What aren’t there more Latinos playing and coach high school and college football?

What aren’t there more Latinos playing and coach high school and college football?

10/14/2020

Ruben Garcia, the head football coach and athletic director at Falfurrias High School in Falfurrias, Texas, didn’t think much of the small group chat he created.

The collection of Hispanic high school head football coaches, assistant coaches and athletic administrators in Texas was meant to help each other make connections, share coaching tips and football strategies.

The GroupMe chat that started with less than 20 peers in 2018 is now a coalition of 700 strong. 

"I didn't realize there was that many Hispanics out there coaching, you know coaching in general," said Armando Jacinto, the first president of the organization and the Spring Independent School District assistant athletic director. 

Ruben Garcia, head coach at Falfurrias High in Texas, is one of the founding members of the Hispanic Texas High School Football Coaches Association. (Photo: Lourdes Trevino-Cantu)

The feeling of surprise is warranted among the members of the newly formedHispanic Texas High School Football Coaches Association (TXHSFB). Not only in high school football, but every level of the sport. 

Even though Hispanic people are the largest minority in the country, according to the the United States Census Bureau, they are severely underrepresented when it comes to the Power Five conferences in college football and the NFL.

Anthony Muñoz reached the pinnacle of football in his career as the second Mexican-American inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. But he didn't see many who looked like him on the way there.

"I don't know, it's really interesting because they are such big fans of the game and there's not more participating," Muñoz said. 

In 2018-19, 417 of 15,710 (2.7%) Division I FBS players identified as Hispanic/Latino, according to the TIDES College Sport Racial and Gender Report Card. In the same year, eight players out of 1,357 (0.5%) identified as Hispanic or Latino in the NFL.

With National Hispanic Heritage Month ending Thursday, USA TODAY Sports spoke to several players and coaches to pose the question: Why are there so few Hispanics in big-time college football, which is often the path to the NFL?

Cultural differences 

Mike Garcia, a founding member of TXHSFB, wasn’t raised on football, but that didn’t stop him from winning a national championship with the University of Texas as an offensive lineman in 2005.

“Personally, I didn't grow up knowing really what football was,” said Garcia, who was raised on the east side of Houston. “As an Hispanic kid, I grew up watching basketball, and I grew up watching soccer and playing soccer.”

Garcia was hesitant to play football as a freshman in high school but eventually grew to flourish and began to admire players that came before him — like Muñoz, an offensive lineman with the Cincinnati Bengals for 13 years and an 11-time Pro Bowl player.

Former NFL lineman Anthony Munoz was an 11-time Pro Bowl player. (Photo: Kirby Lee, Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports)

Muñoz wasn’t as new to football as Garcia, but like many Hispanic children, football wasn’t at the forefront of his upbringing.

“My mom had to learn about the game, I had relatives that were learning about football, where baseball and sports like that, there was a lot of knowledge already there,” Muñoz said.

Some experts say the lack of Hispanic people in football is much more than a cultural barrier, however. Mario Longoria and Jorge Iber, co-authors of the book "Latinos in American Football," both said that Hispanic people are extremely family oriented and even though that is not necessarily a negative trait, it could be a factor in the low numbers of Hispanic players in big-time college football.

“Culture is not a deterrent,” Longoria said. “The only difference between the Latino and the White Anglo is the thought process. Latinos are always collective thinkers before they make a decision to do anything ­— they include their family and their extended family. Gringos are more individualists. If they're going to do something and anybody gets in their way, they're going to run all over you. Whether that's good or bad, I guess is a matter of opinion.”

In poverty, out of college 

Poverty is a major roadblock — especially in minority groups — for high school graduates attending college. In the U.S., the Hispanic population has the third-highest poverty rate at 17.6%, according to Poverty USA in 2018, behind African Americans (20.8%) and Native Americans (25.4%). 

Marcus Arroyo, in his first season as head coach at UNLV after serving as offensive coordinator at Oregon, knows for some Hispanic people going to college can be difficult because of a family-first mindset. He has seen cases of family hardship while on the recruiting trail.

Marcus Arroyo on the field prior to the game against Auburn at AT&T Stadium while the offensive coordinator for Oregon on Aug. 31, 2019. (Photo: Matthew Emmons, Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports)

“I literally heard someone say, ‘I can't go to school because I have to get a job. I have to go make more money to support my family,’” said Arroyo, who is one of just a handful of Hispanic head coaches of a Division I FBS program. He adds that in his experience the recruits who suffer from financial hardships are predominantly from minority communities.

Danny Gonzales, the head football coach at New Mexico State, recalled that he had multiple friends and teammates immediately join the workforce after high school in order to help provide for their families. His father dropped out of college to help his grandfather run his family’s auto shop as well.

Iber referenced Texas and California as two major hot spots for Hispanic immigrants, and that going as far back as the 1930s, Hispanic children would forgo college and football to work in the fields to support their families.

He sees the pattern today in meat processing plants and other industries where immigrants make up a bulk of the workforce. Iber, the associate dean for student affairs at Texas Tech, said these sons of immigrant workers are just now beginning to see greener pastures, though.

"For some, they are able to move into that lower middle-class, they're getting these kids into school and beginning to play football," Iber said. "But it took a while to get to that point. It's a 100-year process."

'Pretty good for a little Mexican kid' 

Sergio Gonzalez, another founding member of TXHSFB, was in eighth grade when he first realized he was different. Gonzalez was attending a football camp when a coach approached him.

“You’re pretty good for a little Mexican kid,” the coach said.

Gonzalez asked his father what the coach meant. 

“Well son, look around, how many kids look like you in these camps or on your team?” Gonzalez’s father said.

Garcia said on multiple occasions he has heard the slur "Itty Bitty Mexican" in football circles and one instance specifically struck him. While at a coach’s clinic, Garcia recalled that a Black coach jokingly said that he “had a bunch of IBMs” on his offensive line.

Garcia approached the coach afterwards to express how comments like that can have a profound effect on young players.

“As a Hispanic whose coached other Hispanics, who grew up playing football with non-Hispanic coaches, if I was to hear this from one of my coaches, it would definitely make me doubt that you as my coach had my best interests in your heart,” Garcia said.

Longoria and Iber said they believe the stereotype that Hispanic people are smaller physically than other ethnicities has impeded many young players when trying to get recruited by college programs. 

Los Angeles Chargers cornerback Michael Davis, who is half Mexican, has heard his share of jabs at his Hispanic heritage. 

Chargers cornerback Michael Davis against the Arizona Cardinals during a preseason game at State Farm Stadium on Aug. 8, 2019. (Photo: Mark J. Rebilas, Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports)

"‘Oh, you’re Hispanic? Then maybe you should just kick the ball,’ " Davis recalled being told. "There aren’t any obvious obstacles facing Hispanic players, but especially in a league like the NFL, everyone is predominantly Black or white, with just a handful of Hispanic players out there. So maybe some people look at Hispanic players differently, like, ‘Can you actually play?'”

Even Ron Rivera, head coach of the Washington NFL team, has dealt with insensitive jokes. Rivera is just the third Latino to become a head coach in the NFL, but before that he was the only Latino on the University of California football team. 

"Some of the jokes that they would tell really got to me," Rivera said of his days as a young player. "So certain things became personal to me. It was almost one of those things that drove me. It really did. I took some of it personal because it just makes you want to prove everyone wrong.”

Today's outlook

Nearly a decade ago, Muñoz partnered with the NFL in an effort to get more Hispanic children involved in football. These "character camps" are geared toward not only teaching Hispanic children about football, but also teaching teamwork and respect. 

The camps travel across the country to spread the love of football throughout Latin communities, and despite Muñoz seeing the excitement in Hispanic children to play football, there's still significant work to be done.

The amount of players who identified as Hispanic/Latino — not just in the FBS — but in all of Division I football decreased in 2019 from 3.2% to 3.0%, according to the TIDES report. 

Naturally, the top high school prospects in the country are recruited to Power Five programs and even in high school, Hispanic representation is small. According to Rivals, there are only two players with Hispanic surnames listed in the top 100 recruits of the 2021 class.

There is a shortage of Hispanic high school coaches as well. The TXHSFB's mission is to not only provide a space for networking and sharing coaching tips, but to help more Latino coaches ascend Texas' competitive coaching ladder.

The founding members of TXHSFB say coaches from all across the country have reached out in attempts to not only join the organization, but for help creating their own statewide groups.

History may remember Gonzalez's once small group chat as the beginning of a movement for Hispanic people in football. 

"I think we ignited a fire," Gonzalez said.

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