Mexico's long love affair with football, American-style

It all started in Jalapa, Veracruz. A group of young Mexicans who studied in the United States traveled there in December, during vacation, to visit family and friends. One day, they organized a friendly match, playing a sport they had learned during their stay in the U.S.

It was 1896. American football was being born in Mexico.

The presence of American football in Mexico grew during the 1920s, when the sport became popular in universities. The two most important teams, which still participate in the American Football Student Organization (ONEFA), are the Pumas Dorados of the Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico (UNAM) and the Burros Blancos of the Instituto Politecnico Nacional (Poli). These two teams are the mainstays of American football in Mexico.

The NFL first established a presence in Mexico toward the end of the 1960s, when the first matches were televised. The broadcasts back then were only of games featuring the Dallas Cowboys, also known as Vaqueros de Dallas.

This was due to a strong emphasis in the media in Mexico on college football. In the '50s, American football was the second most popular sport in Mexico. Newspapers such as Esto, Ovaciones and La Aficion (sports publications) used their front pages to report matches between teams from Poli and teams from UNAM. There was an impact on television in the '50s, too, and later the cinema, where several movies were made -- among them, the movie "Youth Without God" (1962) about the life of Father Lambert J. Dehener, who coached the Burros Blancos.

As American football fever grew toward the end of 1960s, Television Independiente de Mexico (now Televisa) started transmitting the games of the Vaqueros de Dallas, who evidently were chosen because of their proximity to Mexico and because they featured an Hispanic place-kicker, Danny Villanueva, born in Tucumcari, N.M. Villanueva played from 1960 to 1964 with the Los Angeles Rams, and from 1965 to 1967 with the Cowboys, where he participated in two NFL championship games (1966 and '67). The last was the Ice Bowl in Green Bay, where he connected on a field goal of 21 yards.

Another Cowboys player who might have helped the team's popularity in Mexico was Bob Hayes. Mexico City hosted the 1968 Summer Olympics, and Hayes had won gold medals in the 100 meters and 4x100-meter relay at the 1964 Olympic Games in Tokyo.

The first NFL broadcasts in Mexico were narrated by one of the most recognized coaches in the country, Roberto "El Tapatio" Mendez, who was coach of UNAM. Then TV started transmitting more games, including those of other teams such as the Pittsburgh Steelers. This happened during the 1970s.

During this decade, the NFL's penetration into the Mexican market grew, as Super Bowls were broadcast on Mexican TV, while other Hispanics and Mexican players appeared on NFL rosters, including quarterbacks Joe Kapp and Jim Plunkett .

During the second half of the '70s, three Mexican players participated in the Super Bowl three years in a row, two of them playing for Dallas. In Super Bowl XII, Efren Herrera, who was born in Guadalajara, Jalisco, played for the Cowboys when they beat the Denver Broncos. The next year, the Cowboys, with place-kicker Rafael Septien (born in Mexico City), lost Super Bowl XIII to the Pittsburgh Steelers.

And in the 1979 season, Frank Corral, who was born in Chihuahua, played in Super Bowl XIV for the Rams, who also lost to the Steelers.

The presence of Villanueva, Herrera and Septien on the Cowboys helped the fans in Mexico adopt Dallas as their team. And as in every story with a protagonist, there also has to be antagonist. In this case, the antagonists were the Steelers.

The '70s belonged to the Steelers. Pittsburgh won four Super Bowls in that decade, and beat Dallas in two of them. The NFL had the ingredients that fans in Mexico wanted: The two most venerated teams played for the Super Bowl title, and there was a Mexican presence on the field.

The NFL played a game on Mexican ground for the first time in 1978, with a preseason match in the Estadio de la Ciudad de los Deportes. (Now, it's Estadio Azul, home of the Cruz Azul team.) It was the first NFL game to take place away from the U.S. Before 30,000 fans, the New Orleans Saints played the Philadelphia Eagles. The Saints featured Archie Manning as quarterback; 22 years later, his son Peyton played in an American Bowl with Indianapolis against Pittsburgh in the Estadio Azteca.

The impact the Cowboys and the Steelers had during the '70s is partly a consequence of the popularity college football had in Mexico during three decades, when it filled stadiums with more than 60,000 fans. Back then, soccer in Mexico wasn't as popular as it is nowadays. American football has fans in Mexico who know the sport and identify with the game.

Other NFL teams also gained some popularity in Mexico during the '70s, including Kansas City, the Baltimore Colts, Green Bay and Oakland. That was due in part to the presence of spectacular players such as Johnny Unitas and Bart Starr.

It's worth mentioning that Roger Staubach also made an impact in Mexico, as did Terry Bradshaw. Staubach's book, "Time Enough to Win," was translated into Spanish.

The Raiders' victories in Super Bowl XV and XVIII, with head coach Tom Flores, were followed closely by fans, who also gravitated to stars such as San Francisco's Joe Montana and Miami's Dan Marino.

Raul Allegre, who was born in Torreon, Coahuila, played in Super Bowl XXI with the Giants, who beat Denver. He also was part of the winning team in Super Bowl XXV, when the Giants beat Buffalo. Nowadays, Allegre is an analyst for ESPN Deportes on "Monday Night Football" broadcasts.

In 1994, the NFL brought the American Bowl to Mexico for the first time, and guaranteed success by pitting Dallas against Houston, two Texas teams. The Estadio Azteca in Mexico City registered an attendance record for an NFL game with 112,376 fans. After that, five other American Bowls were organized.

In 2005, the Estadio Azteca once again made history in the NFL by playing host to the first regular-season game to be held outside of the U.S. The Arizona Cardinals and the San Francisco 49ers were watched by 103,467 fans, which set a new NFL attendance record for a regular-season game.

Certainly, what began as a friendly game of flag football more than 110 years ago has grown into one of the most attractive markets for the sport outside the USA: the NFL in Mexico.

Pablo Viruega is an NFL and College Sports on-air analyst for ESPN Deportes/International. Information from "100 Years of American Football in Mexico," written by Alejandro Morales, was used in this story.