When Santa Ana Bulldogs’ wide receiver Ray Rodríguez took a handoff on a reverse from quarterback Garin Gustafson, he seemed almost stunned at the amount of open field in front of him. He paused, shuffled right, and weaved 25 yards behind a wall of blockers, running untouched into the corner of the end zone.
As Rodríguez lifted the ball above his head and crossed the goal line, his Bulldog teammates rushed the field to celebrate the 19-13 overtime win over the Nicaraguan Guerreros. The victory marked Costa Rica’s first international triumph in football.
Fútbol Americano, that is.
Though fútbol, or soccer, is Costa Rica’s national game, American football seems to have found a new home in the Central Valley. Since the inaugural season of the Costa Rican First Division in March 2009, league progress has been steady. More players have come out to join the teams, the level of talent is improving, basic equipment has become more accessible and, as of May 31, the Costa Rican Sports and RecreationInstitute (ICODER) officially recognized the Federation of American Football as a national sports league.
American football might just be here to stay.
“Now that we are backed by ICODER we are going to be able to develop more young players who are going to be able to train and learn the game earlier on,” said José López, Bulldogs coach and commissioner of the First Division. “The ICODER acceptance will really help the league and bring in an unreal amount of benefits. This will bring sponsorships and, hopefully, more attendance … Football most definitely has a future here.”
López appears to be right. The league, which started with about 200 players on six teams in 2009, increased to around 230 players in its second season. Members of the league expect two more teams, if not more, to join the league for the third season, which kicks off in January.
The ICODER certification will also bring American football into Costa Rican physical education. Last Friday and Saturday, the SCORE International Football Coaches Association from the U.S. came to the University of Costa Rica to teach a two-day seminar to interested players and educators about the fundamentals of American football.
During the certification course, sponsored by the Education Ministry (MEP), over 30 players, teachers and referees learned about defensive and offensive roles, special teams, game rules and practice drills.
“The fact that football will now be taught here is fantastic news for the game in Costa Rica,” López said. “With the Education Ministry and ICODER supporting the game, it means, for the first time, people are taking football seriously here.”
The Faces of Tico Football
As the league and support for the game have grown, so too has the level of talent. While the league is made up mostly of Tico players, the influx of U.S. players who grew up with the game has definitely boosted the caliber of play. The Bulldogs, for example, have several U.S.-born players and coaches who played a vital role in leading the team to the league championship with an unblemished 11-0 record. While much of the coaching and instruction is conducted in English, most players switch between Spanish and English as effortlessly as flipping television channels.
The Bulldogs star running back, Rein Weiss, who was chosen the league’s most valuable player, is a U.S.-Tico mix. Weiss, whose mother is from Costa Rica, grew up in the Dallas, Texas area and visited Costa Rica often while growing up. In September, Weiss moved to Costa Rica with his Tica wife and was told by the friend about the league.
“I always regretted not playing football in college,” said Weiss, who played four years of high school football in Garland, Texas. “When I found out about the league here, I went with a friend to a Bulldogs practice and decided to stay with them throughout the season. It’s been great to get to play again and have my family come out to watch me every week.”
Another key contributor to the Bulldogs is coach Ethan Kelley, a former two-time Super Bowl champion with the New England Patriots who played five seasons in the NFL.
Kelley, who retired from the Cleveland Browns in 2007, moved to Costa Rica with his wife and children last November. The couple had been looking for a place to settle down and, after a friend’s recommendation inspired a visit, decided on Costa Rica.
“Throughout my career, my wife and I were trying to figure out where we wanted to settle down and I couldn’t really find anywhere that worked in the States,” Kelley said.
“We started to look outside of the waters, so to speak, and Costa Rica popped up on the map.”
Soon after moving, Kelley sent an e-mail to a league referee who directed him to López. After talking with López, Kelley offered to help out with the Bulldogs, and the rest, as Kelley says, “is history.”
While players and coaches such as Weiss and Kelly bring their talent and knowledge of football to Costa Rica, Tico players have also stepped in to play integral roles in their teams’ success. Benji Chaverri, a wide receiver for the Bulldogs, pulled down several passes in the game against Nicaragua. From the sidelines, it appeared Chaverri had been playing the game for years.
“My football history before this year is, well, none,” Chaverri said after the game. “This is my first year to ever play. I had a friend who told me to come out, and I started training with these guys at the beginning of the season. It was a great first year. We won the championship. I had four touchdowns and no injuries. I’m just happy about how it has all turned out.”
At the end of a successful second season in early June, players and coaches know that a significant amount of work remains to improve the quality of the game. After only two years in Costa Rica, the game is still a little raw, as players master the fundamentals and rules of the foreign game. But, improvement comes with patience and, with the ICODER certification and continued interest in the sport, the future looks bright for fútbol Americano in Tiquicia.
“The growth of the game here has been intriguing,” said Dale McNew, one of the league’s original organizers and the head coach of the Raptors, a league team. “We are getting quality coaches, and a lot of quality foreign players from Texas, California and Florida have come in and really improved the level of play around the league. It’s become a real game of decent football and interest is growing around the country. It’s only going to get better as we keep moving forward.”