The inside story of Mexican Rolando Cantu's one-game NFL career

TEMPE, Ariz. -- Around 8 a.m. on a Saturday in December 2003, Rolando Cantu hit the accelerator on his girlfriend's Volkswagen Jetta, with two teammates in tow, and started up the on-ramp toward the main thoroughfare through his hometown of Monterrey, Mexico.

He was, quite literally, beginning his journey to the NFL.

A tryout for NFL Europe was being held at the Universidad Autonoma de Nuevo Leon, the public college in Monterrey, located about six miles from Monterrey Tech, the private university where Cantu had a full scholarship to play football. After becoming the rare 18-year-old to play at the highest level of Mexican college football, Cantu started four years for Monterrey Tech on its offensive line and won two national titles.

There was nothing more for him to accomplish, football-wise, in Mexico. The NFL was next on his to-do list.

As Cantu reached the top of the on-ramp, he noticed a semitrailer to his left. He sped up to merge in front of it but didn't see it had a double trailer until it was too late. He veered right toward the shoulder. The front right tire popped, sending the car careening to its left, under the belly of the truck. The truck, however, never slowed down. It ran over the trunk of Cantu's car, spinning the Jetta across the road and into the median.

The engine flew out of the car. The tires blew off. The axles were crushed. The car was totaled.

All that was left of the Jetta were the four doors and the frame, still intact. Cantu and his two teammates were lucky to be alive considering they weren't wearing seat belts.

What happened next, Cantu said, changed the course of his life.

He made two phone calls. One was to his girlfriend -- now his wife -- telling her to drive his pickup truck to the scene of the accident. The other was to Jim Tomsula, the former San Francisco 49ers head coach who at the time was an NFL Europe scout and was hosting the tryout.

Cantu told Tomsula about the accident. Tomsula told Cantu, who was widely considered the best offensive lineman in Mexico, to get to the tryout as soon as he could. But for a moment, the 22-year-old Cantu hesitated. He knew the financial ramifications of damaging city property in Mexico. Cantu considered telling his teammates to take a cab and go without him.

His girlfriend beat the police to the scene of the accident and insisted he go to the tryout. She would take the blame for the crash.

He showed up an hour late to the tryout and, with his adrenaline pumping, ran a five-second 40-yard dash at 300 pounds. Tomsula put him through a series of drills before inviting him to a central NFL Europe tryout and training camp in Tampa, Florida, the next month. Cantu impressed in Tampa and, while competing alongside 500 other international players, earned a spot on the Berlin Thunder.

He started seven games for the Thunder.

"I wasn't going to be back [to Mexico] after one year," said Cantu, who made about $1,000 a week. "I was going to make it a career."

During the lead-up to the 2004 World Bowl in June, Cantu heard rumors the Arizona Cardinals were interested in signing him. On the sideline before the game he met Cardinals owner Bill Bidwill and team president Michael Bidwill, as well as his brother Tim Bidwill, while they were on an international tour looking at stadium designs. The World Bowl was being played at a stadium originally called Arena AufSchalke, which happened to have a retractable field -- something the Cardinals' current home field, University of Phoenix Stadium, has become known for.

The day after the Thunder claimed the NFL Europe title, Cantu was a Cardinal.

"If I would've not gone to the NFL tryout that day," Cantu said, "I would not be sitting right here in front of you."

Cantu was born in Monterrey on Feb. 25, 1981, and moved to the border town of Reynosa, Mexico, for grade school. Every day until he was 10, when his family moved to McAllen, Texas, he was driven across the Mexico-United States border to attend school.

He grew up a Dallas Cowboys fan, watching their games with his father. He played the game in the backyard and in the street with neighborhood friends.

The youngest of seven children, Cantu wasn't held to the same standards as his siblings. While they worked at their father's meat market and went to school, Cantu played organized sports. He started playing football in junior high.

His plan was to follow in his siblings' footsteps and work for his father. He was content with his football career ending before high school. The idea of making money was more enticing.

But on the first day of his freshman year at McAllen High School, the school's defensive line coach pulled him out of class and asked why the 6-foot-5 Cantu didn't sign up for football. Cantu said he wanted a car.

The coach told him to get his butt to practice that afternoon.

"Pretty much that was it," Cantu said.

Cantu started taking football seriously as a sophomore. As a junior he moved to the offensive line, where he'd stay for the rest of his career. Colleges took note. Texas Tech, Texas A&M, Arkansas, Miami and Oklahoma were among the 40 schools that started recruiting him as a junior.

But NCAA football didn't appeal to him. He had his mind made up to play for his hometown college in Mexico. When Cantu began his senior season at McAllen, legendary Monterrey Tech coach Frank Gonzalez told Cantu he had a spot waiting for him. That's all Cantu needed to hear.

With age and experience, he looks back at that decision with curiosity and a hint of regret.

"Thinking about it now, analyzing that situation, I don't know why I never did apply [to play college football in the United States]," Cantu said.

At Monterrey Tech, Cantu started as an 18-year-old, a rare feat in Mexican college football. When Cantu played, Mexican collegiate football was set up as a seven-year system. Incoming players spent a year on the juvenil level followed by two in the intermedia level and then four in the Liga Mayor, which plays in ONEFA and CONADEIP, the public and private conferences, respectively, for the highest level of college football in Mexico. By the time players were in their last year of college football in Mexico, they could've been as old as 25. Cantu had friends who received double master's degrees by the time they graduated.

His team won the 1999 national title in his first season, the first of four championship games he'd play in.

Alejandro Olivas, the commissioner of CONADEIP, played as a freshman alongside Cantu, a senior, in 2003.

"He was pretty strong," Olivas remembered. "He was a lot of fun. He's the greatest. He's funny."

Cantu is remembered in Monterrey as much for his personality as his skill.

"He was big and fast and very happy," said former Monterrey Tech coach Leopoldo Treviño, who was the team's wide receivers coach during Cantu's tenure.

After losing the championship game in 2000, Cantu transferred to Texas A&M-Kingsville as an exchange student. He spent the spring and summer semesters of 2001 training with the team and preparing to play NCAA Division II football in the fall. Heading into fall camp, he had scaled the depth chart and was part of Kingsville's starting offensive line. However, instead of putting him on scholarship, the school tried to give Cantu a loan. He had a $10,000 scholarship waiting for him in Monterrey and turned down the offer. He opted to sit out the 2001 season and spent the semester with his parents in Texas. He returned to Monterrey Tech in 2002 with a confidence level that was immeasurable. He had competed against American players -- albeit in practice -- on a collegiate stage and starred.

Back at Monterrey Tech, he won another national championship in 2002 before losing again in 2003.

"I knew my level was above theirs," Cantu said. "My weight room, my running, even in the film room ... I could understand everything they were game-planning for. That wasn't a problem.

"That kind of got me more motivated to focus on the dream of becoming an NFL player from Mexico."

Two months after Cantu met the Bidwill family in June 2004, he was in Flagstaff, Arizona, for Cardinals training camp.

Because of NFL rules, as the international practice squad player, Cantu wasn't eligible to be promoted to the 53-man roster that season. Former Cardinals coach Dennis Green later told Cantu the team wanted to activate him around Week 12 but wasn't allowed.

On Jan. 3, 2005, Cantu signed his second NFL contract. That September Cantu was released during final cuts, cleared waivers and was re-signed to the Cardinals' practice squad the next day, where he'd stay until Week 17.

That's when he made history -- New Year's Day 2006.

When he woke up that morning, he couldn't eat breakfast. At 6-5, 330 pounds, Cantu wasn't one to skip a meal. But he was too nervous about playing in his first NFL game. He would become the first nonkicking Mexican-born player, who attended college in Mexico, to play in the NFL.

It was the final day of the regular season. The Cardinals were in Indianapolis to close out a 5-11 season. It was, for the most part, a meaningless Week 17 matchup against the best team in the NFL.

In Mexico, however, it was big deal. The announcement Cantu would be active came early in the week. On that Sunday, programming was interrupted to provide updates on Cantu's debut.

"It was pretty special," Cantu said.

Almost 11 years later, Cantu can remember everything about that day. Waking up. No breakfast. The first play of the game. His teammates ribbing him: "Don't blow your big shot," they joked.

He played special teams. On an empty stomach, Cantu was on the coverage team for the opening kickoff. He got a hit in on the wedge, which quickly dissipated any nerves. He also blocked for Neil Rackers' record-breaking 40th straight field goal.

The memory of seeing his former player not only make an NFL roster, but play in a game, still brings a smile to Treviño's face, who, while standing on the same field this summer that Cantu played on more than a decade ago at Estadio Tecnologico, compared it to seeing a man land on the moon.

It would be Cantu's only NFL game, and none of his family was there to see it, not even his wife's uncle who lived two hours from Indianapolis. Cantu decided against having his family travel between 20 and 25 hours to the frigid Midwest. His wife was taking care of their 3-month-old daughter, and he had family in Mexico and Texas.

Cantu's NFL debut was the culmination of a journey that began in Monterrey, Mexico, with detours through McAllen, Texas; Tampa, Florida; and Berlin. But it stopped in Arizona.

He signed a one-year extension for 2006, but on the fourth day of training camp, he stepped over a towel that was lying on the field and felt something in his knee. He had torn cartilage, and his meniscus needed microfracture surgery. Arizona put him on injured reserve.

Green was fired after the 2006 season and was replaced by Ken Whisenhunt, who cut Cantu in March 2007.

"People would tell me, 'Hey, you're not going to make it. Nobody's ever lived off American football from Mexico. Why is it going to be you? Finish your career. Finish your school. Get to work like everybody else,'" Cantu remembered. "I said, 'No. I'm going to make it.'

"It was just a matter of me going to NFL Europe. Once I was there, I took advantage of it."

The Cardinals offered him a job spearheading their international business ventures while working as the color commentator on the team's Spanish radio broadcasts. It allowed Cantu to stay with the team and sport that gave him a chance.

Nine years later, Cantu has called Super Bowls for Spanish-speaking networks and helped develop a Cardinals fan base throughout Mexico.

He's married to the woman who told him to go to the NFL Europe tryout, chase his dream and make it happen.

And even though he had only one game, one small taste of the NFL, it has been enough for Cantu.

"I don't think I've ever stopped to say, 'Well, I feel really down,'" Cantu said. "Football's always been a part of my life. I guess if I wouldn't have had this opportunity with the Cardinals to work in their offices, that feeling would've settled in.

"I feel blessed."