When head coach Mike Nappa found out that an exchange student from Mexico wanted to join the Warwick Vets football team, he thought something had gotten lost in translation.
“I thought he meant soccer,” Nappa said.
Nope. Diego Martinez meant football. American football.
A month into the season, Nappa is pretty happy about that. Martinez has played football in Mexico since he was in fifth grade, and nothing’s been lost in translation on the field. Martinez returns kicks for Vets, plays cornerback and is contributing on offense more and more every day.
“He’s a talented boy,” Nappa said. “He’s got great speed, and he learns fast. He gives 110 percent.”
Martinez is from Monterrey, the ninth-largest city in Mexico. It’s located in the northeastern state of Nuevo Leon. At his school there, students are encouraged to think about becoming an exchange student.
Martinez’s brother, Sergio, spent a year in Coventry and now attends the University of Connecticut, so there’s a New England connection. But Diego had only ever been to Texas. He arrived in Warwick late in the summer.
“In my high school, they always ask us if we want to be an exchange student to see what another country is like,” Martinez said. “I think it will be a good experience to try something new. And I get to play football.”
Martinez is living with a host family, the Vittoriosos. Meghan Vittorioso is also a junior at Vets.
Martinez, 17, is adjusting well, especially on the field.
“The kids accepted him from day one, which was great to see,” Nappa said.
Football isn’t the most popular sport in Mexico; soccer is still king. But it’s gaining popularity and Martinez has been on the bandwagon for a while now.
“I love playing basketball and soccer but I really prefer football,” he said.
His high school in Mexico doesn’t have a team but he was invited to play for another school’s squad. He also plays for a town team that has won two consecutive league championships.
Martinez played a lot of quarterback for those teams, but he also played some at receiver and on special teams.
When he came out for practice at Vets, Nappa saw his potential right away. By the time the season opener rolled around, Martinez was already returning kicks and lining up at receiver.
“He’s a great kid,” Nappa said. “If we told him to play tackle, he’d be there. You can tell he’s a good kid. His parents did a great job. He’s a pleasure to coach. It’s always yes sir and no sir.”
Nappa has been just as impressed with Martinez’s versatility off the field.
“It’s got to be tough coming up here, 17 years old,” Nappa said. “Just the culture, the differences, even the food. But he seems like he’s doing great.”
Like his brother, Martinez is hoping to attend college in the United States. That’s still a ways off, though. For now, Martinez is making the most of his opportunity in Warwick.
And that means being on the field – the football field.
“It’s fun,” Martinez said. “Here and Mexico both have good leagues and good players. I am enjoying it.”