How Mexico's pro football league is building its brand with established players from north of the border

Former Cowboys receiver Terrance Williams' professional path has taken him to the Tijuana Galgos of Mexico's Liga de Fútbol Americano Profesional, which is banking on signing recognized foreign talent to build its brand domestically. Liga de Fútbol Americano Profesional

MEXICO CITY -- As the defense bore down on Trevone Boykin inside his own 20-yard line, the former Seattle Seahawks quarterback spun away from one would-be sacker -- only to find a second one in his face. Boykin then heaved the ball 60 yards downfield toward one-time Dallas Cowboys wide receiver Terrance Williams, who tore the ball away from tight coverage.

It was opening weekend for Mexico's pro football league, the Liga de Fútbol Americano Profesional, or LFA. In the stands, fans peeked over a row of bouncy castles situated behind the sidelines to get a better look. The sparse crowd roared in appreciation of the catch, never mind that they were doing so for the road team. In that one play, Boykin and Williams turned a potential third-and-long for the Tijuana Galgos into a potential scoring drive on the edge of the red zone in their March 5 game against the Mexico City Mexicas.

"We're slowly starting to build as a brand," Boykin told reporters after the 24-6 win. "The league, the teams, the players that are coming to play. As long as we can do that, this league can be unbelievable."

Founded in 2016, the 10-team LFA was established to capitalize on an increasing appetite for football in Mexico. A total of 45 million fans follow the league in the country, according to the NFL, and television ratings rank it second among the sporting options only to Liga MX, the country's top domestic soccer competition.

Still, Mexico's own pro football circuit remains relatively unknown within its own borders. However, the LFA returned in 2022 -- after the COVID-19 pandemic wiped out two seasons -- with an emphasis on allowing teams more freedom to sign foreign players.

"It's clear that football has great potential in Mexico," said Alejandro Jaimes, the LFA's commissioner. "We have to make people who like the NFL in this country to take notice of us. How do we do that? In part, by bringing Americans here, ideally, ex-NFL or ex-NCAA Division I players who can bring the quality of our league up to a higher level."

In the early days of the league, the signings of players with NFL pedigree appeared to be more for gimmick purposes. Former Cincinnati Bengals great Chad Johnson played in one game for the Monterrey Fundidores in 2017. With the "Ocho Cinco" moniker emblazoned on his jersey, Johnson hauled in three receptions for 77 yards and a touchdown, despite having last played previously in 2014 for the Canadian Football League's Montreal Alouettes. Later that season, a widely reported effort from Monterrey to sign future Hall of Famer Terrell Owens never came to fruition.

Some signees with far less name recognition have nevertheless enjoyed success south of the border. The reigning league MVP, quarterback Shelton Eppler, was one of five Americans who helped Monterrey to their first league title in the Tazón México (Mexico Bowl), leading the league in passing yards and touchdowns in his debut year to boot.

"My offensive coordinator at Fundidores had coached [against me in high school] and contacted me. I was all for it," said Eppler, a former standout at Northwestern State who hails from Navasota, Texas. "Mexico's been great for me; [my wife and I] felt very welcome and safe. We loved it, and I signed back up for this year."

This year, another team in northern Mexico, the Galgos, is looking to make a bigger splash by attracting bigger names in an appeal to fans.

Following their winless inaugural season in 2022, the Galgos' ownership group signed former UCLA wideout Eldridge Massington and Williams, who caught passes from Tony Romo and Dak Prescott as a starter in 68 games for the Cowboys over six seasons.

"It was a perfect match for me," Williams said. "I could see something special is going on here, and I'm just so grateful to keep doing what I love to do."

Williams signed a four-year, $17 million contract with the Cowboys in 2017 but soon experienced a period that caused him to "fall out of love" with the game. A violation of the NFL's substance abuse policy stemming from a public intoxication charge in summer of 2018 prompted a three-game suspension later that season. The charge was subsequently dismissed.

Cut by the Cowboys shortly after, Williams had brief stints in the XFL, CFL, arena football, and the Fan Controlled Football League, where he played with Owens and former Cleveland Browns quarterback Johnny Manziel. At 33, Williams is still bullish about returning to the NFL despite being away for a half decade.

"Coming down here is a tremendous thing because now I get a chance to teach people and help them be great," Williams said. "This is a chance for people to see me as the hard worker and the pro that I am."

The overarching theme of former NFL players seeking redemption seems tailor made for the Galgos. However, the team and the LFA have drawn negative reactions over the controversial pasts of some of the players in their sights.

Matt Araiza, a punter who was drafted in the sixth round by the Buffalo Bills last year, was announced as a Galgos signing after a training session in February, but the player's representation was quick to deny that the transaction even took place. Araiza and two San Diego State teammates at San Diego State were named by a female defendant in a 2022 sexual assault lawsuit. Although Araiza was never charged, the allegation cost the 2021 Ray Guy Award winner as the nation's best punter his spot on the Bills' roster.

The interest in Araiza came on the heels of the signing of Boykin, who served a prison sentence after pleading guilty to charges of aggravated assault and witness tampering. His girlfriend Shabrika Bailey alleged that Boykin broke her jaw in two places in March 2018, and the Seahawks cut Boykin in the wake of the allegation.

The former TCU star also pleaded no contest to a count of resisting arrest stemming from a 2015 barroom brawl two days before he was to participate in the Alamo Bowl, and was arrested on public intoxication and misdemeanor marijuana possession charges in 2017.

"We understand this is a very serious matter, but we can also say that he [Boykin] served his time," Jaimes said. "We've made it clear that we won't tolerate any similar behavior, not just from him, but from anyone associated with our league."

Nevertheless, the LFA is banking that these moves will draw attention within the domestic market. Moreover, the Galgos, according to a team source, made a concerted effort before bringing on Boykin to sign a former NFL quarterback who stirred controversy for his stand on the field.

"There were talks to sign Colin Kaepernick," Jaimes said. "As I understand it, the talks were made, but I believe the issue ultimately, was salary."

Other clubs have followed suit in signing players who made a name for themselves in the U.S. Xavier Woodson-Luster, a former NFL linebacker, signed with Monterrey. Jeremy Johnson, who started at quarterback for Auburn in 2015, joined the Chihuahua Caudillos, the same team that fielded former Browns and Indianapolis Colts running back Trent Richardson the last two seasons.

The LFA has stated its commitment to growing organically and projecting its own homegrown stars to stronger leagues (a deal with the CFL has been in place since 2018). For now, the focus remains on bringing players with which Mexico's fans can identify while at the same time drawing in new converts.

"This is a really good opportunity," Williams said. "We have a chance to come here and do something big, and I'm going to take advantage of it."