San Miguel de Allende, Uncategorized

Before the football season even begins, Deportivo San Miguel Leones faces elimination

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The Deportivo San Miguel Liones scrimmage fiercely on a recent Sunday. (Photo by John Bohnel)

Don’t let your handicap limit you. Don’t let your disability define you. You are everything you want to be and nothing that others think they see.

The footballers of Deportivo San Miguel know this. They believe this.

They live this.

They are the mighty Leones of the State of Guanajuato and in their four short years together playing on the national stage of Mexico, they have the hardware to prove it. 

They are champions. In so many ways.

A national championship is within their grasp. You can see it in their eyes. You can feel it as they go all out in scrimmage on the artificial turf at Unidad Deportiva, the sprawling sports complex on a warm Sunday in August.

Bodies swarm around the ball. Players pass with assurance. Plays get made. Balletic spins on a heel, zigging and zagging in and out of opponents. Balls fly into the net. Players collide in their aggression to be the best. Crutches fly into the air.

Crutches?

Yes, crutches. And prosthetics of all sorts.

The mighty Leones of Deportivo San Miguel is a football team comprised of players who lack a leg or an arm.  What they don’t lack is heart. Talent. Competitive drive. Ambition to be the best.

It seems cruel and unjust to tag them as a disability sports team because they are anything but.

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San Miguel de Allende, the city they represent with so much pride on the playing field, has withdrawn all support, says a subdued Angel Gonzalez Cano, the team’s founder and captain.  (Photo by John Bohnel)

But here’s the thing: The Leones of San Miguel may have earned the right to compete on the national stage but it is all about to be taken away from them for reasons that have nothing to do with who they are.

The team’s founder and captain, 32-year-old Angel Gonzalez Cano drew his players around him during a break in practice to deliver some bad news.

San Miguel de Allende, the city they represent with so much pride on the playing field, has withdrawn all support for the team, said a subdued Angel. 

They don’t know how they will get to their first game of the season in September. And if they do, where they will stay and how they will eat. Heck, Angel isn’t even sure if they could still use the city’s sports fields for practice.

All around Angel were faces of heartbreak and dejection. One more roadblock had been thrown in their paths.

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Losing the support of your city hits the Leones players hard. (Photo by John Bohnel)

Don’t let your handicap limit you. Don’t let your disability define you. You are everything you want to be and nothing that others think they see.

It is not the “you.” They know who they are. They know what they can accomplish. It is the “others” who impose the limitations. For whatever reason. Maybe even something as mundane as bureaucratic paperwork. Who knows?

Angel spoke calmly and reassured the players that they will keep fighting for the team. He spoke like a true leader, giving the facts straight, listening to the players and encouraging their ideas. Being honest but never showing his own frustration and discouragement.

That’s what leaders do. And Angel Gonzalez Cano is a leader. If he wasn’t born one, he was certainly trained to be one.

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Angel Ganzalez Cano founded Deportivo San Miguel four years ago, after playing on a team in Monterrey. He wants to show young amputees that there is life, and hope, after loss. (Photo by John Bohnel)

Angel is an alumnus of the Jóvenes Adelante program, a San Miguel foundation that seeks out bright and motivated high school students who might never afford to go to college. They provide to these students whatever they need to succeed — and tuition is only a part of it.

They offer counseling and workshops, a computer, and sometimes “other necessities when the need is great.” They instill social responsibility — the values and principles of leadership — into each student.

You can distill the goals of Jóvenes Adelante students down to this mantra:

Learn. Earn. Lead. Succeed. Give back.

Jóvenes Adelante’s signature move is to provide a mentor for each student, ideally, somebody who shares an interest in the student’s major and, certainly an interest in his or her future. For mentors, it is a five-year commitment. 

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(Photo by John Bohnel)

According to Nora Weaver who heads up the mentor program, Jóvenes Adelante has enabled 182 San Miguel students to go on to university. A stunning 85 percent earn degrees. Currently, there are 104 Jóvenes students, paired to 94 mentors.

Angel is among the alumni. He graduated from the Autonomous University of Nuevo Leon in Monterrey in 2013 with a degree in criminology. Tops in his class. 

When Angel entered the Jóvenes program he was paired with my friend Efrain Gonzalez, a teacher and artist and all-round colorful guy who is known to take his donkey for a walk through tourist-thick Centro. That mentorship grew into a friendship and nine years on, Efrain and Angel still get together over coffee to solve theirs and the world’s challenges. 

Efrain is working with Angel and his cousin, Caesar, to rebuild the team’s board of directors and complete its stalled application for non-profit status. “There are things we need to get back up to standards, make it official,” says Efrain. “What we really need is somebody who understands the law. And our finances are zero.”

It was in Monterrey that Angel first discovered a football team for players with disabilities.  (His own right arm was severely damaged at birth through medical malpractice.)

The team gave him a community.  They inspired him. They taught him to believe in himself. They taught him to define himself through his abilities, not his disability.

It was then that he knew how he would give back.

Angel went to work for the State of Guanajuato in its Department of Public Security and he formed a football team of amputees to compete in the nationwide league of 12. When he moved home to San Miguel, the team moved, too. Players now come from all over Guanajuato to play for the Leones and train with coach Raoames Lopez Olvera, himself a volunteer.

Some of the players lost limbs in motorcycle accidents, some from work injuries or cancer. The reasons aren’t important on the field. The brotherhood, the camaraderie, the mutual support — these are everything. 

Angel finished his talk with the players. They offered him some ideas and then, being the champions that they are, Team Leones went back on the field, preparing for a game they may not get to play.

What else could they do?

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(Photo by John Bohnel)

The team has to continue, says Angel. In the future, new kids will show up, he says. They will be missing a leg or an arm, looking for a reason to believe. The Leones give them that reason.

“They show up sad or depressed,” he says. “We inspire them.”

What if a kid should show up one day, only to find an empty field?

I hate that thought as much as Angel does.

Don’t let your handicap limit you. Don’t let your disability define you. You are everything you want to be and nothing that others think they see.

To help the Deportivo San Miguel Leones, contact Efrain Gonzalez at eg333837@gmail.com .

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