MEXICO CITY — The back-to-back champions of Mexico’s budding six-team pro football league still train on a rented soccer field, where a kicker launches footballs over phantom uprights while players are careful not to run over corner-kick flags. And the goalposts? That’s where touchdowns are called.
It’s football in a fútbol environment.
On a chilly winter evening beneath pale lighting, the CDMX (Mexico City) Mayas are running no-contact drills, in helmets but without pads as preparation for the seven-game 2018 regular season, which kicked off last Saturday.
“If people give us a chance and watch us perform, I know they’ll be hooked,” said 26-year-old Omar Cojolum, running back for the Mayas and the league’s leading rusher in 2017. “We play with passion. For me, football is life.”
The Liga de Futbol Americano Profesional (LFA) is still looking to gain a foothold with fans in its third season of play, lining up television partners and streaming games on the league website and Facebook page, along with an Under Armour deal to dress the squads. Yet venues are modest, as the six teams — four from Mexico City and the surrounding area — play in stadiums that hold fewer than 10,000 fans. Sellouts are rare.
Last season, in an attempt to gain notoriety, the league signed former Bengals WR Chad “Ochocinco” Johnson to a one-game cameo with the Monterrey Fundidores.
Though Johnson’s incursion in the LFA was little more than a publicity stunt, the league mostly features domestic players looking to chase gridiron dreams beyond college football. A select few, however, have NFL experience. Mauricio “Tyson” López, the Mayas’ star defensive lineman, was signed by the Philadelphia Eagles for the 2007 preseason, and by the Oakland Raiders in 2009. Tackle Ramiro Pruneda, also of the Mayas, was on the practice squad for the San Francisco 49ers, Kansas City Chiefs and the Eagles from 2007 to 2008. In addition, both López and Pruneda lend their expertise as NFL analysts for ESPN Mexico.
Cojolum hails from Naucalpán, a city just 13 miles outside of Mexico City. He grew up in an impoverished neighborhood with his mother, María Guadalupe and two older brothers, Marco Antonio and Ramón Olaf, the latter requiring special attention because of a disability. As a child, Cojolum found solace in football after initially resisting the game.
“[Marco] dragged me with him at first and I just didn’t want to go. After a while, it grew on me,” he said.
Starting at just 4 years old, Cojolum excelled at the game through grade school, eventually gaining a scholarship to the nearby Universidad del Valle de México (UVM). Though the commute to the college was barely a handful of miles, he said it felt like a whole new world.
“Where I’m from, it would’ve been easier for me to take the path with crime and drugs maybe, but I’ve always loved sports,” he said after finishing practice one day. “I didn’t want to poison my body and mind with that.”
With his college team, the Linces (Lynx), Cojolum shined as a running back, all the while pursuing a degree and holding down a job in support of his family.
“Then, I found out I was going to have a son,” he said.
Cojolum’s part-time job turned into a full-time gig. Unable to keep playing, his scholarship was withdrawn. At age 20, Cojolum briefly dropped out of school to provide for his mother, brother and new son.
“The amount of hardship he’s been through has shaped him as a man,” said Alma Martínez who along with her husband, Jesús Omana, owns the Mayas. Martinez developed a close bond with Cojolum since their association with the Mayas first began a year ago.
“He never wavered from his dream, and he was so good you just knew he would find a way to come back eventually,” Martinez said.
Cojolum settled in with a work schedule allowing him to return to school, and his scholarship in 2011.
“Then I broke my leg,” he recalled.
Sidelined for another six months, he redshirted and played his last season in 2015, just in time to be considered eligible for the nascent pro football league, as it held its draft for the inaugural season in 2016. Cojolum was the Mayas’ first pick.
Reminiscent of the NFL model, players in Mexico’s two main college leagues, the 22-team ONEFA and the 12-team CONADEIP have been drafted by the LFA since its creation to provide a pipeline from the amateur game to the next level.
“I think it’s fair to say players reach a physical peak in this sport from age 23 to about 30,” said Oscar Perez, president of the LFA. “We didn’t have a pro league in Mexico that enabled players to take advantage. Omar is a perfect example of this, and we’re happy to have him.”
Perez has high hopes for his league, and the LFA is in full expansion mode in the coming seasons. Of the six teams in the 2018 season, four are from Mexico City area –the Mayas, Condors and Méxicas are from CDMX and the Raptors are from Edomex, or the state of Mexico surrounding the capital city. Two teams in the north, Dinos from Saltillo and the Monterrey Fundidores, round out the league. The Mayas didn’t fare very well in their season debut, as the Raptors blanked them in the opener.
“There are still difficulties there, logistically speaking, economically speaking. But we’re hopeful the league will expand greatly,” he said.
“It was an absolute coup for us to get Omar,” said César Zúñiga, the Mayas’ technical director, a position he described as a sort of cross between general manager and director of player personnel. “He reminds me of [former Rams RB] Eric Dickerson, the way he runs with such power and purpose.”
In the league’s first championship game in April 2016, Cojolum scored two touchdowns, including a 71-yard scamper in the Mayas’ 29-13 win over the Mexico City Raptors. The performance enamored Omana, then just a fan, into buying the franchise.
“Both of my sons play youth football, so we went to all the games that first season as a way to bond as a family,” Omana said. “I loved what I saw, so I contacted the league about buying the team, and they offered me a different one. I didn’t want it. If it’s not Mayas, then don’t bother.”
Finally, with the 2017 season underway, Omana was granted the chance to buy into the LFA with his dream franchise.
Although they are close now, the relationship between the Omanas and Cojolum got off to a rocky start. Just a few days after securing ownership of the team, the couple were unable to procure a flight for the team for an away game in Monterrey. Martinez was then stuck on a 13-hour bus ride with a cranky group of players, the chorus of groans led by the star running back.
“Every time we’d hit a bump or slow down because of traffic, Omar would complain,” Martinez said.
Soon, she felt, there would be a mutiny on her hands.
“I stood up, walked towards him and told him to stop being a diva,” she recalled.
Finger to his face, Martinez challenged Omar to show the new owners what he was capable of doing as a leader on the field.
It wasn’t the only time Cojolum would get in trouble on a team trip. Cojolum posted a video of a Mayas official addressing the team during a bus ride to an away game, a violation of the league’s policy. He served a one-game suspension at the start of this season.
“It’s a little strange to think that now I refer to Alma and Jesus as ‘Mom and Dad,’ ” Cojolum said.
After the Mayas won the second of their back-to-back titles in 2017, Cojolum sprinted to Alma and Jesus to embrace them.
“It was a special moment, I feel like I owe them so much,” he said. Cojolum crowned his sophomore season winning the league’s award for best running back.
Aiming to become the first dynasty in the fledgling league’s history, the Mayas are hoping to end their upcoming season on a different fútbol pitch. The Estadio Azul, home of Liga MX’s Cruz Azul and the place where the NFL held its first exhibition game south of the border in 1978, will host the LFA’s championship game next April.
“It’s exciting to think about what it would be like to play in front of a crowd like that,” Cojolum said. “It’s a long way away, but I can picture myself celebrating another title with my family.”
Tony Jones, two-time Super Bowl champion with Denver Broncos, dies at 54
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — Tony Jones, a starting tackle on two of the Denver Broncos‘ championship teams, has died, the team announced Friday. He was 54.
Jones, who started at right tackle in the Broncos’ win in Super Bowl XXXII and started at left tackle when the team won Super Bowl XXXIII the following year, played 13 seasons in the NFL with the Cleveland Browns, Baltimore Ravens and Broncos after he entered the league as an undrafted rookie in 1988.
Known as “T-Bone” to his Broncos teammates, he spent the last four years of his career with the Broncos, retiring after he started 16 games in the 2000 season at age 34.
“We lost a great man,” former teammate Rod Smith posted on Twitter. “Just happened to be a hell of a ball playa. We love you and miss you Bone. One of the Broncos’ all time best tackles. Greatest dresser of ALL TIME!”
Ed McCaffrey, another former teammate on the Broncos, called Jones “a great teammate and a wonderful man,” and Hall of Famer Steve Atwater, who also played on those two Super Bowl teams, said Jones was “a great teammate” with “just the most beautiful kids.”
Atwater also said Friday night that many of the players on those Broncos teams have continued to stay in contact with one another and that “everybody is hurting in this.”
The Broncos, believing they were poised to rebound from a playoff loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars to end the 1996 season, traded a second-round pick to the Ravens in 1997 to acquire Jones.
In Super Bowl XXXII, at right tackle, he held Hall of Famer Reggie White without a sack and to one tackle overall as the Broncos rushed for 179 yards and Hall of Famer Terrell Davis was named the game’s MVP.
After Gary Zimmerman, also a Hall of Famer, retired before the 1998 season, Jones moved to left tackle and started every game on the way to a Pro Bowl selection as the Broncos went on to win a second consecutive title.
Jones was named to the Broncos’ Top 100 team in 2019.
In a social media post, former Bengals tackle Willie Anderson called Jones “a great dad, friend, offensive tackle, trainer and coach.”
Panthers GM Scott Fitterer doesn’t commit to Teddy Bridgewater – Carolina Panthers Blog
CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Scott Fitterer looked the part of general manager, dressed in the dark blue suit he bought 12 days ago in Charlotte because the clothes he brought from Seattle for his interview with the Carolina Panthers were tight after nearly a year in a pandemic.
He sounded like a GM, not discussing specific players or plans until he gets to meet, and learn more about, everybody in the organization.
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What kind of general manager Seattle’s former vice president of football operations will be for Carolina remains to be seen.
Here’s what we learned from Friday’s made-for-Zoom introductory news conference:
Noncommittal on quarterback Teddy Bridgewater: Fitterer began by saying he wouldn’t talk about specific players. He mentioned only two, linebacker/safety Jeremy Chinn and running back Christian McCaffrey. He mentioned Chinn because they have a mutual friend/agent. McCaffrey came up at the end when Fitterer said he wanted to talk to “Christian and other leaders on the team.’’ Bridgewater never got a mention despite several questions referring to him. Make of that what you want.
However, when asked for his definition of a franchise quarterback, second on Fitterer’s short list of criteria was “someone who can win when the game is on the line in the fourth quarter.’’ Bridgewater was 0-8 this past season when he had a chance on his final possession to win or tie the game.
Deshaun Watson interest: The Panthers have been linked in multiple reports to interest in trading for the disgruntled Houston Texans quarterback if he becomes available. Fitterer didn’t mention Watson by name. When reminded that Seattle lived by the mantra that it wanted to be in on every big deal in the NFL, even if it didn’t realistically have a shot, Fitterer said, “We will be in on every deal.’’ This was a big part of Seattle’s culture, because it helped the organization learn about others. It also allowed officials to reduce second-guessing.
Roster philosophy: Fitterer made it clear it starts with the quarterback. A former college quarterback himself, Fitterer helped Seattle find a pretty good one in Russell Wilson. Again, read into his silence on Bridgewater as you please. After quarterback, Fitterer plans to build inside out with offensive and defensive linemen.
Draft philosophy: Fitterer called having the No. 8 pick in this year’s draft a “new adventure,’’ and with good reason. The last time he had a pick higher than 27th was 2012, when the Seahawks picked 15th. He has made a living hitting on second- to middle-round picks. Wilson was a third-rounder in 2012. Fitterer found in Seattle that the top-tier players usually stopped between 16 and 18, and that in general there wasn’t a huge difference in players between 25 and 40. Seattle often traded down to acquire more picks. One instance was last year, when it gave Carolina the 64th pick (second round) for picks No. 69 and 148. The Panthers used that on Chinn, who became a strong candidate for NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year. Fitterer said the eighth pick was great because it gave him flexibility to trade up or down. So don’t get comfortable at No. 8.
Who’s in charge? You’ve read here for a while that coach Matt Rhule will have the final say over the roster. Rhule reinforced that by saying, “In terms of on the contract, a lot of those things probably rest with me.’’ He also said that that’s a formality and that he welcomes a GM who will argue with him. He ultimately wants this to be a collaborative effort the way it was in Seattle.
Source — Matt Patricia returning to New England Patriots to assist Bill Belichick’s staff
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Matt Patricia, who was fired as Detroit Lions head coach in November before the completion of his third year on the job, is returning to the New England Patriots‘ coaching staff in 2021, a source confirmed.
Patricia had been an assistant on Bill Belichick’s staff from 2004 to 2017 before landing the Lions job. In Detroit, he posted a 13-29-1 record, with one of those victories coming over Belichick’s Patriots early in his first season.
It was a turbulent tenure in Detroit for Patricia, and a return to New England — where he is expected to assist Belichick’s staff in a variety of roles — provides him a safe and familiar haven in which to continue his coaching career in the NFL.
Patricia, 46, had most recently served as the Patriots’ defensive coordinator from 2012 to 2017, and in his absence, Belichick hasn’t given that title to another coach. But Belichick referenced this past season that his son Steve, the outside linebackers coach, was calling the defense.
Also, inside linebackers coach Jerod Mayo has a significant role. Mayo, 34, is considered a coach on the rise, as evidenced by his recent interview with the Philadelphia Eagles for their head-coaching opening that went to Indianapolis Colts offensive coordinator Nick Sirianni.
Patricia’s return mirrors, in part, what came in 2014, when Belichick hired Michael Lombardi — his former director of player personnel with the Cleveland Browns (1991-95) — as an assistant to the head coach.
The familiarity that Lombardi had with Belichick, and the team’s overall system, made his transition into the organization rather seamless.
The Boston Globe first reported Patricia’s return.
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