Local youth football players find fun, friends, and a feeling of la familia in Mexico.
This was about much more than a football game.
It was about a recent trip deep into Mexico that gave a group of Oviedo middle-schoolers a chance to meet some competitors who quickly became close friends. For some, it was their first taste of international travel.
The Oviedo Knights from the Central Florida Youth Football & Cheer League visited the Yucatan city of Merida for several days of fun, food, and football. In the end, no one wanted it to end.
“It was a life-changing experience for the kids,” says Don Lipari, who coached the seventh and eighth graders against the White Eagles of Merida
The 15 Knights and their chaperones got to tour Mayan ruins, and they enjoyed a heady mix of authentic Mexican cuisine side-by-side with such Americana as TGI Friday’s and 7-Eleven.
They were warmly welcomed from the beginning of their trip. When it was over, one of the Mexican players was crying because it was time to say goodbye.
“I’m not joking, you would have thought we were long-lost family,” Coach Don says of the graciousness of their hosts.
Jackson Heights Middle School eighth grader Mikey Benzija concurs.
“They took us in, and that felt good,” Mikey says. “There are some really good people over there.”
Another Jackson Heights eighth-grader, D.J. Scott, says the parents of the Mexican football players were especially warm.
“They treated us like we were their own kids,” says D.J., who admits he will be sad if he never gets to see his new Mexican friends again.
The exhibition game itself wasn’t terribly riveting, with the Knights winning handily. But it didn’t really matter.
Coach Don says the trip was eye-opening for the Oviedo students, who are accustomed to a relatively affluent environment. Some of the Mexican kids did not even own shoes, much less football cleats, says the coach, who also lives in Oviedo. Dogs wandered the streets, and one diner was furnished with only folding tables and chairs.
But despite some trepidations about safety beforehand, Coach Don says none of the travelers ever saw any signs of danger.
In advance of the trip, the Knights shipped the Eagles such basic equipment as helmets, cleats, and chin straps. While in Merida, the Knights and their coaches also staged a football camp for the Eagles. They noticed that the Mexican kids were much less aggressive than their American counterparts.
“They’re still learning how to play, how to tackle,” says Mikey, who has been playing football since he was in the second grade.
The Knights practice at the Oviedo Mall, and many of the players will go on to star on their high-school teams. Last year, the Knights took part in the Youth Shrine Bowl in California, helping to raise money for burn victims, amputees, and children born with cleft palates.
Mexico was the first foreign venture for the Knights. The January game was a well-publicized event in the state of Yucatan, as it had been 19 years since an international team staged a sporting event there.
“I have no way of describing what just happened,” Eagles Coach Hector Ortega Romero wrote to Coach Don right after the trip. “I have won and lost many games... but what happened this week has changed my life and that of my team. Don’t forget that in the Aguilas Blancas [White Eagles] of Merida, you have a family forever.”
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