UIW's Asencio lives American dream

It was painful to look at. The University of the Incarnate Word Cardinals were getting blown out 52-21 by Sam Houston State. Senior Juan Asencio could barely look at the scoreboard.

UIW, a private Catholic university in San Antonio with about 10,000 students, started football in 2007 and is currently transitioning to the Southland Conference in the Football Championship Subdivision. Coming into the game, UIW was flying high after winning two straight games to start the season. Asencio, a 5-foot-11, 220-pound senior linebacker/kick returner, had played a key role in the success, as one of only three players in school history to have more than 200 tackles in his career and the owner of school records for the longest interception return and the most interception return yards in a single season. Yet, against Sam Houston State, a perennial FCS power, nothing was going right. And for a fraction of a second while looking at the scoreboard, Asencio thought about packing it in.

He couldn't, though.

Asencio knew his mother and father would disapprove, and there was no way he was going to let them down -- especially after everything his parents had gone through to give him the chance to wear his white and black No. 48 jersey that Saturday night.

Asencio doesn't remember much about when he arrived in Orlando, Fla., in 1995 at age 4, with his father, Juan, and mother, Barbra. His only memories of the move are how clean everything seemed at the airport and how big the buildings were. Unlike the millions of others that stroll through the airport in Orlando on their way to Disney World, the Asencios weren't on vacation.

They were fleeing Cuba as refugees, escaping Communist dictator Fidel Castro.

Under Castro, religion in Cuba had become almost totally secularized. According to many reports, only about 2 percent of the population attended church and those who did were almost entirely Catholic. Asencio's family made up an even smaller subset of those practicing because they were Seventh Day Adventist. "Because of our religion, we can't work and do things on Saturdays," Asencio explained. "They tried to make him work, and he said 'No, I don't want to work on Saturdays. I don't see that as being good. It's against my religious beliefs. God doesn't want me to work on Saturdays, and you can't make me.'

"It was something my father was very passionate and serious about. He didn't want to be controlled by a tyrant."

As a result, Asencio said his father was sent to Correctional El Acueducto, a military prison in Camaguey, Cuba, for six months in 1980. Then, in 1993, he tried to flee the country illegally and was sent to prison a second time, this time for two years at Combinado de Guantanamo. According to a US State Department report, Combinado de Guantanamo is one of the world's worst prisons; physical and psychological torture are the norm and inmates are exposed to heat and humidity, mosquitoes, scorpions, flies, ants and lizards. Asencio's mother also suffered through major difficulties during her husband's incarceration. Barbra Asencio moved her young son from Havana to Guantanamo to be near her husband, but she didn't have a job or help raising Juan. She did all she could to make ends meet, but still had to rely on assistance from her husband's family and the goodwill of neighbors.

"It was really hard," Barbra Asencio said. "We were helpless."

Good news finally arrived after two years and through involvement by the U.S. government. Because Asencio's father was a political prisoner in jail for his religious beliefs, the U.S. offered him residency and Cuba allowed him to leave with his family. It was an opportunity the Asencio family couldn't pass up.

"My parents really don't talk much about it," Asencio said. "It was a prison in a third-world country. All my dad ever says is, 'Hey, we did all this sacrifice for you, so you better take advantage of it. We did it for you. We didn't want you to grow up in a third-world country and experience some of the horrible things that we had to.'

"It's important for me to do well in life. I have to. For them."

Barbra Asencio believed her son would do well, but she never would have guessed that football would be the way her son would fulfill his American dream. After first being introduced to the sport by neighbors at 8, he was hooked on highlight tapes of former Texas running back Ricky Williams. Asencio developed into an honorable mention all-state linebacker his senior season at Pflugerville (Texas) Hendrickson.

Alcorn State and UIW extended scholarship offers. He selected UIW because of the small class size and the chance to build the Cardinal program from the ground up. He also fell in love with San Antonio, the nation's seventh largest city and a community that is around 60 percent Hispanic.

Asencio made an immediate impact as a freshman, starting six games. He then became a central figure in the UIW program as a sophomore and junior, leading the team in tackles in 2011 and finishing third in 2012. He also was key on special teams, averaging a school record 28.1 yards a return as a junior, but he is most proud of being named to the Lone Star Conference Commissioner's honor roll for the second straight year.

"Juan's a unique talent because he's 220 pounds and can run fast," UIW coach Larry Kennan said. "He's one of our kickoff return guys, and a very good one. Another thing about Juan, he's a really fine human being in everything he does. He works hard. He's very respectful. He's going to be a great success in life."

The school celebrates deep ties with the Hispanic community and roughly 10 percent of the Cardinal roster is Hispanic. "Sometimes we have the stereotypes of 'Oh, they're not going to finish school. They're going to be in gangs. They're just going to work in construction. Or they're just going to have a bunch of kids,' " Asencio said. "The number of Hispanics starting to go to college is really on the rise. And now we're also starting to get into sports more. Not just a specific sport. It's more than soccer. We can play soccer. We can play baseball. We can play football. We can play anything.

"It's a melting pot -- a big mixture of different cultures and different races. So as long as we can get more Hispanics playing football and embracing it, I think it'll be a great thing to see."

After graduation, Asencio would like to attend the Austin Police Academy and dreams of working as an FBI agent or a U.S. marshall. He wants to find a way to give back to his country because of the opportunities he's been afforded. But he still has to play out the rest of his senior season before he can get to that point, and knows there might be more moments like last Saturday night when things don't always go his way. That's when he will think of his parents and everything they've gone through to give him this opportunity.

"I feel blessed every day, and I know it's a cliché to say you're living the American dream, but I am because of my parents," Asencio said. "You have those days when you're down. I just have to dig deep and just think about where I came from and the sacrifices that my loved ones had to do for me to have this kind of life. It helps me get through the day a lot, even when it's going pretty bad."