McAllen-raised ex-NFL player a pioneer in Mexico

Sometimes history repeats itself and that is exactly what is happening in 2020.

Rolando Cantu was the first Mexican to become an active player in the NFL coming out of Organización Nacional Estudiantil de Fútbol Americano. He joined the Arizona Cardinals in 2004 but after an injury his football career came to an end. Cantu is a native of Monterrey, Mexico, like Isaac Alarcón, but he was also raised in McAllen.

Alarcón will be joining the practice squad of the Dallas Cowboys and Cantu said he could not be prouder.

For many, Cantu is a pioneer of the sport in Mexico and he has gone on to highlight it as much as possible. He is currently the International Business Manager for the Arizona Cardinals and conducts commentary for Fox Sports in Mexico as well as on the radio for the Cardinals.

But Cantu began loving football in McAllen, where he grew up. His father moved to Chicago from Monterrey and then settled in the Rio Grande Valley.

“We would visit Monterrey and China, Nuevo Leon every 15 days. That was my childhood, being close to Reynosa, the Valley and Nuevo Leon,” Cantu said.

“I am very grateful and I still have many friends there,” he said.

Cantu attended Thigpen-Zavala Elementary School, but at the time Thigpen was one. In middle school he attended Travis Middle School and later entered McAllen High School. After his high school graduation Cantu went back to Monterrey with a scholarship to the Monterrey Institute of Technology and Higher Education just like Alarcón.

While being a student in McHi, his father worked at a supermarket and at first Cantu was not as interested in playing football because he wanted to work after school.

“I think our culture and our mentality was to work. I am the youngest of seven and I would see my siblings working and they would buy a car and that is what I wanted. Football was not my priority back then,” he said.

Cantu worked at Whataburger, T.G.I. Fridays, Chilis and his first job was at McDonalds, always trying to save money.

“That first year at McHi in 1996 my coach Tom Shawhan took me out of my biology class and asked me if I would be playing football. I told him I wasn’t but he recognized me from playing at Travis,” he said.

“He told me, no. He took me almost from my hair to join the football class and gave me everything I needed. Shorts, helmet, shoulder pads, everything and that afternoon I was already training with the Bulldogs,” Cantu said.

That is how his career started. Cantu gives thanks to Shawhan, Coach Tony Harris and more for becoming enamored of football.

“Sometimes boys play and get hurt and get scared but for me I was always in love with the game. But my dream was to buy a Jeep and I think that was stronger at the time,” he said.

“Coach Shawhan asked me, why are you going to stop playing? I told him I wanted to buy a car and he said the cars are going to come. With football you will be able to buy as many cars as you want,” Cantu said.

He decided to move back to Monterrey when he played at an All Stars game in Brownsville at Porter High School, where two different coaches from Monterrey Institute of Technology and Higher Education attended.

Cantu mentioned Coach Edmundo Reyes and Frank Gonzalez came over and talked to him. Cantu, like Alarcón, is also an offensive lineman. The coaches were interested in him and he decided to take the scholarship.

“I don’t regret it even though I had options in the U.S. but it wasn’t as easy to get recruited back then, without social media it did not happen,” he said. “They were different times, I never saw a college scout at a high school game,” Cantu said.

“I think if I had someone who would have explained to me how to apply on time or provide paperwork it would have been different. But I didn’t have money to pay housing so it was easier to go to Monterrey because I had family,” he said.

Cantu was a fan of the school and the team “Borregos Salvajes.” He had seen the team play and wanted to be a part of it. He entered a tryout before joining the team and Cantu remembers 400 offensive linemen tried out.

“From all over México. Chihuahua, Coahuila, Veracruz, I was 17 and my only experience had been playing in the Valley in our district. It was very intimidating,” he said.

Cantu remembers he tried out in his McHi uniform because the others did not fit.

“I wore my McHi jersey and I looked like a grape,” he said. Soon after, he joined the team.

By joining the “Borregos Salvajes” began to win championships and learned how to shape himself into a better player. His coach Frank Gonzalez attended a training camp for the Philadelphia Eagles and told him he had everything to make it in the NFL.

“He said I had the strength, the ability, the intelligence. You would dream about playing in the NFL, but it was like a wild dream, how are you going to make it?” he said.

From that conversation, Cantu started to believe he could achieve that dream.

In 2001 he joined the University of Texas A&M in Kingsville to play but then went back to Monterrey. He had seen Roberto Garza from Rio Hondo make it to the Atlanta Falcons. Cantu felt it was a possibility he could make it, too.

“I would say, well we are both Valley boys who played high school football. If Garza can do it, so can I,” he said.

From then on, Cantu worked hard to get to his dream. He won the championship for the NFL European league. Cantu was only 23 years old at the time. He then joined the International Practice Squad, but the name has now changed to International Pathway.

From then on, he joined the Arizona Cardinals and debuted in 2005. Because of an injury in 2006 to his knee he is not able to play anymore. Though his football career was somewhat short, Cantu built a good relationship with the Cardinals. Because of that Cantu created the Spanish department for the Cardinals and has become a pioneer in highlighting the Hispanic community.

“I am still blessed because I work with the team who gave me a chance as a player. I have been in the desert for 16 years,” he said.

“I feel like Arizona is now my home. Living and breathing football every day is great and now I am a sports analyst and I have narrated eight Super Bowls. I love talking about the sport,” Cantu said.

Because of how much effort Cantu put into his career, he feels extremely proud of Alarcón. Cantu interviewed him the day he received the call from the Cowboys about his acceptance.

“The head coach for the Tec Monterrey Carlos Altamirano used to be my teammate and the coach for the offensive linemen Jonathan Alderete is my very good friend. Four years ago, they invited me to go to the summer training camp to motivate the guys,” he said.

In May of 2016, he met Alarcón. He noticed all the offensive linemen were bigger and taller than him, and Cantu noticed the success of Alarcón.

“He has all the physical qualities to stay in the NFL. We see every year they come out better prepared and trained, stronger and with a great capability. He is a product of dedication and nothing has been handed to him. He has created the proper volume of muscle and not everyone puts in the effort,” he said.

“There will be more. I think it will surprise us what Isaac has paved. He has the opportunity to open the road to more Mexicans who play collegiate football. But it is about preparation and working on it, it does not come free. You need to have all the qualities necessary,” Cantu said.

“It is not easy. Not everyone has the discipline to not go out on weekends, rise early, train three times a day. It is not for everyone but who is willing to pay the price will have the best reward in the end and in this case, Isaac has done it greatly,” he said.

Cantu feels he is in a position to spread advice and knowledge to other players such as Alarcón.

“If I can give him a preview of what he can do with his career and how to stay in the team, I am going to do it because if not me, who? I have that commitment to Mexico and football,” he said.