Denver linemen are happy to inspire

Louis Vasquez and Manny Ramirez protect Peyton Manning on the Broncos' offensive line. AP Photo/Paul Spinelli

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Looking back on it now, Denver's Manny Ramirez can't remember the moment, the day or even the week when things changed in how he looked at football and his place in it.

He just knows at some point in his time at Houston's Willowridge High School, he looked around the huddle, the locker room, and a simple reality set in.

"I didn't start to pay attention to anything about the NFL until I got to high school," Ramirez said. "I just played in the neighborhood when I was a kid because I loved to play and in seventh grade, I probably started to play organized [football] to stay out of trouble. But then I played as I went through school. I just played and played, and my teammates were my teammates.

"But in high school, I do remember looking around at one point and really thinking about it. I suddenly sort of realized, 'You know, I'm the only Hispanic player in here.' I think from that point on it's become something I've appreciated and respected. It's important to me for kids to look at me, maybe Mexican-American kids who are growing up like I grew up, and see the NFL is out there for them if they work and believe."

The NFL is the nation's undisputed sports king, a phenomenon that crossed virtually every economic and cultural barrier along the way. And it is no surprise that what has been characterized as the fastest-growing demographic group in the nation is on board as well. There are some projections that the Hispanic population in the United States could triple by the year 2050.

Statistics from the NFL show just more than 50 players of Hispanic heritage were on NFL rosters league-wide during training camp. Players such as Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo, Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez, Bears center Roberto Garza and Ramirez. But Ramirez need only look to his right when he lines up over the ball as the Denver Broncos center to see another, in guard Louis Vasquez. The pair will be in the lineup Monday night, as the Broncos host the Oakland Raiders (8:30 p.m. ET, ESPN).

Like Ramirez, Vasquez is a native Texan (Corsicana), who simply played football in his youth because he enjoyed it and, well, he was on his way to his current towering 6-foot-5, 335-pound frame.

"I grew up 50 miles south of Dallas, and when I was a kid it was just Cowboys all the time. They had [Troy] Aikman, Emmitt [Smith], Michael Irvin -- they won all the time," Vasquez said. "I liked football, and the team right there was the best team, it was a natural thing. We all loved the Cowboys, you know? The Cowboys were Cowboys, I didn't really see anything beyond that, probably."

And like Ramirez, it was when Vasquez reached high school, when colleges had taken notice of the towering lineman with powerful hands and smooth technique, when he suddenly took notice of people and places.

"I didn't really watch the NFL and think I didn't see many Hispanics, it didn't even really dawn on me in that way," Vasquez said. "But when I was playing in high school, people would ask me sometimes, 'Why are you the only Mexican on the team,' and I really started to look around at that point and said, 'Man, there aren't many in the NFL or anything.'"

And Vasquez said when he was trying to decide where he might play college football, that he visited the University of Texas, as many prep players hope to do with visions of being a Longhorn dancing in their heads. He said: "But it just didn't feel right for me, for whatever reason." So, he kept looking, kept listening to various recruiters make their pitches. Kept checking the map to see how far he might have to go over the horizon to keep playing.

He ruled out Texas A&M, he said, and then took a visit to Lubbock.

"And at the time I'm starting to worry a little bit about where I'm going to end up and those kinds of things, and then I go visit Texas Tech," Vasquez said. "And they're taking me through the facility and I'm meeting some of the guys and it feels like there's a lot of potential for that to be the place. And then I meet Manny and Manny was just like me. Manny's like my brother now. You know, we've been around each other a long time, but Manny was kind of my host on that recruiting trip and now we're together again."

But in all of the inevitable questions of why that began to swirl in their heads as they also began to think of themselves as future adults with careers and families and responsibilities, there was also a name that began to enter the football conversation as well. A milepost, someone, like them, who came before them.

Someone both Ramirez and Vasquez had to discover.

"My high school coaches started calling me 'Munoz,'" Ramirez said. "When I would do something good in practice, or make the right pickup, showed some good technique, they would say something like, 'Way to work, Munoz.' So, I went and looked him up and figured out that wasn't just a compliment. Anthony Munoz was somebody I could aspire to be as a football player. Not like a Hall of Famer, but just somebody who did his job and did it well as a professional football player. I could relate to that."

Vasquez, too, said Munoz's name started coming up again and again and that he, too, took to a bit of research to see more about the Hall of Famer's playing career.

"Basically, I saw somebody who looked like me in the Hall of Fame," Vasquez said, "and that was a pretty big realization."

It can be easier to give directions once you've been down the road, easier to show the way once you've been where others want to go. Munoz hasn't taken an NFL snap since 1992 and the member of the NFL's 75th Anniversary Team was enshrined into the Hall of Fame in the Class of 1998. But the thought of two offensive linemen for the Denver Broncos, in 2013, having once poured through his career statistics brings a smile to his face.

"Wow, it's pretty neat for me to hear that," Munoz said with a hearty laugh. "Every culture can have firsts -- Tony Dungy, first African-American coach to win a Super Bowl. But you think back to those Raiders teams that won the Super Bowl with Tom Flores as head coach and Jim Plunkett at quarterback and, heck, that was 30 years ago. Those were people I looked at. When you think of someone looking at you, there is a pride there."

"I know in my own life, that sort of connection between being Mexican-American and playing football wasn't really something I thought about too much maybe until I got in the NFL," Munoz continued. "Growing up as a kid, we never lost our culture. Even though I've always considered myself proudly to be an American, I am, have always described myself as a Mexican-American. There's a lot of pride with the culture. Even in college, at USC, I was very proud to represent people. The neat thing about it was for 10 years, with the Bengals, we had two guys, myself and Max Montoya."

Ramirez said when he returns to Earth each offseason -- as in Earth, Texas, where he makes his offseason home with his family -- his heritage and his profession are on the minds of the children in front of him as he does appearances here and there.

"Especially when I go back home I think it's something people are aware of, that kids can relate to, that it is possible," Ramirez said. "And everyone once in a while in Denver, I'll go to a school and kids will want to know if I think it's something they can accomplish. I mean, I originally thought football would get me my degree, that I could play ball, get my degree and go back to help my family because my dad [Manuel Sr.] had a heart attack and was having a hard time. It's all become a lot more."

"I think I feel it, too, from kids from time to time," Vasquez said with a laugh. "Although maybe not at first, usually kids, especially younger kids, are a little overwhelmed at my stature at first, my height, how big I am, so they may not always notice I'm Hispanic at first. But I think some kids have looked at me and seen what is possible, maybe, and that's a great feeling. I think, maybe what [Munoz] felt, too, but to have someone look at you and believe something is possible because of that, you really want to live up to that and appreciate what that means. And I hope I do both."