To many people in Mexico, there is only one kind of football: the beautiful game played around the world, the one the Americans call soccer. It’s a cultural obsession on that side of the border, just like the other kind of football — the one that rules fall Saturdays in the United States — is part of the fabric of college towns such as St. Peter, Minn.
There are a few places in Mexico, though, where the lines are blurred. In Cancun, the family of Gustavus senior running back Karim Ortiz will be following football, not futbol, when the Gusties open their season Saturday against Westminster. The American sport has become a conduit for a unique cultural exchange, creating an unlikely bond between the college in St. Peter and a place known for spring-break revelry.
Coach Peter Haugen didn’t view the Gusties’ 2011 visit to Cancun as a recruiting trip. But five players from that city and one from Guadalajara have since played for him, including Ortiz, an honorable mention All-MIAC pick last season, and sophomore running back Rafael Soriano-Campos.
“Something that started out as a service project and a game has morphed into this really neat partnership,” Haugen said. “In Cancun, there are people wearing the black and gold, and getting together to watch the Gusties online.”
It’s been equally fulfilling for the Mexican citizens playing American football at a college named for a Swedish king. Ortiz was 11th on the depth chart as a freshman, struggling to learn the intricacies of a game he played on a much simpler level as a kid in Cancun.
In his final season, Ortiz now is teaching the Gusties’ freshmen how to beat MIAC defenses. Eventually, he wants to take that knowledge back to his home country to help the sport grow there — but not before savoring one more glorious autumn at Hollingsworth Field.
“Football is not very big in Mexico,” said Ortiz, who ran for a team-high 567 yards last season and scored six touchdowns. “But I always loved the game.
“Coming here and playing at an American college, it was just a dream. Some people said I wouldn’t make it in the U.S., but I took the big shot. And it’s been great.”
Like most people, Haugen assumed football was a foreign concept in Cancun. It wasn’t the first place that came to mind when he decided to take his team on an international trip to blend sport with volunteer work.
Peter Nyhus, a Gustavus football alum who spends winters in Cancun, knew the city had an organized, enthusiastic youth football program. On his suggestion, the Gusties went to Cancun to play a club team, Lagartos, and hold football clinics for kids. One of the attendees was a 17-year-old who started playing soccer when he was 3, then switched to football so he could smash into people without getting a red card.
Ortiz said that love for contact drew him to the sport his father played at a college in Mexico. He thought he might follow the same path, until Haugen — who was impressed by the skill he saw on that first visit — made a return trip to scout some of Cancun’s top prospects.
“They’re very much in a learning mode there, but they have every level of football, just like in the U.S.,” Haugen said. “And they have some people who really love the game. We thought, ‘Maybe this is a place where we could actually start to recruit.’ ”
The pipeline got rolling in 2013, with players such as defensive lineman Iker Ortiz Hidalgo and wide receiver/defensive back Sergio De Pablos Velez. Ortiz wanted to come, but he fretted about leaving his family and paying private-college tuition with their limited means. His father, Senen Ortiz, is a manager at a marketing firm; his mother, Francisca Sosa, owns a small restaurant.
With financial help from his parents and his older brother, Senen, Ortiz made the move from a world-famous resort city to small-town Minnesota. As the 11th running back on the Gusties roster, he spent most of his freshman season freezing on the sidelines.
His biggest adjustment — other than moving dinnertime up from 9 p.m. or later in Cancun to the 6 p.m. hour favored in the Midwest — was learning to read defenses and navigate complex offensive schemes. Haugen could see he was tough and smart and a strong runner, but Ortiz quietly struggled.
“I was very close to quitting,” he said. “It was very hard. I had to be so patient, and there was always that fear of making a mistake, of wasting your chance.”
He started his sophomore year as No. 4 on the depth chart. In the first three weeks of the season, all three running backs ahead of him were injured, giving him the chance he coveted.
Ortiz said he was “super nervous,” but his only fear was letting down all the people who supported him. He played in all 10 games and started five, leading the Gusties with 452 rushing yards. Last season, he improved further, and had his best career game when he ran for 180 yards against Augsburg.
The Gusties’ Cancun connection has expanded beyond football, luring athletes in other sports as well as musicians to the campus. It also has put down roots. Ortiz Hidalgo and De Pablos Velez both have gotten jobs in the area, and De Pablos Velez is serving as an assistant coach.
Ortiz’s parents have not been able to afford a trip to see him play. He is working extra hours at his three jobs — at the campus weight room, ice rink and post office — to buy tickets for them and his brother to attend the Gusties’ final home game.
In the meantime, they will be wearing the black and gold in Cancun, as a rare football family in a futbol country.
“In Cancun, people know about Gustavus, and they see it as something huge,” Ortiz said. “It’s pretty cool.’’