By Mark Eckel, Player Engagement Insider
One dream has already come true for Rolando Cantu; now he wants a second one.
Cantu became the first Mexican-born, non-kicker to appear in a NFL game when he played for the Arizona Cardinals in 2005, after spending the 2004 season on their practice squad. He doesn’t want to be the last one.
“That would be another dream come true,’’ Cantu said of seeing another Mexico-born player suit up in the NFL. “I do have a lot of contacts at the college level. That’s where primarily the talent is. When there is a certain individual who has the qualities that the NFL wants, we’ve taken a look. There are some kickers who have been invited for workouts. I’m always focused on the next player to come out of Mexico.’’
Cantu, a 6-foot-5, 360-pound offensive lineman went to college at the Monterrey Institute of Technology and Higher Education in Mexico. A serious knee injury suffered in 2006 ended his short NFL playing career, but got him started on his next quest.
Now 35 years old, Cantu is in his 10th year with the Cardinals as their Manager of International Business Ventures. He also serves as a quasi-ambassador for not just the Cardinals, but the NFL, in Mexico.
“Denny Green, God rest his soul, gave me a shot,’’ Cantu said of the late, former Cardinals head coach. “It opened the door for football down in Mexico and slowly, but surely, I think we’ve been able to get more of a presence. We haven’t had another player make a team, but we have had some players get a shot in training camps.’’
Cantu grew up 160 miles south of Texas, so he knew the NFL as a youngster. He played Pop Warner Football, just like the kids in Texas, and eventually found his way to the Cardinals.
“I knew everything about the NFL,’’ he said. “The Cowboys were always on TV. The NFL was broadcasting in Mexico and we watched games all the time. Our traditions, as far as football, were the same as they were in Texas.’’
In Monterrey alone 9-10,000 kids play Pop Warner and in Mexico City there are over 40,000 kids involved.
“I don’t know if you would find any kids’ league around that use instant replay,’’ Cantu said. “In Monterrey, they use instant replay. They’re really serious about it down there.’’
Cantu played for Monterrey Tech in what used to be called the Big 10 of Mexico and is now known as ONEFA. That’s the same college that long-time NFL offensive line coach Juan Castillo, now with the Baltimore Ravens, played at for a year before transferring to Texas A&M-Kingsville.
Castillo, when he was with the Philadelphia Eagles under then head coach Andy Reid, hired Frank Gonzalez, Cantu’s college coach, as a training camp intern.
“Frank Gonzalez is the Vince Lombardi of Mexico,’’ Cantu said.
Under Gonzalez, Cantu worked his way from the college game in Mexico to a year in NFL Europe where his team won the 2004 Championship to a spot on the Cardinals’ practice squad to a spot on the 53-man roster.
“It was tough,’’ he said. “I had good size and speed. The explosiveness, the speed of the game was just so much different from NFL Europe and then to the NFL. It was a big jump.’’
Cantu made the jump from the field to the Cardinals’ offices rather smoothly. He helped set up the team’s Spanish department and helped build the Spanish Radio Network that features 41 affiliates in Arizona and Mexico.
“We collaborate with the NFL office down in Mexico,’’ Cantu said. “In the summer we do kids’ camps, cheerleaders’ camps. We started at the ground level. I’m blessed to work for the team that gave me a shot as a player.’’
Now he wants to see another Mexican player get that shot.
“I know there is talent in Mexico,’’ Cantu said “We just have to find it. It’s just a matter of time before we have another college player from Mexico who comes out and makes it. We have some great kickers who just need a shot. But everyone knows we have kickers. I think we definitely have some players at different positions, too. And one day they’re going to make it to the NFL.’’