<
>

Vasquez feels at home in San Diego

Guard Louis Vasquez is the only rookie in San Diego's starting lineup. Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

Back when Fabian Vasquez and his brothers would put on the gloves and box in a makeshift ring in their backyard, their wild dreams were never about the gridiron.

The members of a proud Mexican-American family from south of Dallas were scrappy and small and naturally gravitated toward boxing, as their father, Louis -- an amateur fighter -- had. They hoped someone from the athletic family might one day hoist a world championship belt. The thought of the Lombardi Trophy seemed almost too foolish to even consider.

After all, Fabian was 5-foot-5, and his brothers were smaller men as well. Then Fabian had a son, and before long it was clear he wouldn't be another Oscar De La Hoya or Julio Cesar Chavez.

Think Anthony Munoz.

"I have no idea how this happened," Fabian Vasquez said with shock in his voice. "I'm 5-foot-5, my ex-wife is 5-foot-3, and we had a son who is 6-foot-6, 325 pounds -- I never thought I'd be the father of an NFL player."

San Diego Chargers guard Louis Vasquez, named after his boxing grandfather, is a rarity in many ways. He's not just a giant among his family ("You should see our family get-togethers," he said. "I stick out like a sore thumb."). He's also a rarity among Hispanics.

Despite the continued growth of the Mexican-American population in the United States, there are only a handful of Mexican-American players in the NFL. But Vasquez is doing his people proud.

Since the April day the Chargers drafted Vasquez in the third round from Texas Tech, San Diego has had major plans for Vasquez. He has not disappointed. Despite transitioning from the spread offense the Red Raiders used, Vasquez has excelled with San Diego. He is the team's only rookie starter. (Vasquez sat out last week's game with a knee injury, and his status for this week is still in question.)

"We're just overwhelmed by this," Fabian Vasquez said. "It's just so overwhelming for so many reasons."

Vasquez's presence on the Chargers' roster has been met with great excitement in the community. In some San Diego-area towns, the Hispanic population is as high as 60 percent. The Mexican border is just a short trolley ride from Qualcomm Stadium, Vasquez's new place of work.

"The Spanish-speaking community is so excited about Louis' arrival in San Diego and the fact that he is a starter for the Chargers," said Jorge Villanueva, the play-by-play announcer on the Chargers' Spanish-language radio broadcast. "There are many, many Spanish-speaking Chargers fans in Southern California, and they are all excited to have Louis Vasquez here. Everywhere I go, people ask me about him."

Really, it's the perfect fit, and Vasquez -- who grew up in Corsicana, Texas (45 miles south of Dallas) -- knows it. If he had to leave Texas, San Diego was his best option.

"I have a comfort level here," Vasquez said. "It's nice to be around lot of other Mexican people. The fans have been great. In pregame warm-ups, I always hear people calling my name and saying how proud they are of me."

Chargers defensive tackle Luis Castillo knew Vasquez would be an instant hit in Southern California. Castillo is of Dominican descent and went to high school in New Jersey. Still, Castillo was embraced by the Hispanic community in San Diego.

"My rookie year, there were so many No. 93 jerseys in the stands just because of my last name," Castillo said. "I was basically adopted by the Mexican fans here. They are special people here, and Louis is going to have a great relationship with them for the next several years. He is going to be a great player here for a long time, and the people of San Diego are going to love him."

Vasquez said Castillo has mentored him since he arrived, and he admits it is nice to have a fellow Latino in the locker room. While at Texas Tech, he played two years with fellow Mexican-American Manny Ramirez, now a backup in Detroit. The two remain close.

"Manny and now Luis make me feel less of an outcast," Vasquez said. "I don't mean that in a bad way. Nobody has treated me badly, but it can be weird being the only Mexican guy around."

Vasquez said his high school team was about one-third Mexican-American. But he realized early on that if he continued to play in college and the NFL, he'd play with fewer Mexican-Americans.

Vasquez, who said people often ask him whether he has another race's blood in him because of his enormous size, hopes to be a role model for Mexican children who may aspire to playing in the NFL. Vasquez had Munoz, a Hall of Fame tackle for the Cincinnati Bengals, to emulate. He hopes to set a similar example for Mexican kids of this generation.

"The problem is, there aren't many Mexican people this size," Vasquez said. "So, maybe we'll see some skill-position kids play in the future."

In the meantime, Vasquez is proud to be one of the few Mexican-American players in the league. He recently began getting Aztec-themed tattoos on his right arm and plans to decorate his chest with more soon. He has his last name tattooed on the top of his back.

"This means a lot to my family," Vasquez said. "No one ever expected this could happen."

Bill Williamson covers the NFL for ESPN.com.