Diego Munguia and Sebastian Peña made a pact during the spring that took them some 779 miles and a world away.
Both teenagers were born in the United States to Mexican parents, and wanted to find (and overcome) significant challenges in the game they loved, American football. The duo, who have dual American-Mexican citizenship, grew up playing in the parks of Monterrey. Munguia’s parents moved across the border from Tucson, while Peña’s left Houston.
Both showed immense talent at their respective positions from a young age, with Munguia torching opposing defenses at tailback, while Peña pulverized opposing offensive lines from the defensive end position.
The former earned several scholarship offers to play college football in Mexico, but Munguia knew he wanted to take his game to the next level, in the United States.
It was a decision made after Munguia dominated the Under-18 International Bowl football game between his Autenticos Tigres squad from Mexico and a team of high school prospects from the U.S. inside AT&T Stadium in Dallas, taking home the Most Valuable Player award in the exhibition, which he said was the most fulfilling moment of his football career.
“It was just amazing… I’ve never felt that way until that precise moment and never felt it since then,” Munguia said.
Jacob Villarreal, who coached the running back when he was in middle school, said Munguia was a natural with the ball in his hands, even at an early age.
“By the time I met him, he was already one of the best running backs in the league,” Villarreal said. “He has natural talent and he is a team player. He’s a very smart kid, at school and on the field. He was always studying when he was waiting for practice.”
That effort, shared by his good friend Peña, along with the duo’s success in their high school studies, led them to a decision that could forever change their lives: A move back to the United States.
The original plan was to relocate in the Austin, Texas region, though the young men called an audible when they discovered that a lifelong friend of the Munguia family, Francisca Migueles, lived in the Oro Valley area. The pair made up their minds in a week’s time, and decided that the Grand Canyon State and Canyon del Oro High School would be their next destination, finding themselves under the shadows of the Catalina Mountains by early August.
Their arrival caught CDO head football coach Dustin Peace by surprise. Peace, who had established contact with the young men via email, said couldn’t believe his eyes as he watched Munguia’s highlight reel film from his time in Monterrey, and was amazed that an 18-year-old could bulldoze linebackers and hit openings in a defense with such ease.
It was too good to be true, Peace believed. He thought the emails were fraudulent until Munguia and Peña, 17, arrived in mid-August.
“When we got back from camp, which was two weeks after the start of fall workouts, these two dudes just roll up on the doorstep,” Peace said. “I’m like, ‘Dang, you are for real!’ That’s the first thing I told him.”
Munguia remembers how receptive Peace was when they arrived unannounced. It was that welcoming attitude that inspired both to play for the Dorados, within an athletic and educational setting both found appealing.
“We came, we talked to Peace and he welcomed us,” Munguia said. “We really liked the school, and we decided to take a chance to try and to apply and everything went correctly.”
Both Munguia and Peña excelled during the Dorados’ preseason workouts, earning the former a backup running back role behind starter Stevie Rocker. Peña is now a cog in the middle of the team’s offensive and defensive lines, and has played valuable minutes from the get-go for a Dorados unit that lacked depth at both positions.
The American game is nothing new for the pair. Munguia had played at the highest levels in Monterrey since he was 9. Peña’s played since he was 12.
According to Peña, playing in the trenches allows him to be aggressive while doing what he can to help clear holes for running backs and his quarterback on the offensive line. He also enjoys planting offensive players when Peace plugs him in on the team’s defensive line.
“I can be physical with a player, and there is no problem because it’s part of the game,” Peña said. “I love the game because of the feeling that makes me want to be better every day.”
Peace was initially worried that he wouldn’t have enough snaps to give Munguia ample playing time, with Rocker looking adept in his first few starts.
That changed when the sophomore starter went down against Prescott on Sept. 21 with an ankle injury, pushing the senior into the starting role. Munguia never missed a beat, gaining a team-best 171 rushing yards and three touchdowns on 24 carries in a 35-23 victory.
Excelling on and off the field
Migueles, who’s now lived with Munguia and Peña for several months, believes both young men have showed exceptional maturity in their ability to thrive so far from home.
She pointed out their exceptional academic standing, with each belonging to CDO’s chapter of the National Honor Society, as an example of their ability to adapt to their new setting.
“For them to leave their home and their parents, I know it’s a big change for them,” she said. “But it’s great to see how dedicated they still are, even though they don’t have a mom or dad with them. It’s amazing to see them still be responsible and still do what they need to do to get their homework done and to get good grades.”
Peace said that each has won over their teammates, cracking jokes and making lifelong friendships with their brothers in forest green and gold.
“That’s the biggest thing, being able to come in as guys that haven’t been working like these seniors have for four years,” Peace said. “It’s a testament to our team and to those young men, just socially being able to interact on that level. I think that’s something special.”
Both Munguia and Peña have lofty goals once their playing days are done, with each expressing an interest in going into medicine after studying microbiology in college.
Whether that happens or not remains to be seen, but the focus for each (on the field, at least) lies solely on doing what it takes to get the Dorados to the state playoffs.
Munguia has done his share, with 459 rushing yards and six touchdowns in the team’s first 8 games, ranking second to Rocker in each category. The Dorados don’t keep defensive statistics, but Peña has seen playing time in each of the team’s games, providing needed mettle for Peace’s team.
Peña believes playing alongside Munguia has been a blessing, working day after day to hone their craft on the field and in the classroom, side-by-side.
“Not a lot people can play this game for whatever reason,” he said. “And to play it in the country where there is more competition, it’s one of the best feelings.”
For Migueles, the pair’s ability to help around the house and take on an older brother role for her daughter has been amazing to watch.
“[My daughter] just met them in August, that’s when they came here to the States,” Migueles said. “And she said, ‘Mom, they are so nice, I feel like they’re like my brothers.’”