Fledgling pro league trying to gain foothold with Mexico's NFL fans

Mexico City Mayas players sign autographs for some of the underprivileged children who get free tickets to LFA games. Jonathan Levinson for ESPN

MEXICO CITY -- Marco Garcia grew up in Mexico's capital city idolizing former Buffalo Bills quarterback Jim Kelly. As a child, he watched the NFL on Sundays. There was no other option -- the country's professional American football league of that era folded when he was 6 years old.

In Kelly's honor, Garcia wears No. 12 as the starting quarterback for the Mexico City Mayas, defending champions of the second-year Liga de Fútbol Americano Profesional (LFA). Someday players might wear No. 12 in honor of Garcia, the league's MVP in last year's inaugural season.

Although he is well down the list of most popular athletes in soccer-mad Mexico, Garcia gets a kick out of occasionally being recognized by kids for his prowess on the field.

"It's only been a short amount of time," he said in Spanish, "but we're beginning to create a story that's being heard around Mexico."

Garcia is one of the faces of the league that is trying to tap into Mexico's massive NFL fan base, which is the largest in the world outside the United States. Players, coaches and staff say the LFA represents the beginning of a new era of American football in Mexico. But the fledgling league, filled with players who also work full-time jobs, still must conquer issues such as low attendance and low pay, among others, to establish itself as a sustainable enterprise.

"It takes a lot of effort to work all day, then come here at night," Mayas head coach Ernesto Alfaro said during an evening practice last month. "We hope in a few years that this league can be successful enough that the players can live just from playing."

LFA PLAYERS HOLD a wide range of jobs. One works as a chef in a gourmet restaurant; another is a police officer. Entrepreneurs line up across from doctors while electrical engineers cheer teammates from the sidelines.

Alfaro also works full time as coach of the Instituto Politécnico Nacional's storied college football program, the Burros Blancos, or White Donkeys. Although professional football failed in Mexico in the 1990s, the sport has a long-running history in the country through ONEFA, a major college league with roots going back to 1930.

Garcia doubles as the Burro Blancos' quarterbacks coach under Alfaro and also works with youth teams affiliated with the school. Even though Garcia's days begin early in the morning and end well after dark, he makes time to take German classes. Once his playing career is finished, he wants to earn a doctorate in mechatronics, a combination of electronics and mechanical engineering.

"I have two passions," Garcia said. "Football and mechatronics."

The juggling of careers, school and football is an issue every team in the league must deal with, so Alfaro keeps his mind -- and his players -- locked on one goal.

"Last year we won the championship," he said. "This year we'll gladly retake the challenge."

THE LFA BEGAN as the brainchild of Juan Carlos Vazquez, a veteran sports journalist in Mexico. Vazquez, 42, wrote his MBA thesis on the Liga Master, a pro American football league that folded in 1996 after seven seasons, and how leagues outside of the United States can be successful.

"When I was a kid, I was a fanatic for the [Liga Master]," said Vazquez, who works as an analyst for Fox Sports in addition to his role as the LFA's general manager. "It hurt a lot when the league folded, and since then I've thought about creating one."

Twenty years after Liga Master's demise, the LFA launched with four teams, all in or near Mexico City. This season, the league added two teams in the northern cities of Saltillo and Monterrey. Vazquez said the goal is to have eight teams in two years and eventually get to 10 teams.

The league is funded primarily by its sponsors and also brings in money through ticket sales, concessions and private investors.

"It's mainly the players and the sponsors that believe in this project," Vazquez said. "And in the second season we're already seeing more fans."

He imagines the LFA to one day serve as a pipeline for Mexican athletes to make it to the NFL, but he admits the speed of the game in Mexico is far behind the level in the United States. While many Mexican-Americans have made it to the NFL learning the game in the U.S. system, offensive lineman Rolando Cantú is the only Mexico-born non-kicker to play in the NFL, and his career lasted one game.

Vazquez believes if Mexico's massive NFL fan base can rally behind the LFA, the level of national talent could rise dramatically in a generation.

To accomplish this, league officials want to keep the league primarily Mexican, allowing each team to have only two foreign players. That's a contrast to the 20 international players allowed per team in the Canadian Football League. The LFA did garner some publicity with a U.S. import recently when former NFL wide receiver Chad Johnson played one game for the Monterrey Fundidores -- with Ochocinco, his legal name from 2008 and 2012, across the back of his jersey.

For Vazquez, the benefit of the league goes beyond improving the level of play. He sees it as a "social engagement" with a country where high levels of unemployment and illiteracy are common and many youths end up falling into lives of crime.

"These young men [players] are college graduates, so they're examples for a lot of children," Vazquez said. "They're going to want to be like the players, but in all senses. They're going to want to be someone who finishes university, and later, a working professional."

THE LFA HOPES to someday build its own stadium, but for now it rents a 6,000-seat venue in the Magdalena Mixhuca Sports City complex for its games hosted by the Mexico City teams.

Attendance typically is sparse, with an average of 1,600 fans per game in 2016 and 1,900 in the current season. Seats on both sides of the stadium have been used only twice, for the 2016 opener and the Tazón México -- the LFA's Super Bowl.

The most dedicated fans are the players' family members and friends. The crowds also include 200 to 300 underprivileged children who get in for free through the National System for Integral Family Development, a government program.

"They've been converted into fans," said Raul Lopez, an Integral Family Development representative.

The LFA hopes to inspire other Mexican children as well, and to do that it is trying not to commit the same mistakes Liga Master made. LFA press director Arturo Carlos said that league failed because it didn't successfully create sustainable business practices to weather the Mexican economic crisis of 1994.

"We're experiencing something similar economically now in Mexico with the devaluation [of the peso]," Carlos said. "So our plan is to grow little by little."

The LFA has worked to find successful sponsors, including Under Armour and Suerox (a sports drink company), and hopes that streaming games for free online and broadcasting them on cable and public access TV will build the fan base.

While players aren't paid much -- roughly $500 U.S. a month during the season plus medical benefits -- the league aims to be as professional as possible. Players wear high-quality jerseys and gear, and every team has a coaching staff, trainers and medical personnel. To save money, when teams have to travel for a game they fly home the same night so they don't have to pay for sleeping accommodations.

There are two games each Sunday at the stadium in Mexico City, with separate admission for each one. Cheerleaders and mascots performing routines throughout the day, although they change into new outfits between games to change the team they represent.

ON A SUNDAY in late March, the Mayas played the Eagles, an intracity rival and the only team to beat them this season. A win would clinch a playoff berth for Alfaro's team.

Following a man dressed in a traditional indigenous outfit and blowing a conch shell, the team stormed through the tunnel.

All except defensive back Gerardo Gil.

Gil had been called into the Mexico City hospital where he works as a general surgeon to evaluate a patient. Luckily for the Mayas, and for the patient, emergency surgery was not needed.

As the coin toss neared, Gil came sprinting onto the field for the final pregame stretches.

"That's always the life of a doctor -- you have emergencies that you can't control," he said. "But the coaches know this. They're understanding. Until this point, I haven't had to miss a game."

He admits he's taking a risk, as a surgeon, playing a sport that involves swatting down opponent passes and making hard tackles. But his love for the game keeps him on the field.

Gil isn't the only football player from his family, which runs a chicken production and distribution business. One brother, Isaac, plays on the Mayas' defensive line, and another, Antonio, is a defensive lineman for the Mexico City Condors. When the Mayas face the Condors, he said chuckling, his parents are "divided."

THE MASCOTS AND CHEERLEADERS rallied the fans throughout a slow first half. The Mayas led at halftime 3-0, but Alfaro wasn't pleased. In a profanity-laced speech, veins bursting from his red neck, he lit into his team: "If you want to repeat as champions, focus!"

There was a flurry of scoring in the second half, and the Eagles held a 24-20 lead late in the fourth quarter. But Garcia drove the Mayas to the 6-yard line with less than a minute remaining and then connected with Josue Martinez in the end zone for a 27-24 victory that clinched a spot in the four-team postseason, which begins April 23 and culminates with the Tazón México a week later.

After the game, players hung around with family, friends and fans, signing autographs and taking photos. Perhaps no gathering was larger than that of the Rios family. Three of the clan's brothers play for the Mayas: Raul, Roberto and Rodrigo.

The Rios' postgame ritual is eating at grandma's house, and this Sunday would be no different. Inside, the 86-year-old matriarch served chicken and soup, with mangos for dessert. The brothers, surrounded by more than a dozen family members who also attended the game, cheerfully passed around a phone replaying video of Roberto's 37-yard rushing touchdown in the second half.

"It was my first touchdown in seven years," said Roberto, who, unlike his two brothers, didn't play in the LFA last year. "But I hope it's not the only one."