Paying it Forward|
Ramirez and Vasquez are part of one of the top offenses in the NFL this season
Oct. 12, 2013
BY NICK KOSMIDER
The stenciled signs, the ones labeled "Hispanic Heritage," have been seen all around the National Football League the past month. But no team has put the ideal on the line more - quite literally - than the Denver Broncos.
Manny Ramirez and Louis Vasquez, starting offensive linemen for the league's fast-paced, high-scoring juggernaut, are proud to carry the torch of Hispanic players who have competed at the highest levels of the game, first as college teammates and then as pro football colleagues.
But the former Texas Tech giants, whose decorated careers overlapped for two seasons with the Red Raiders, see their mission as something larger than football.
"We get that the numbers of Hispanics and those of Latin American heritage are so small in the NFL that we feel the need to reach out whenever we can," Vasquez said at the team's practice facility in Englewood, Colo., earlier this month. "Let us be heard. Let us be seen for the younger generations to come, to open their eyes and open their horizons.
"There are so many bigger and better things. It doesn't even have to be football. It can be politics, the business world, whatever the case may be."
Vasquez and Ramirez have taken circuitous routes to ultimately become teammates once again. Ramirez, who served as a de facto tour guide for Vasquez during the latter's official visit, was taken by the Detroit Lions in the fourth round of the 2007 draft. He played four seasons in the Motor City before being signed by the Broncos in 2011.
After playing his entire career at guard - the same position he played at Tech as a four-year starter from 2003-06 - Ramirez became Denver's starting center during training camp when Dan Koppen was lost for the season with a knee injury.
All of sudden there was major pressure to perform in front of notoriously demanding, future Hall-of-Fame quarterback Peyton Manning. Ramirez, though, has handled the shift with aplomb, anchoring a line that has helped the Broncos set a blistering offensive pace that could break a bevy of records before the season is done.
"Manny has done a phenomenal job directing us," said Vasquez, who starts at right guard. Peyton is the leader of the team, and if he feels the need to redirect us, then that's his job. But for the most part, Manny is setting us, we're going a certain way, and he's done a great job at it so far."
Former Tech quarterback Cody Hodges, who played with Ramirez for four seasons, isn't surprised at all by Ramirez's success for a simple reason.
"Off the field, Manny is one of the nicest guys I know," Hodges said. "But on the field it's like he turns on this switch. He wants to destroy the defensive line. I think he views the quarterback as, `That's my wife; that's my mom. I'm not going to let you hurt that person."
Vasquez, a Tech lineman from 2005-08, was taken in the third round by the San Diego Chargers in the 2009 draft. Looking to bolster their line following last season's playoff loss, the Broncos plucked Vasquez from their division rival. He's fit in seamlessly next to Ramirez - No. 65 and No. 66, side-by-side again.
The above fact took some time to sink in for the two linemen, who had formed what they called a brotherhood at Tech, both born of parents from Mexico.
"Not really that many guys get the chance after they leave college to play down the road with that same teammate they had in college," Vasquez said. "When we're on the field, it's football all the time and we don't think about it. But us having that chemistry, and having it carry over now, we just work that much better together.
And Ramirez and Vasquez are also in lockstep with their belief that they should serve as role models in the Hispanic community, whether it be for kids in their hometowns of Coriscana (Vasquez) and Missouri City (Ramirez), near their college stomping grounds in West Texas, in Denver or anywhere else.
"We've always been doubted," Ramirez said recently during an interview with the Broncos' website. "That being Hispanic, you come from nothing, you aren't going to amount to anything. Football for me was a way to get out and stay out of trouble, a way to get a free education."
The former Red Raiders have been looking for more ways to spread their message of encouragement to Hispanic youth. The pair recently met with NFL Hall of Famer Anthony Munoz, a former Cincinnati Bengals lineman who is widely regarded as one of the greatest Hispanic players to play in the NFL.
"It was awesome to sit and visit with him," Vasquez said. "You kind of get that vibe from him that, `Hey, this is so much bigger than Anthony Munoz and me and Manny.' It's about showing the younger generations and letting them grow."