Sometimes history repeats itself, and that’s 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 his career came to an end after an injury. Now, he’s a mentor to Isaac Alarcón, a fellow Monterrey native who will be joining the practice squad of the Dallas Cowboys, and Cantu could not be prouder.
For many, Cantu is a pioneer of the sport in Mexico. The former McAllen football player 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.”
Cantu attended Thigpen-Zavala Elementary School, Travis Middle School and later 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 attending McHi, his father worked at a supermarket, and Cantu initially was not interested in playing football so much as working 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 with 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.’”
He decided to move back to Monterrey and 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.
Coach Edmundo Reyes and Frank Gonzalez came over and talked to him. Cantu, like Alarcón, was 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 for housing so it was easier to go to Monterrey because I had family.”
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.”
Soon after, he joined the team, and they began to win championships.
There, he learned how to shape himself into a better player, he said. 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.
After 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 and Cantu felt 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 at 23. He then joined the International Practice Squad, but the name has now changed to International Pathway.
Then he joined the Arizona Cardinals and debuted in 2005, but had to stop playing the following year because of a knee injury. And though his football career was somewhat short, Cantu built a good relationship with the Cardinals and went on to create the Spanish department for the team, cementing himself as a pioneer for 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.”
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 2016, he met 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.”
And it’s not an easy thing to do, he said.
“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 said he’s in a position to spread advice and knowledge to other players who also want to succeed.
“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 about Alarcón.