Mexico’s Diego Alatorre has eyes set on pro football after historic Canadian college career

Later this month, the International Federation of American Football will elect a new Board of Directors, setting the course for the future of international competition in the sport. The swearing in of that new leadership is unlikely to grab any headlines in the United States and Canada, where representing one’s country on the gridiron has a much smaller importance in the broader football community. Even in Europe, where international play is much more consistent, few will be holding their breath awaiting confirmation of the mostly uncontested leadership races.

With international competition making up such a small part of the annual calendar, it is local leadership that matters most in almost every country, but that certainly doesn’t mean stewardship of the international game is meaningless.

For every player who participates, international play can be the experience of a lifetime. For a select few, it is life changing. Just ask 2021 Canada West All-Star Diego Alatorre.

Back in 2016, the native of Tlajomulco de Zuñiga, Mexico was one of many to be selected to represent his nation at the U-19 IFAF World Championships in China. The event was the culmination of seven years of hard work for Alatorre at the amateur level in Mexico and like many players, he had big dreams that he might flash enough under the bright lights of the tournament to catch the eye of a NCAA Division 1 coach.

As it turns out, Alatorre did catch the eye of a college coach, just not the type he was expecting. Mexico didn’t get their chance to take on the rival USA in the tournament and its unlikely many recruiters would have tuned in if they had, but Alatorre’s crew did play a pair of hard-fought games against a country further north, the eventual Gold medalists Team Canada.

On that winning coaching staff was Paul Orazietti, then the recruiting coordinator for the University of British Columbia, and he was blown away by the hulking Mexican lineman. Canadian schools have never lacked for finding big-bodied talents, but they rarely had to venture so far afield to do so. This prospect was too different to ignore however. Before leaving China, Orazietti had already offered Alatorre a chance to move 4,500 kilometres north of his Guadalajara suburb to Vancouver and become a UBC Thunderbird.

“It was a no brainer, having an opportunity to get an education in Canada and one of the best universities in the whole world,” Alatorre recalls five years later as he finishes up his studies at UBC’s spectacular Point Grey campus. “I said yes and we stayed in touch. I came here to Vancouver to meet Coach [Blake] Nill in person and we talked about the process of getting into university and everything and now here I am.”

While the world of Canadian university football, known as U Sports, lacks the glitz and glamour of its American college counterpart, Alatorre would not be joining a team of slouches. UBC had claimed a Vanier Cup national championship title just two seasons prior and was chock-full future Canadian Football League talent.

Yet as soon as he committed, there was a burgeoning hype about Alatorre from those around the team, with head coach Blake Nill going so far as to compare him as prospect to CFL All-Star Sukh Chungh, who he had coached at the University of Calgary. Nill himself had no qualms about trusting an international recruit, having once plucked future U Sports All-Canadian linebacker Doctor Cassama off the Swedish National Team at the 2009 U-19 World Championships.

Despite some language related hurdles to overcome off the field, Alatorre was named a day one starter at left tackle his first season. He’d be tasked with protecting the blindside of star quarterback Michael O’Connor, a Penn State transfer who had been the sixth ranked passer in the 2014 recruiting class according to ESPN. At the other tackle spot was Dakoda Shepley, now with the San Francisco 49ers. Needless to say, expectations for Alatorre were sky high.

“My first year I was a bit nervous. It was something unknown and I was afraid that I might get called out because I might be a disappointment or just overthinking, stuff like that,” Alatorre admits. “Also, my first game wasn’t that good. I had a bad game, but once my second game came around I think I played really well. At that moment I was like, okay, I can play this.”

That may be under-selling it, because Alatorre quickly became a stalwart up front for the Thunderbirds. He was a four-year starter on the field and two-time Academic All-Canadian off of it, but his finest individual season came in 2021.

After the 2020 season was canceled due to the pandemic, Alatorre returned to Canada for his senior season and brought with him his particular brand of nastiness when moved inside to guard. As a result, he was voted a Canada West conference All-Star, part of an offensive line group that included three players who are already CFL draft picks, an accomplishment Alatorre is all too quick to deflect.

“I feel really humbled to receive that award, but at the end of the day, I think it’s more about how you leave the program,” he says. “Everybody can be an all star or whatever, but it’s about the impact to make on the program and how you are going to be remembered.”

By that criteria, you could argue that Alatorre was even better in 2021. In what was supposed to be a rebuilding season for a young UBC team, the veteran Mexican took on a leadership role as the only senior on the offensive line. He helped drive a potent ground game led by freshman Isiah Knight, the only other Thunderbird to be named an all-star, and was crucial to bringing the line together for an unexpected playoff season for UBC.

Perhaps even more importantly, Alatorre’s proven track record of success has created a pathway for Mexican players to find college football opportunities in Canada, something Alatorre himself would not have even been able to conceive of prior to his first conversation with Orazietti.

“I think if I can do it, anybody can do it. I think U Sports should consider more Mexican players. There’s a lot of great Mexican Global players. There’s two offensive linemen right now that are playing in the NFL and they could have been recruited here at UBC or anywhere else in Canada,” Alatorre says with pride.

“In Mexico, we might not be the biggest or the most technically sound, but we have a hunger to play our best. That’s something that you can’t coach and I think that’s something that you find in most of the Mexican players.”

Now, Alatorre has his eyes set on a new challenge. While he would be eligible to return to UBC for a fifth year of play, at 25-years old Alatorre believes it is time to test out the waters of professional football. The CFL’s Global program has offered opportunities for Mexican players the past two seasons, but Alatorre will take a slightly different route than his countrymen.

The last CFL CBA carved out a new rule for foreign-born players at U Sports schools, stating that if they play four years and graduated from a Canadian institution, they would become fully Canadian in the eyes of the league. When Alatorre graduates in April, he will be entered into the 2022 CFL Draft on the same footing as all of his Canadian teammates.

Alatorre will be among the first international players to take advantage of the new rule and it should raise his chances of finding long-term pro football employment considerably. While previous foreign-born Canadian university standouts like Cassama never got the chance they deserved, it seems likely that UBC’s first ever Mexican player will hear his name called by a CFL club in May.

As he embarks on that next phase of that journey, Alatorre has nothing but gratitude for those who helped him along the way. His parents for supporting him, the owner of the Monterrey Fundidores Oscar Perez who helped get him to UBC, Orazietti for discovering him and other coaches for helping him get where he is today, especially Blake Nill, who bet the success of his program on the blocking prowess of a kid from Mexico.

“I’m really thankful for the opportunity he gave me,” Alatorre says. “Even though we didn’t win a championship, I think he changed my life and I’m just forever grateful for that.”

J.C. Abbott is a student at the University of British Columbia and amateur football coach in Vancouver, Canada. A CFL writer for 3DownNation, his love of travel has been the root of his fascination with the global game.