Dec 02, 2016

Lake Travis Player, Stuck in Mexico, Leaves a Deep But Incomplete Legacy

Reporting Texas

Running back Santiago Villegas (1) runs in a drill during the Lake Travis spring football practice April 25. PHILIP HAUSTEIN FOR AMERICAN-STATESMAN

Running back Santiago Villegas (1) runs in a drill during the Lake Travis spring football practice. Photo by Phillip Haustein for the Austin American-Statesman.

Lake Travis senior defensive tackle Cesar Guzman last saw Santiago Villegas in July.

“I asked him when he was coming back,” Guzman said. “He said that he wasn’t sure, so I was like, ‘Well, you gotta come back, we start football in two weeks.’”

Two weeks later, Guzman stood next to an empty locker. Villegas was in Mexico. And he wouldn’t be back at all.

Every summer since moving to Texas, Santiago had traveled to Toluca to visit his family and friends, returning with no trouble. This past summer, his mother, Yasmin Garcia Sanchez, was unable to renew her F-1 student visa, which prevented Villegas from returning as a dependent on a F-2 visa.

Villegas arrived in Lake Travis from Toluca in the fall of 2013, a 15-year-old dreaming of playing under the lights in Texas. After years of admiring players such as NFL stars Tom Brady, Julian Edelman and LaDanian Tomlinson, he was finally in a place where people shared his love for the American game.

“I got involved in football since day one,” Villegas said by telephone from Toluca. “My dream had always been to play football in the United States.”

He knew no one when he walked into the locker room on the first morning of two-a-days in August three years ago. His locker was next to Guzman’s.

“It was like 6:30 in the morning, we were half asleep and I had moved from McAllen, 20 minutes from the Mexican border, so I speak Spanish.” Guzman said.  “We grew closer because we had that in common.”

Senior Marcelo Mitre also became one of Villegas’ first friends.

“I just felt like it was unfair,” Mitre said about hearing that Villegas was stuck in Mexico. “It was just kind of random.”

Mitre understood what it was like to move from Mexico to Texas as a teenager. He was from Monterrey, in northern Mexico, but moved to Lake Travis in eighth grade, a year before Villegas. Because Mitre was born in Atlanta, he had dual citizenship in Mexico and the U.S.

Villegas spent a lot of time with Mitre, a center midfielder on the Lake Travis varsity soccer team. They hung out at Mitre’s house and the gym, working out to make it to another state championship.

“We just motivated each other by being there for each other after a tough game,” Mitre said.

Villegas hadn’t always been the key player. He worked his way up, starting with the Freshman B team.

“He wasn’t the most athletic-looking guy,” varsity running backs coach Johnathan Coats said. “But he was a small guy who loved contact, just an extremely ferocious player.”

Villegas’s ability to run over his opponents earned him the nickname “El Diablo.”

“He was playing really well in football and people started to notice it,” Mitre said. “When you’re good at football, everyone wants to be your friend.”

After Villegas’ season as a starting running back, the Freshman B team went 10-0. The next year, he won the starting spot on junior varsity, then took the second-string spot on the varsity roster his junior year.

Then starting running back Abe Willows tore his anterior cruciate ligament in the first quarter of the game against West Lake on Oct. 23, 2015. The coaches sent Villegas onto the field.

“It just felt like a challenge,” Villegas said. “I always had the mindset of proving myself and proving the coaches I was someone who really would be recognized.”

As the starting running back, Villegas led the team to the state championship game, taking his first trip to NRG stadium in Houston on Dec. 19.  Although Lake Travis fell to the Katy Tigers, 34-7, Villegas remained positive about his team’s future.

But Villegas was not back for the first game of the season against Judson High School, and the school took notice.

“I think it was the first game, they started chanting, ‘We want Santi’,” senior quarterback Charlie Brewer said.

Villegas knew his chances of returning were slim. By the time the final efforts by U.S. Rep. Roger Williams (R-Austin) fell through on Sept. 16, Villegas had already accepted his fate.

“It’s just a completely different path I’m going to take,” Villegas said. “God has a plan and hopefully that was meant to be and hopefully something better will come for me.”

Coats remained positive.

“Every time the summer hits, there’s always some kids who get in trouble, kids that move away, kids that move in, and it seems like all these issues end up working out,” Coats said. “This didn’t work in our favor. The best interest of the kid was not able to be taken into account because it’s a governmental thing, not a school.”

In his short time in Texas, Villegas made an impact on his friends at Lake Travis.

“Take advantage of what you have and love one another, because you don’t know when the last time you’ll see them,” Guzman said. “I don’t know if I’ll ever see him in person again. That sucks.”