THE BUS was on I-35 just north of Laredo, Texas, with about 450 miles still to go and plenty of gas in the tank, when the driver suddenly pulled over to the side of the road. Assistant coach Gustavo Adame immediately knew why. Before the bus came to a halt, he sprang from his seat in the front and shouted in Spanish, "Paperwork, out! Passports, out! Visas, out! Ràpido!"
This is an article from the Oct. 27, 2008 issue
The 30 Mexican boys who had been reclining in their seats jumped up and reached for their knapsacks, where they kept the documents that showed they really did belong in the U.S., if only for two days.
"What have we got here?" the border patrol officer asked in Spanish as he stepped aboard. He paced the aisle, his head bobbing as he checked under the seats and in the overhead compartments. "A f√∫tbol team, I take it," he said, peering at the boys dressed in gray T-shirts with the name of their high school, PREPA TEC, spelled out in blue on the back. But then the officer stopped. "A f√∫tbol team or a football team?" he asked the players in the middle of the bus.
"F√∫tbol americano," the group replied.
"Ohhhh," the officer said. Satisfied that he wouldn't find anything stranger than helmets and shoulder pads aboard the bus, he turned his back on the boys and headed for the door. "I thought they were a soccer team," he said, shrugging, as he thanked the driver on his way out.
F√∫tbol americano. The very name reminded the Prepa Tec Borregos Salvajes, or Wild Rams, that the game they played did not belong to them. No matter how many hours these boys from Monterrey practiced, no matter how many touchdowns they scored or national titles they won, fans in the U.S. would not believe that many Mexicans love—and play—football almost as much as they do soccer. That was certainly true of the Borregos, who were halfway through a 15-hour bus trip in the first week of September, traversing the lonely desert to a town called Allen, 25 miles north of Dallas. There they would play the biggest game not only of their lives but also in the history of Prepa Tec football.
No Mexican high school team had ever faced a ranked 5A Texas school, much less one rated No. 4 in the state during the preseason. The Borregos had all seen the message boards.
[Allen] will win by 50!
Yeah, and that's if you start taking knees in the 3rd quarter. Teams from Mexico are typically about as bad as it gets.
The Borregos knew there were doubters. "Do you know who you're playing?" a Texas high school football writer asked Prepa Tec head coach Roberto Rodríguez a week before the game. Yes, he had heard about Allen's junior quarterback, Matt Brown, with his laser arm and quick feet, and about senior defensive back Steven Terrell, who'd already committed to Texas A&M, and about another senior bound for College Station, wide receiver Uzoma Nwachukwu, whose blazing speed and sixth sense for defensive holes enabled him to blow into the clear. But with this game, the Borregos would have a shot at what they wanted most: respect.
ONLY 30 years earlier the football team at Tec de Monterrey, the college with which Prepa Tec is affiliated, had faced Texas high school jayvee teams—and lost. Badly. Assistant coach Frank Gonàlez, who had played high school football in Laredo, watched Tec win every game against Mexican teams only to lose every ... single ... time against Americans. After three years of Tec wins and losses being separated not only by a hyphen but also by a border, Gonàlez devoted himself over the next few years to bulking up his players through weight training and to eradicating their sense of inferiority.
Over time Tec grew bigger, stronger, better. Gonàlez became head coach in 1985, and a decade later Tec began helping Prepa Tec develop a football program by donating scholarship funds, sharing its football staff and fields, and providing room and board for players from outside the Monterrey area. Other Mexican colleges followed Tec's lead, establishing feeder programs at high schools. But none could match Prepa Tec. Its high academic standards and its ability to provide scholarships that covered up to 90% of the $5,000-per-semester tuition lured the best players in the region.
From its very first season, in 1996, Prepa Tec sought competition across the border. That fall the Borregos limped home from their U.S. debut, a 42--7 loss to Class 5A Del Rio High, 150 miles west of San Antonio. The next fall Prepa Tec returned the favor, beating Del Rio 31--21.
Three years later Borregos athletic director Ramón Morales and then head coach Alfonso Cerna drove a truck to a number of Texas high schools, doling out business cards and asking coaches and athletic directors to squeeze in games against Prepa Tec during their bye weeks. In the coming years the Borregos would take down small Texas schools such as Rio Hondo High and challenge larger ones such as Strake Jesuit, Dallas Jesuit and Eagle Pass. They would beat Falfurrias and Hanna, and by 2005 they'd batter Port Isabel, near South Padre Island, 51--0. That led fans in Texas to ask coaches, whenever Prepa Tec appeared on their school's schedule, Do you know who you're playing?
That's what the police wanted to find out when they stopped the Borregos' bus in 2005 as it arrived for a game against Class 4A Rockport-Fulton High. The Borregos had trounced Class 3A Port Isabel the week before, and some Texas coaches had begun to wonder about Prepa Tec's success. Could the team be suiting up college players from Tec, with which Prepa shares coaches, plays and practice fields?
As undefeated Rockport-Fulton warmed up, the Rockport sheriff standing at the bus door asked the boys to come out one by one and present their visas. Rockport residents were embarrassed not only when every Prepa Tec player turned out to be 18 or younger but also when the indignant Borregos thrashed the Pirates 48--3. The Port Isabel and Rockport games were the first two wins in Prepa Tec's 10--1 streak against Texas teams over three years; the sole loss was at the hands of Class 5A El Dorado High of El Paso. The Borregos had won the Mexican title six times since the team's inception. But there was still that nagging question: Did it matter if you beat everyone without taking down a Someone?
ALLEN COACH Tom Westerberg had looked everywhere—Texas, Florida, Georgia—to fill the hole in the Eagles' schedule after their Week 1 opponent dropped them. "Who you need to call," Brownsville district athletic administrator Joe Rodriguez told Westerberg last March, "is Prepa Tec." Westerberg didn't have clue about the Mexican powerhouse. But within a month he was shaking hands and signing a contract with Borregos coach Rodríguez for a game this year and next.
On Sept. 4 Westerberg's players lined up to greet the Borregos in the Allen cafeteria. A table full of Dickey's BBQ, the Eagles' typical pregame meal, awaited. Allen sat the players together according to position; Nwachukwu, nicknamed Eazy, ate up his barbecue while saying just how much Prepa Tec receiver Ignacio Guerra, wearing a USC cap, seemed "just like me!" At another table Allen athletic director Steve Williams had red gift bags labeled with the names of the Tec players. Guerra rifled through his bag and yanked out the commemorative JUEGO DE F√öTBOL AMERICANO T-shirt and the red-framed sunglasses with ALLEN printed on the sides but stopped at the sight of the Chick-fil-A toy cow holding a sign that read EAT MOR CHIKIN. "What," asked Guerra, who like almost all of the Borregos is bilingual, "is this?"
"You know, the chicken," said Eazy, the Indiana-born, Texas-raised son of Nigerian immigrants. "Like the chicken dance."
Guerra looked even more perplexed.
"You know, the chicken dance," Eazy said, and he started to move his legs and flap his arms. A crowd instantly circled him and joined in. Prepa Tec cornerback Alcides Benítez commenced, booty shaking, to steal the spotlight. Three hours before kickoff Allen and Prepa Tec were already going at it—not in a game of downs but in a game of get down. Westerberg and his assistants laughed so hard that they held their stomachs, but off to the side Rodríguez and his staff sat stone-faced. They hadn't come this far to win some dance-off.
THE ESCADRILLE, Allen's band, drill team and color guard, almost 600 strong, had spent two weeks practicing Mexico's Himno Nacional. Five minutes before kickoff the band hit the opening chord of the anthem, and a group of Borregos parents waved the Mexican flag. Prepa Tec officials had spotted the flag during warmups and warned the parents to put it away. "This," the officials said, "is not a war."
On their side of the stadium Allen administrators were doing their best to suppress any jingoistic displays. They seized sombreros and confiscated BORDER PATROL T-shirts from students. They stopped a "U-S-A!" chant after an Allen touchdown. The Eagles, decked out in their school colors of navy, white and a touch of red, didn't hear any nationalism from Westerberg, who was more concerned about erasing the memory of their exit from the first round of last year's playoffs after a 10--0 regular season. But in the player-led team meetings earlier in the week Terrell, the prized defensive back, had told his fellow Eagles, "This is our Olympics."
En route to Texas, Prepa Tec players bunched in the back of the bus had all laughed as Mauricio Salazar, the linebacker who'd be responsible for pressuring the Allen quarterback, said, "They expect us to show up on burros, with a sombrero."
"Drinking tequila!" chimed in a teammate.
Prepa Tec running back Diego Villarreal didn't have a donkey, but he got on his horse at 7:30 p.m. sharp and returned the opening kickoff about 50 yards to the Allen 44. This, it appeared, was going to be a game. But Tec's 35-yard field goal attempt drifted wide, and after that its play went flat. Brown, Allen's quarterback, needed only six plays to find Eazy in the end zone with 7:13 left in the first quarter. One minute and 42 seconds later Allen running back Jeremy Reeves muffed a punt reception, recovered it at the Eagles' 34 and then broke four tackles on a 66-yard touchdown run to make it 14--0.
The Borregos struck back in the second quarter with a 12-play, 61-yard touchdown drive that ended with quarterback Jorge Sànchez's pass to Guerra in the end zone. But Allen would score three more times before intermission. "They're p------ on us! Look at the score," screamed Tec senior safety Alejandro Fabel as the Borregos headed to the locker room trailing 35--7. "This is a humiliation."
It would only get worse. Allen needed all of two plays and 49 seconds to score again in the third quarter. There is no mercy rule in Texas football, but that doesn't mean there's no mercy. Westerberg tried to empty his bench. The Eagles still drubbed Prepa Tec 55--15.
What do you say when you've come so far and lost so badly? Rodríguez cleared his throat and addressed his players, all bent on one knee along the sideline. "I sincerely believe we're better than what we showed tonight," he said. "We're going to learn from our errors and move ahead." The Escadrille was still playing Allen's anthem. "When you're down," Rodríguez stressed, "is when you've got to get up even faster."
The Borregos tucked their bloodied jerseys and bruised egos back on the bus. As it pulled away, headed for Mexico, everyone aboard thought about how much farther he had to go.
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Check out more photos of the Prepa Tec Borregos and the Allen Eagles in a gallery narrated by Melissa Segura.