You would not expect the story of the Mexican Lacrosse Federation to start in the suburbs of Detroit. But then again, Jose Luis Espinosa did not expect to be more than 2,000 miles from home the day his father died.
On April 25, 2009, Espinosa, a Mexico City native and mechanical engineering graduate student at the University of Michigan-Dearborn, lost his father, Jose Luis Espinosa Perez, to cancer. The news came on the day of Espinosa's final exam before graduating.
"He was one of my best friends. It was kind of our dream for us to do my master's," Espinosa said. "He was my role model, a good person whose happiness resided in helping others, the small things that life gives you, family and honest work."
Another dream hatched that day. Espinosa, who played lacrosse for Michigan-Dearborn's club team for six months after finding a flyer on campus, decided to use his inheritance to bring the sport back with him to Mexico.
"Lacrosse helped me. It gave me strength just to hold on," he said. "My dad was a doctor. He was always helping people. I thought lacrosse could be my way to give people a hand to grow to be better people. I could help people by playing lacrosse, teaching them [the game], giving them a cause. I hold onto lacrosse because it helped me with my pain."
Espinosa found a website for Mexican Americans who played lacrosse and flew to California to meet Iliad Rodriguez, a Bay Area coach who as a player founded lacrosse programs at his high school (Bishop O'Dowd) and college (San Jose State), and Osvaldo Diaz, who played at Cal Poly. They created a MySpace page to recruit native Mexicans for an informal practice the following summer at UNAM, a public research university in Mexico City.
Using money he received from his father's life insurance policy, Espinosa bought enough equipment to outfit 20 players with Cascade helmets, Shamrock gloves and Warrior Punisher sticks — if they showed up.
On July 19, 2009, Espinosa loaded the equipment into his mother's minivan and drove to the field at UNAM. He was the only one there for the 12 p.m. start. He waited 20 minutes for the first recruit to arrive. At least he had someone to play catch with, Espinosa thought.
Shortly after they started, the third player arrived, and then the fourth.
"At the end of the day," Espinosa said, "I had 20 guys playing lacrosse."
From there, Espinosa organized a series of 5-on-5 scrimmages, including a tournament in Ajusco, a national park next to the 12,894-foot volcano outside Mexico City.
"The ball was always on the ground, the best player was the one whose shot didn't miss the goal by five feet and the use of a goalie was extremely unnecessary," Espinosa said.
Tasked with teaching a game he barely knew, Espinosa bought 62 instructional DVDs and invited a group of 12 Mexican American players — rounded up by Diaz and Rodriguez — to join 18 local players for full-field exhibition games Sept. 5-6, 2009, at UNAM, Tec de Monterrey, and Universidad Iberoamericana. They even brought an official from San Jose to referee the games.
"I'll never forget the feeling I had standing there, taking it in and saying, 'Man, I can't believe we're going to play a lacrosse game here,'" said Diaz, whose parents and wife were born in Mexico City. "We looked at each other and said, 'Hey, we gotta remember this moment. We'll all look back on how it started.'"
Those 30 players formed the foundation of the 2010 Mexican national team that competed in the Federation of International Lacrosse (FIL) World Championship in Manchester, England. They were winless in five games, finishing in last place (29th).
But the results did not matter as much as the experience. Clubs sprouted up at seven different Mexican universities that year. Each had hubs in Mexico City, which allowed Espinosa to run a practice at a different school each day after he finished his work at a Chrysler automotive engineering center. The FIL hosted a five-day development clinic in Mexico City in November 2010. Four of the universities now also have women's lacrosse.
Espinosa, a defensive midfielder, is among 28 players who will travel to Denver next month for the 2014 FIL World Championship, presented by Trusted Choice, at Dick's Sporting Goods Park. Twenty-three will be selected onsite for the final roster. Diaz, director of the Mexican national team, anticipates that 19 of those players will be native Mexicans. Carlos Trujillo, another Bay Area coach who played at Army and coached the team in 2010, also is back.
Mexico has added size on defense with Sergio Orduna, who plays for the fledgling MCLA program at Sierra Nevada (and who played in the initial Mexico City exhibition as a 12-year-old) and on offense with brothers Mike and Joe Vila, who played at Chico State. Goalie Alec Gastony will be a freshman at Division II Adams State in Colorado next fall. Attackman Axkana Patraka is the top player in Mexico.
"The talent of the American-based Mexicans is significantly better. And based on what I saw at tryouts, the Mexican players are ready for the challenge," Diaz said. "We're not a real big team, but they're really quick and they've got great footwork. They're shifty. That's from a culture where lot of these guys are former soccer players. They're very low to the ground, they're shifty, they're quick, they hustle, they're not used to taking breaks and they get after it. I expect them to be swarming the ball."
A record 38 nations will be represented at the world games, including nine first-time participants, giving Mexico a chance to make significant strides.
"One of the biggest things for us is going to be the world championships in Denver, when people can see players truly from other cultures playing the sport all in the same place, all in America," Trujillo said in an interview for the November 2011 edition of Lacrosse Magazine. "The American players on these teams who are Hispanic, playing with native Mexicans or native Argentineans — the international piece of that event — will be a big deal for us."
Espinosa, 31, said Mexican players are drawn to the rhythm of the game. Lacrosse gave him a calling. In addition to coaching, he would like to use his engineering background to manufacture lacrosse balls and start a made-in-Mexico supply line to the U.S. equipment companies.
"People say do what you love for a living. I did not love building cars," Espinosa said. "I always tell my players, to be good at a game is to be good at life. If they can follow a rule, follow a system and respect their teammates, they can be a great player. But they can also be a great person. They can be a super doctor, a super mechanic or a super lawyer. When you educate a person on the field, you educate them for life."
Said Diaz: "A lot of people have contributed, but without Jose, there is no lacrosse in Mexico City."