While growing up in a Mexican town fixated on soccer, Diego Torres always looked up to his father who had excelled at a different sport: American football.
Torres embarked on a journey to pursue the sport last August when he came to Rossford High School as a sophomore exchange student. When he returned to Puebla, Mexico, last month, young Torres had become closer both physically and mentally to his dream than he had ever thought possible.
"When I left for Ohio my dad was taller than me and when I got back I was taller than him," Torres said.
Torres, who now speaks English very well, came to America with a basic knowledge of football. But he quickly earned the starting duties as a linebacker and wide receiver on the varsity at Rossford.
"Pretty much my dream has been to play football at a college in the United States," Torres said. "That is my dream since I started playing football. To go back and get a scholarship would be wonderful. I really didn't expect all this."
Now standing 6-foot-2 and weighing 185 pounds, Torres was selected to attend an elite high school all-star camp this week in Williamsburg, Va. He was among 1,000 of the nation's top players to be invited to Football University's Top Gun camp.
Rossford coach Todd Drusback admitted he was not expecting too much when Torres showed up during two-a-day practices last August.
"I had coached foreign exchange students and I wasn't thinking much of it," Drusback said. "But he became a knowledgeable player. He has great body control. He's a very smooth runner. He can just get in and out of his breaks. He has great arm length and plays taller. His biggest attribute is his instincts. He has a feel for the game. All those things you can't coach."
Torres finished second on the team in tackles. He also finished ranked fourth in the Northern Lakes League in receiving with 32 catches for 416 yards (13.0 per catch). He earned second team All-NLL honors and was named all district honorable mention.
Torres was voted Rossford's most valuable player by his teammates. Drusback said he deserved all the accolades.
"It is really spectacular," he said. "He was incredible on both offense and defense. He was there as far as grasping [the systems]."
Torres, 16, said he had seen the movie Friday Night Lights and dreamed of being a part of the American tradition.
"In Mexico we play on Saturday or Sunday mornings," he said. "It was a dream to play under the lights. The first time I played, it was great."
The young linebacker said the physicality of football is a major draw.
"I like the hitting," he said. "I like that it is a really complete sport. You really need to be strong. But you need to be smart and be able to learn the plays. It doesn't just teach you football, but also teaches you about life."
Drusback nominated Torres for a camp in late June in Texas. His outstanding performance there earned him an invite to Top Gun.
"At first I was really nervous because it was an elite camp. There were a bunch of good players," Torres said. "We did some drills and I felt really good. At the end they told me that I had potential and nominated me for Top Gun."
The Top Gun is the culmination of Football University's 40-camp nationwide tour that gathers elite prep performers from across the country. The camp's list of alumni includes some of the top college football recruits and players. Last year 13 players went on to compete in the prestigious U.S. Army All-American Bowl, including standout recruits Ray Drew (Georgia), Malcolm Brown (Texas), and Curtis Grant (Ohio State).
Torres trained with former NFL players and coaches at the camp that started Thursday and wrapped up Saturday.
Torres returned home after his exchange-student experience ended in June. He plans to spend this school year in his hometown. He hopes to return to Ohio for his senior year.
"It would be great to come back and play again," he said. "I would love to come back someday."
Football, not futbol
Torres lives in Puebla, roughly 80 miles southeast of Mexico City.
He said when he was young the only sport that was played in his neighborhood was soccer.
"Then when I was 7 or 8 I got really tired of it and didn't like it that much," he said. "I tried some new sports like basketball."
But he said his father Gabriel Torres had played football for a local college. Torres said one day when he was 9, his father gave him a football to play with instead of a soccer ball. He's been playing ever since.
"We went to see a college team. And then I tired it and I loved it. Now it's my sport," he said.
Torres said his father was a running back in Guadalajara, Mexico as a youth and earned a scholarship to play at a college in Puebla.
"There has always been football in Mexico," Torres said. "But it is not on TV. There are actually a lot of leagues and players down there. But it is not a popular sport down there."
At the college game Torres was handed a paper about a local instructional program.
"We practiced without pads my first day and I liked it. Then we got into hitting and I liked it even more," Torres said.
Torres said when he first started playing football he wanted to be a running back like his father.
"But they put me in as a linebacker my first year and I really liked it," he said. "That was my position. I was good at it. I like to read the play and make plays like tackle or intercept the ball. I like to stop the offense."
He said he told his parents he wanted to go the United States to learn more.
"That is the country where everyone plays football," he said.
He connected with a program called American Cultural Exchange Service (ACES), a non-profit organization dedicated to cultural, educational, and sports exchanges.
The organization paired him up with the Losiewicz family of Perrysburg Township that hosted Torres for 10 months.
"You're not allowed to go back to your home country during that time so that you get the experience," Torres said. "I really loved it. Everything I did there I loved it."
Torres said he adapted quickly to American high school life, but the language barrier was a bit more difficult to overcome.
"When I first got there my English wasn't very good," he said. "I could understand it but I couldn't speak it. It was kind of hard to talk to people and stuff. But the culture didn't take me a while to adjust to it. Everything was great. The teachers helped me and made sure I understood everything."
His strength is a strength
Drusback called Torres a "weight-room guy."
"He is strong. He does Olympic lifts. He's very knowledgeable," Drusback said. "In two years I think he will be [much bigger]. He is the perfect outside linebacker and posses skills to play Division I football."'
Torres was one of just 40 out of about 350 players at the camp in Texas that were invited to Top Gun.
Torres said no colleges have contacted him yet but he said he plans to enroll in a program that helps expose non-traditional athletes to college coaches.
Torres said he will begin working out with his team in Mexico when he returns after the Top Gun camp. He said the season starts in September.
"He wants to come up next year," said Drusback, who said he will be exploring avenues to help expedite the process. "I don't know if there is a precedent for it."
Drusback said he uses a no huddle system on offense and hand signals on defense for communication, which helped cut down the language barrier.
"His experience here was awesome and he didn't want to leave," Drusback said.
"We formed a great rapport. I'm hopeful that he can come back in two years."
Torres said football is far different in the two countries.
"I just tried to do the best I could," Torres said.
"But it felt great [at Rossford]. The whole team was really friendly with me. I fit in great."
Contact Mark Monroe at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6354.