- Wayne Drehs, ESPN Senior Writer
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CHICAGO -- Roberto Garza heard the snickers for years. And he understood why. He was the son of Mexican immigrants. His tiny, south Texas town of about 1,600 had never produced a college football player, not to mention a professional.
So he knew why people laughed when he told them he was going to play in the NFL. He knew, too, why they shook their heads when he jogged the streets of Rio Hondo each morning. He didn't care until that day during his senior year, when a Marines recruiter told Garza what he thought of the boy's dreams.
"He just told me, 'Latinos don't play football. Not in college, not in the NFL. They don't play football,'" Garza said. "And I just decided, forget this guy. I was going to play college football and do everything I could to give myself a shot at the NFL."
Twelve years and a college career at Texas A&M-Kingsville later, not only is Garza one of 19 Latinos in the NFL -- a starting guard for the Chicago Bears who played in Super Bowl XLI -- but he's also the cover boy for the Spanish version of the EA Sports video game "Madden NFL '09."
So much for Latinos not playing football.
"I'm not sure what [the recruiter] would have to say for himself now," Garza said. "It's all pretty impressive, I guess."
"Madden NFL '09 en Español" is the second iteration of the Madden en Español series, following up on last year's game that featured San Diego Chargers defensive lineman Luis Castillo on the cover. The game play is the exact same as the English version, but the text and audio are fully translated into Spanish. There are four separate Spanish music tracks, and Alvaro Martin, the first Spanish play-by-play broadcaster for "Monday Night Football," calls the play-by-play.
"Our population is growing in huge numbers, and the support for the NFL is growing just as fast," Garza said. "But the problem I've found is that they don't know a lot about the game. They struggle to understand it. For a kid to pick this up, they can learn about the game. They can explain it to their parents and friends, and they can do it in a Spanish environment they're familiar with. I wish I would have had it growing up."
The Madden series is the only EA game that features a Spanish version, but the company hopes to grow in that area. Future plans may include a Spanish version of EA's FIFA soccer game, one of the top-selling video games in the world.
"Offering the Hispanic fan base an opportunity to further develop their passion for the game by playing 'Madden NFL '09 en Español' is something we hope to build upon down the road," said EA Sports senior product manager Anthony Stevenson.
For Garza, appearing on the cover was unfathomable.
"That's a dream I never had," Garza said. "They don't put offensive linemen on the covers of video games."
Garza's Bears teammates gave him a hard time after Castillo appeared on the cover of last year's game, so Garza and his agent reached out to EA to inquire about this year's candidates. The next thing Garza knew, he was calling to the house where he grew up in Rio Hondo trying to explain [his picture on the cover] to his mom and dad.
"It's hard for them to understand what this means. They didn't exactly grow up playing video games," Garza said. "But they're still pretty pumped."
Appearing on the cover of a Madden game does come with a catch: the infamous Madden curse. Since 2000, a number of players who have appeared on the cover of the game's English version have missed time thanks to injury the following year. The list includes Daunte Culpepper, Marshall Faulk, Michael Vick, Ray Lewis, Donovan McNabb, Shaun Alexander and Vince Young.
So what happened to Castillo last year?
"He got hurt," Garza admitted.
After suffering an ankle injury that required surgery in November, Castillo missed the Chargers' last six regular-season games. Garza has appeared in 95 straight NFL games dating back to 2002.
"I was sold on the idea that this was Madden Español, that it's a whole different thing, that there's no curse, that I'm not going to get hurt," Garza said. "But now well hopefully, I'll be able to break it and start a new trend."
And if not, he'll always have his Madden franchise season to fall back on. Garza, who plays the game with some of the other Bears, mirrors the "real" season by playing one game in his franchise each week. He has yet to play as himself.
"No way," Garza said. "I guess I could make a big block, but let's be honest: In the real world, nobody wants to be an offensive lineman. I'd rather throw the ball and pretend like I'm a quarterback. If only I didn't throw so many interceptions. That's not good."
Wayne Drehs is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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