Cowboys' Isaac Alarcon rides NFL international program on journey from Mexico

Isaac Alarcon spent his college years at Mexico's Monterrey Tech, patterning his game after Tyron Smith and Zack Martin. He will now get personal instruction from the All-Pro linemen as the Cowboys' International Player Pathway program addition. Dallas Cowboys

A year ago, Dallas Cowboys offensive lineman Isaac Alarcon was convinced his football career was over.

The aftermath of surgery to remove a benign cyst in his lower back had left the 6-foot-6, 320-pound Monterrey Tech product 25 pounds lighter because of changes to his diet. He was unable to practice for more than two months. When he returned, he found himself consistently being knocked over like a bowling pin. That wasn't ideal, considering he knew NFL scouts were watching.

"I thought I had lost it all," Alarcon said in Spanish before reporting to Cowboys camp in Frisco, Texas, on July 21. "I didn't feel strong or agile. How was I going to recover?"

He did so by inching his way back in the ensuing months. If coaches asked him to run 20 yards, he'd do 30. The same mindset applied in the weight room. The work paid off when Tech's Borregos Salvajes (Wild Rams) were crowned Mexico's collegiate national champions last November, with Alarcon earning all-conference honors.

Impressed with Alarcon's recovery, scouts invited him to the NFL's International Player Pathway program in Florida. Launched in 2017 with the goal of showcasing players from outside the United States and Canada, the IPP has yielded players such as Carolina Panthers defensive end Efe Obada, who was born in Nigeria and raised in England; Philadelphia Eagles tackle Jordan Mailata of Australia; and New England Patriots fullback Jakob Johnson from Germany.

"We want the best athletes in the world playing here, regardless of where they're from," said Damani Leech, chief operating officer of NFL International. "Mexico [has] some of the most mature football programs compared to other parts of the world."

At the IPP, Alarcon captivated scouts and landed on the practice squad of his favorite NFL team. It was just the latest chapter in Alarcon's speedy, improbable rise through the sport.

Alarcon, 22, hails from Monterrey, Mexico, a city long obsessed with baseball and football, in part because of its proximity to Texas. In 1996, the city hosted the only NFL game in Mexico held outside of Mexico City, a 32-6 preseason win for the Kansas City Chiefs over the Cowboys. That same year, Monterrey became the first setting for an MLB regular-season game played outside of the United States and Canada, when a sellout crowd of 23,699 watched the San Diego Padres defeat the New York Mets 15-10.

It was football that gripped Isaac and his two brothers, Israel and Abraham, in large part because of their father, Juan Francisco Alarcon. The elder Alarcon played safety at another Monterrey university, UANL, while studying to become a radiologist.

On the field, Isaac got a relatively late start.

"I didn't start playing until I was 14," he said. "I was too big as a kid, so they never let me play youth football before that."

Alarcon's frame certainly screams lineman, though he held out early on upon arriving at Monterrey Tech. He was recruited as a tight end, but his coaches convinced him to switch positions or risk being dropped from the team altogether.

"I didn't want to be on the offensive line," Alarcon said. "I thought those guys were all fat, that all they did was eat and then wrestle for a bit on every play and just fall over."

Alarcon's perception shifted shortly into his time as a freshman left tackle after meeting Rolando Cantu, the former Monterrey Tech guard who played one game for the Arizona Cardinals 15 years ago.

Cantu's own path to the NFL was unconventional and nearly over before it began. On his way to a pivotal NFL Europe tryout at UANL, Cantu tried to pass a semitrailer while merging onto the highway. The Volkswagen Jetta he was driving ended up going under the truck and spinning toward the median. The vehicle was totaled, but all three passengers escaped unscathed.

After that scare, Cantu made the tryout and began the journey toward a short but meaningful NFL career. He went on to a stint with NFL Europe's Berlin Thunder, then signed with the Cardinals and worked his way to a special-teams appearance in the final game of the 2005 season, a 17-13 loss to the Indianapolis Colts.

Now a color commentator for the Cardinals' Spanish-language radio broadcasts, Cantu is viewed as a pioneer in Mexico: a non-kicker who bypassed the American college football system on his way to the NFL. It was just one game, but it was enough to motivate players from Mexico such as Alarcon who seek to follow Cantu's lead.

"Isaac has the size, ability and dedication to do something big in Dallas," Cantu said. "He's very disciplined and he has all the qualities you need to be great."

Cantu highlighted Alarcon's run blocking, overall footwork and mental toughness as factors impressing scouts. His size is comparable to standard NFL linemen, though one scouting report stressed the need for Alarcon to play lower, in order to improve his leverage and prevent defenders from putting their hands or helmet on his chest.

Alarcon's natural gifts and eventual acceptance of the position allowed for quick progress, and his desire to improve motivated him to closely observe the game's top offensive linemen in search for development cues.

Time after time, his research led him to the trenches of America's Team.

Cowboys All-Pro offensive linemen Tyron Smith and Zack Martin rapidly became role models. Alarcon became a fan not only of both players, but of the team itself. At Tech, he wore Smith and Martin jerseys to class and made a ritual of watching every game, mimicking their moves and footwork.

"Tyron is so fast, his hands are always in great position," Alarcon said. "First thing I'll do after I introduce myself is say: 'Teach me, please.'"

Assuming the 2020 NFL season carries on as planned, Alarcon will get the chance to solicit mentorship from one of the best offensive line units in the league. Last season, the Cowboys allowed the second-fewest sacks in the NFL and ranked fifth in total rushing yards.

The coronavirus pandemic has already prompted the NFL and the players' union to scrap the preseason, removing vital reps for any young player looking for a spot on the 53-man roster. Nevertheless, the possibility of seeing Alarcon with a Cowboys star on his helmet will be enough to command attention from the millions of football fans in Mexico. Along with the Pittsburgh Steelers, Las Vegas Raiders and, more recently, the Patriots, the Cowboys have historically been among the country's most followed NFL teams.

To this day, the 1994 preseason contest between the Cowboys and Houston Oilers in Mexico City remains the NFL's highest-attended game at any level, with 112,376 fans piling into Estadio Azteca to watch a 6-0 Oilers victory.

After the Cowboys announced Alarcon's signing in April, his social media following increased tenfold over the course of one day.

"It just shows you the level of excitement there is for a Mexican-born player in the NFL," Leech said.

"Isaac has every attribute to be an impact player in the NFL. I want to be clear on that." Former NFL player Rolando Cantu of Mexico, on Isaac Alarcon

Mexico remains a central player in the league's international growth efforts. Mexico City and London are the only cities to have hosted NFL International Series games, though the Buffalo Bills played regular-season home games at Toronto's Rogers Centre from 2008 to 2013. Having Alarcon play for the Cowboys would then seem a fortuitous opportunity to stay locked in with the Mexican market. Cantu, however, insists any suggestion this is a token signing is way off.

"They're the Dallas Cowboys; they don't need him to sell jerseys," Cantu said. "Isaac has every attribute to be an impact player in the NFL. I want to be clear on that."

With the notable exception of Guadalajara-born Tom Fears, the Los Angeles Rams wide receiver and 1970 Pro Football Hall of Fame inductee, Mexican players with distinguished tenures in the NFL have almost all been kickers. Efren Herrera and longtime ESPN Deportes NFL analyst Raul Allegre won rings with the Cowboys (Super Bowl XII) and New York Giants (XXI), respectively, and the Zendejas family of kickers (brothers Luis, Max and Joaquin, and their cousin Tony) left their NFL footprint in the 1980s.

Whether Alarcon ultimately makes the team -- because he is an IPP product, the Cowboys can carry him on a designated international roster spot if he's not on the full practice squad or final roster -- the NFL is hoping his time in the spotlight sparks opportunities for others in Mexico.

"We've had, for a number of years, a really strong touch football program in Mexico," Leech said. "It's meant growth for kids and adolescents playing competitively. The challenge for us is being a better partner for the college football system."

Ideally, schools like Monterrey Tech, widely considered one of Mexico's elite college programs, will continue to recruit players such as Alarcon who could potentially make the move to the IPP or be selected in the NFL draft. (Rugby convert Mailata became the IPP's first draft pick when he was selected in the seventh round in 2018.) Leech said he spent time last year opening up lines of communication between the league and schools in Mexico to facilitate the scouting of more players in coming years.

For now, Alarcon's goal as a young offensive lineman breaking into one of the NFL's most stacked depth charts is a tall order. But it is no less of a challenge in his mind than the seemingly impossible ones he has already conquered on his road to Dallas. Alarcon remains unfazed despite getting a late start, changing positions in college and recovering from surgery that left him diminished just as scouts were beginning to look his way. The dream has been so close to being ripped away on so many occasions, he's now at peace with knowing it could end at any time.

"A year ago, I thought I wouldn't play again," he said. "That's just me being honest. Today, I get to play for my favorite team.

"Now the only thing I'm eager about is that I want to go out there and hit someone."