MEXICO CITY – It all started with a hurricane.
Peter Nyhus, a native Minnesotan and retired finance executive, had made a habit of trading harsh Upper Midwestern winters in the U.S. for the tropical paradise of Cancun, Mexico. Since retiring, he’d often extended his trips down south, eventually buying beach-front property. That’s how, in the fall of 2009, he was caught in tropical storm season.
“A small hurricane [Ida] touches land, but there was no big damage,” Nyhus said. “Two days later, we were taking down the protective shields. And there was a muscular guy doing heavy lifting. I said, ‘You must work out,’ and he said, ‘I play football.’ I thought he meant fútbol. Turns out he was a coach for a club down there.”
Nyhus knows football. A former assistant in the 1960s for his alma mater, Gustavus Adolphus College in Minnesota, he later became the head coach at Valley City State University in North Dakota.
The man Nyhus encountered was an assistant at Lagartos de Cancún, a youth football club.
“Peter met with us, and he was fascinated,” said Lagartos head coach Miguel Calzada. “We invited him to watch us practice, and that’s how it all got started.”
Due to the lack of artificial lighting on their home field, the Lagartos practiced during the day under sweltering heat and humidity. It was then Nyhus had an idea.
“Any university gets additional practice time from the NCAA if they do an international service project,” Nyhus said.
A liberal arts college founded in 1862, Gustavus Adolphus boasts three former Minnesota governors in its alumni, as well as nationally recognized hockey and tennis programs. The school touts the involvement of more than 75% of its students in community service programs in Minnesota and abroad. Nyhus’ idea of setting up a trip to Mexico with social work as a key ingredient was a natural one.
Nyhus reached out to Gustavus’ head coach Peter Haugen about setting up a visit and organizing an exhibition football game in Cancun with Lagartos in May 2011.
“We wanted our kids to learn about the country we’re visiting and serve with some social work,” Haugen said. “So we go down, spend some time in an orphanage, impart football clinics to over 90 kids and then culminate the visit with the game.”
The Division III Golden Gusties trounced the Lagartos in a game branded as the Caribbean Bowl.
“It was a little overwhelming, the final score, I think we lost 53-0,” said Calzada. “We couldn’t get a single point on the board.”
Despite the result, the Gustavus staff was impressed by the level displayed by some of the Mexican players.
“We ended up having a couple of kids apply for admission, but it was tough because of the time of year and declaring eligibility,” Nyhus said.
College admission for international students can be intimidating, even with scholarship offers. In Mexico, the process of applying alone comes with a steep economic price.
“The paperwork was daunting, and back then the exchange rate was going crazy, so it got more expensive with each passing day,” said Calzada.
Determined to help, Nyhus made the trip back to Minnesota to move the process along.
“I get on campus and I want to know who the hell is in charge of admissions,” he said. “I scheduled a meeting and told them that if they wanted me talking about Gustavus down there, I needed to know what it takes for these kids to get in.”
Eventually, Nyhus was assisted in his quest by Violeta Hernandez, an admissions officer at Gustavus and a Mexican citizen. “She was very instrumental,” said Nyhus. Both worked with students and parents in Cancun to get the process going.
In 2013, the first class of Mexican scholarship recipients arrived in St. Peter, Minnesota, in the southern region of the state. Running back Bruno Rocha, defensive lineman Iker Ortiz and defensive backs Sergio de Pablos Velez and Mauricio Miranda –all Cancun natives– made up the initial class of recruits. Since, six of them are from the Caribbean seaside resort and one comes from Guadalajara.
The news made a splash, and endeared Nyhus on both sides of the border.
“When I go down to the Lagartos coaching field, everybody knows me," said Nyhus. "Then I see the same kids up in Minnesota, everybody knows me – they call me grandpa. I love it, it’s just awesome.”
Haugen was impressed with the performances, and more players made the trip up in subsequent years, including running back Karim Ortiz, now a senior.
“When I got there, I was eleventh, then eighth on the depth chart. I would pester Coach Haugen with my youth highlights, show him my style, but I started at the bottom,” Ortiz said.
Sitting on the sidelines, Ortiz, who had lived in Cancun since the age of 8, experienced perhaps the biggest difference between the Mexican Caribbean resort city and small-town Minnesota.
“That first year, I was freezing the whole time,” Ortiz remembered. “It’s hard enough being on the bench, but at least when you’re playing you stay warm. I had to sit there in the cold all season.”
Within a year, however, he was the starter.
“In the first three games of my sophomore season in 2015, three guys in front of me go down to injuries. I’d made it up to fourth string by then, so suddenly I’m playing,” said Ortiz. “I do well, and suddenly we’re winning, so I kept the job.”
The strong play of Ortiz and others has prompted rival programs to approach Haugen for advice.
“This has gotten quite a bit of attention. I’ve had coaches come up to me from other schools and ask me about how this started, they’re exploring the possibility of doing it themselves,” Haugen said.
The fervor for these Mexican athletes in Cancun has grown notably due to Ortiz and his teammates’ success.
“People down in Cancun are wearing the [Gustavus] gear, it’s amazing,” said Ortiz.
On gameday, family and friends in Mexico stream the Gusties’ games live online, allowing the Cancun faithful to watch from afar.
Ortiz said he’s mentoring sophomore Rafael Soriano, also a running back. Along with freshman Ivan Suarez, there have now been seven Mexican players on the football team stemming from the Cancun visits.
“I’m not ready to give this up; I’m very passionate about this game,” said Ortiz.
In the 2017 opener against Westminster College, the Mexican faction was out in full force. In a 38-0 blowout, Ortiz racked up 69 yards on 14 carries and ran for a touchdown, while Soriano chipped in with 10 yards on four carries. In a game last year against Augsburg, Ortiz ran for 180 yards and two touchdowns, earning the Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletics Conference (MIAC) Offensive Player of the Week.
“Karim has been great. It’s hard to adjust to the United States, there’s a culture shock for sure, but the Mexicans have made it easier,” said Soriano, the first non-Cancun native to make the trip up north. Soriano, who hails from Guadalajara, was unaware of the school’s connection to Mexico, until CMAS (Career Management Advisory Solutions) Athletes, a private for-profit company based in Mexico that specializes in linking Latino athletes to the NCAA system, informed him.
“I was blown away. It was pretty awesome,” Soriano said.
The school’s connection with Mexico has gone beyond football, even.
“We’ve had two tennis players, a soccer player and others solely on academics, people in our music program,” said Haugen.
In all, the school has recruited 12 Mexican students, all on scholarships, all from Cancun except Soriano, stemming from Peter Nyhus’ small talk following a storm.
“Once I was asked why I was doing this, why go through the trouble,” Nyhus said. “I care about these people, about these kids. When they remember this 50 years from now and tell the story, they can say some old man convinced them to change their lives.”
Read the Spanish-language version of this story here.