. Gregory was invited to talk shop ahead of the launch of the Mexico City-based International Arena Football League, which is scheduled to begin operation this year.
"Let me tell you, there are many players there," he said. "There's definite potential there, for sure.
"I was told Mexico has had high school football for 50 or 60 years and anywhere from 40 to 90 colleges have teams playing American football. I was flabbergasted. Why we haven't known this? I don't know."
Bryce said Universidad de las Américas Puebla, commonly referred to as UDLAP, has the top collegiate football program, in Mexico. In 2016, the private university located in Cholula, Puebla — roughly 100 kilometres east of Mexico City — visited the University of San Diego for an exhibition game, dropping a 49-25 decision.
"They were much better than our players thought they were going to be," San Diego head coach Dale Lindsey said afterwards. "I really had great admiration for them. They never quit."
Dan Ralph, The Canadian Press