Under a starlit sky in the suburb of Santa Ana, 11 men lined up on both sides of a football. Shouts from players and coaches died down as quarterback Arturo Ogiste barked out a snap count. Ogiste grabbed the ball from a waiting center, dropped back, and pitched the football to star running back, Reinhard Weiss.
Weiss cut left, deftly evading two blockers, and bulled his way through defenders into the end zone for a touchdown.
Immediately after the play, offensive and defensive coordinators rushed onto the field, barking instructions in English. On the sidelines, team members shouted encouragement and translated coaches’ commands from English to Spanish.
Tuesday night football practice was a special occasion for a number of reasons. For starters, the athletes on the field represented the cream of the crop of U.S.-style football players in Costa Rica. They were selected over a yearlong period, based on speed, strength and knowledge of the game, to compete for their country this weekend.
The late-night practice at Río Oro Stadium was the last time the Costa Rican national team would suit up for practice before its first game today at 4 p.m.
“This is a historic moment for American football in Costa Rica,” said Cody Gear, a national team coach and director of football operations for the Raptors, one of six teams that comprise the Federation of American Football. “It is the first time there is a national selection comprised entirely of Costa Rican citizens.”
In the three years since Costa Rican Division One U.S. football got its start, progress has been steady. The number and caliber of coaches per team has increased dramatically. Costa Rican players have the opportunity to learn from ex-collegiate athletes and even two-time Super Bowl champion Ethan Kelley, who played five years in the NFL for the Cleveland Browns and New England Patriots.
“I wanted change, challenge and adventure when I came to Costa Rica,” Kelley said. “But when I got here there was a part of me that couldn’t let the game go.”
While all Tico citizens, many of the players on the team learned the game in the U.S. Ogiste, who played in high school and college, said he took a 10-year hiatus before hearing about the Costa Rican league three years ago.
“I had the fever,” he said. “After 10 years I was ready to come back and I haven’t left the game since.”
Charlton Ortega, a Tico by birth who grew up in Brooklyn, is a player, coach and organizer for the San José Tiburones. He said he likes to take athletes and turn them into football players.
“A lot of the teams are really one dimensional but they have been getting better,” he said. “Only true players want to take their own time to come out and learn a game that is completely foreign to them.”
This weekend’s tournament is unprecedented for a number of reasons. Not only is it the first time the Costa Rican National team will play together, it is also the first time the team will play against a team from the United States.
“The team from the [United] States is coming here to help us improve our level of play,” said Jose López, Santa Ana Bulldogs coach and commissioner of the first division. “Playing against people who are better than you is the only way to get better yourself.”
Coaches agreed the talent pool here in Costa Rica has improved, increasing the odds that Costa Rica’s unpaid national team will have a chance to play for their country on Saturday in the tournament championship.
The National team will face off against the Jaguares of El Salvador Friday night at 4 p.m. at the Río Oro Stadium in Santa Ana, southwest of San José. Their game will be followed by the Guerreros of Nicaragua playing the Thundercats from the U.S. If Costa Rica wins, they’ll go on to play the following night at 8 p.m. If they lose, they will play Saturday at 4 p.m.
Love of the Game
The national selection includes Costa Rica’s best talent, López said. The hardest thing about bringing the team together, he said, was getting players to work on developing skills and a sense of camaraderie that a U.S.-style football team must have to win games.
“You can have a little bit of athleticism, but if you don’t come to practice you won’t know what’s going on,” he said. “If you don’t mesh in with the team you don’t gain the confidence level, the camaraderie, the brotherhood. At the end, the most important thing is if you don’t come here, you don’t gain the heart.”
López said the league got its start when expats in the sports book business started a gentlemen’s league three years ago. Gradually, he said the league’s popularity spread by word of mouth, and Ticos started to join.
“A lot of word of mouth,” he said. “I started putting up posters, I started organizing events and international games. People are starting to listen. Every once in a while I will walk in to a store and people will say, ‘Hey aren’t you Don José from football?’”
In 2010, the league achieved national recognition from the Costa Rican Sports and Recreation Institute, which will bring it into the Costa Rican physical education system at the public school level (TT, June 18, 2010).
Recently, López said the league has had some success finding sponsorship. Sports drink company Gatorade is assisting the Costa Rican national team host the tournament this weekend.
However, more than anything else, he said the tournament this weekend is about love of the game.
“We are going to come out hard and strong,” he said. “But more than anything else I expect to have fun and for these guys to play at 150 percent. They are going to leave everything they got on the field for Costa Rica.”
Admission for tournament games is ₡2000 ($4) for adults and free for children 12 and under. Games will be played on both days at 4 p.m. and 8 p.m.