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Mexican-American Kicker Roberto Aguayo Makes Perfect NFL Debut: How His Immigrant Father Led the Way

First Posted: Sep 14, 2016 08:26 AM EDT
Cleveland Browns v Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Cleveland Browns v Tampa Bay Buccaneers(Photo : Photo by Brian Blanco/Getty Images)

The last time Tampa Bay Bucs rookie Roberto Aguayo missed an extra point attempt he was mulling whether Florida State garnet red suited him.

Aguayo, a second-generation Mexican-American selected in the second round of April's NFL draft, hit 69 of 78 field goals in three years at Tallahassee. His immaculate 198 extra point conversions broke an Atlantic Coast Conference record, and his 96.73 conversion rate set an NCAA mark for accuracy.

A guy with Aguayo's leg strength - he can float a 58-yard field goal through the uprights with ease -was sure to be heavily scouted, primarily by teams looking for a mid-round kicker described as "automatic."

The 22-year-old credits his father, Roberto Aguayo Sr., for his prowess. The elder Roberto built an H-shaped goal in the family backyard that doubled as football uprights and a soccer goal. After long hours at a local tree farm, he would still muster the energy for football and soccer practices.

Aguayo and younger brother Ricky would run extra laps on weekdays. On Saturday, dad ensured their pedometers upticked another five miles.

It not only encouraged strong work ethic, it provided Aguayo Sr.'s sons the opportunity a former undocumented immigrant like himself never received.

"He came over illegally, and there are a lot of people who do that, but they do that for a better life," Aguayo told Sports Illustrated. "There was no money over there. My uncle [living in Mexico] will work and make about $10 a day, and that's not enough to support the family. My dad wanted to have something better for my family."

Paving the Way

Aguayo Sr. grew up on a ranch in Capellanía, near the Mexican state of Guanajuato. He pondered a professional soccer career, but the need to support his parents and brothers outweighed personal ambitions.  

"I came to the United States looking for a better life because the economic circumstances in Mexico were very limited," he wrote in a Spanish-language email to ESPN. "[Capellanía] was very difficult because of a lack of important resources. At first, as a child, we had no electricity, water, transportation and other things."

Immigration laws in early 1980s - when an 18-year-old Aguayo Sr. initially attempted to cross the U.S.-Mexico border - embraced undocumented individuals. Before 1965, immigrants entered the country with limited restrictions. Immigration policy centered on Asian refugees, not the Mexican nationals that worked U.S. farmlands.

It wasn't until Immigration and Nationality Act amendments of 1976 and 1978 began restricting the number of visas allowed each year that lawmakers considered a pathway to citizenship.

Aguayo Sr. was twice deported, bobbing through a body of water - the Rio Grande - he couldn't swim. On at least one occasion, it was followed by a 100-degrees train ride from El Paso to Los Angeles.

"I felt like dying," he told the Tampa Bay Times. "But I made it to California. God gave me another opportunity."

The year of Aguayo Sr. final attempt, President Ronald Reagan granted citizenship to all undocumented immigrants who worked or lived in the U.S. since 1982. Nearly 2.7 million individuals gained permanent residence through the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act, including Aguayo Sr. who travelled between Ohio and Florida depending on the crop-planting season until he settled in Central Florida.

Those cock-a-doodle mornings led him to Martina, his Mexican-American wife, and a management position at a tree farm near Orlando. In 2004, he earned U.S. citizenship.

"Sometimes when I go back home and see my dad, I ask him to tell me the stories again," Aguayo said. "My dad told me, if things would have been a little bit different, I wouldn't be here today."

He added, "That's how we've come to grow up; we know what he has been through. I situations where I am struggling in life or in class or football, I think if my dad could have made it through that, being close to death in many situations, I can go through it."

The NFL's Latino Legacy

Few, if any, scouts predicted Tampa Bay would trade away a fourth-round pick for his rights. Based on the NFL's new scoring policy, it may be justified.

Point-after attempts were pushed to the 33-yard line last year, leading to a record 71 extra point attempts. The overall success rate (94.2 percent) dropped below 95 percent for the first time since 1979. Coaches gambled on two-point conversions - 94 attempts compared to 58 in 2014 - though they were just as unsuccessful.

The Bucs were second-guessed. They could have bolstered an offensive line weakened by Logan Mankins' retirement, or addressed concerns in the secondary, given that the Bucs' defense allowed 31 passing touchdowns and the league's second-worst quarterback rating (102.3) last season.

Instead, Aguayo became the highest-drafted kicker since Mike Nugent in 2005. It's the earliest Tampa Bay selected a kicker since 1999, when beloved Argentinian Martín Gramatíca fell in the third round.

He joins a terse list of notable Latino players that runs as long as an opening day roster. The list narrows if they have Mexican roots, like stars Tony Romo, Tony Gonzalez, and Anthony Muñoz.

Since 1951, two Mexico-born placekickers won NFL Championships. The 1977-78 Dallas Cowboys won Super Bowl XII behind Guadalajara's Efrén Herrera, a Pro-Bowl selection that year. The New York Giants made two Super Bowl appearances, winning Super Bowl XXI, with Coahuila native Raúl Allegre.

Journeymen Mexican Tony Zendejas, El Salvadoran José Cortéz, and Paraguayan Benny Ricardo played for decades with little recognition, an even less praise for the road they paved for Latinos.

Over 3,000 Hispanic players compete collegiately, yet only a fraction even so much as make NFL practice squads. Just four had decent prospects this spring, including Aguayo.

Aguayo's Debut

Inside the Georgia Dome, a 6-hour drive from Aguayo's childhood city of Mascotte, Fla., Tampa Bay's high-risk, high-reward kicker took his first licks last Sunday.

It followed an abhorrent preseason welcome when Aguayo uncomfortably adjusted to the NFL stage. He missed an extra point in the opener against Philadelphia. Against Jacksonville the next week he missed from 32 and 49 yards away.

After two rough weeks and incessant criticism over Tampa Bay's prioritization, Aguayo put it together.

He was perfect against Cleveland, nailing three extra points and three field goals, including a 48-yarder early in the first quarter. In the preseason finale versus Washington, which was moved up a day due to Hurricane Hermine, he went 3-for-3 with an extra point and two field goals, one a 50-yard attempt taken against a rain-soaked backdrop.

Then came the season opener in Atlanta. Tampa Bay beat their division rival 31-24. Aguayo was again perfect, hitting four extra points and his sole field goal, a 43-yarder that gave the Bucs an early lead.

"It was exciting," Aguayo said after the game. "I was definitely ready for the regular season to start, but it felt like it was the fifth game of my career. A very, very exciting win."

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