DETROIT – For Ruben Mendoza, the son of first-generation Mexican-American migrant workers who crisscrossed the U.S. seeking a better life, Hispanic Heritage Month is more than an annual recognition, it’s about la familia.
“Hispanic families are really tight, real close, real traditional and conservative,” said Mendoza, Wayne State University’s head strength and conditioning coach. “That’s how I was raised. It’s not just the immediate family, but the extended family, aunts and uncles and cousins. When we get together, they’re big, big occasions, so they’re really tight, tight knit events.”
Mendoza, who has been at Wayne State since 2011, is grateful for family and the work ethic inherited from his parents, Pedro and Julia, who worked crops in Texas, California, Minnesota and Wisconsin.
“I was 8 when my mom and dad decided to settle down in Milwaukee,” said Mendoza, who was born in Crystal City, Texas, more than 100 miles southwest of San Antonio. “That’s basically when I started learning to speak English. I thanked them for putting family first because I was the first in my family to graduate high school and college.”
Mendoza was also the first in his family to play football, reaching the National Football League (NFL) after graduating with a bachelor’ of science in graphic arts from Wayne State College in Nebraska. An undrafted offensive lineman, he spent one season with Green Bay, playing in six games for Packers coach Forrest Gregg.
Not ready to give up the game, Mendoza toiled with the idea of becoming a classroom teacher before accepting a role as a graduate assistant at the University of South Carolina, where he worked with the strength coaches on the Gamecocks’ football team. From there, Mendoza made stops at Presbyterian College (1992), the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga (1993-96), Clemson University (1997-2000), University of Mississippi (2001-05) and the University of Notre Dame (2006-10).
Mendoza was so successful at every stop that former Ole Miss head coach Dave Cutcliffe once called him, “one of the most outstanding strength coaches in the United States. He’s innovative, with a great work ethic and has a great passion for what he’s doing. I’ve never been around anybody more excited to go to work than he is.”
Mendoza is driven by family and his 33-year career, which has allowed him to work with like-minded, highly motivated student-athletes. But when he looks over the landscape, he’s reminded of how woefully underrepresented Hispanics are in North American sports, particularly in football.
“There’s not many of us,” he said.
According to the latest report by the Institute of Diversity and Ethics in Sport, which publishes annual report cards on racial and gender hiring, only seven of the 1,690 NFL players in 2022 were Hispanic or Latino. The numbers for NFL assistant coaches – which includes head strength and conditioning coaches – are slightly better, with 20 assistants identifying as Hispanic or Latino, up from 17 in 2021.
Mendoza said the commitment in many athletic careers, particularly coaching, is intense. He believes it likely leads to some good coaching candidates choosing family over demanding careers.
“I’m here 75 hours a week; it’s really time consuming,” said Mendoza, who oversees the training of nearly 420 students-athletes in 18 different sports. “I have an understanding wife, and if you don’t have that, it’d be tough. It really would. You have to be dedicated to what we do.”
A college All-American, Mendoza tried his hand at coaching defensive linemen at Presbyterian, but found strength and conditioning was better suited for family life.
“The reason I became a strength coach is because at the end of the day, I could actually go home to my family and see my kids, whereas a football coach,” he said, “you’re on the road recruiting or on emails or doing different things that you don’t have that time for family.”
Fortunately, Mendoza has had the pleasure to see three of his four children on Wayne State’s Midtown campus. His oldest son, Manny ’17, and oldest daughter, Grace ’19, participated in football and track, respectively, and Gabe is a red-shirt freshman tight end studying management. Mendoza’s youngest child, Eliana, is a freshman in high school.
“I’ve been really fortunate that Wayne State has been a home for me,” he said.
All thing’s considered, Oct. 5, 1986, was a pretty remarkable day for Ruben Mendoza.
As an undrafted rookie, he was feeling blessed just to be in the NFL. Add that the game was in front of 53,000 hometown fans, and Mendoza was beyond thrilled.
Despite the home team’s loss, the cherry on top came after the game, when Mendoza approached his two football idols on the Cincinnati team: hall-of-fame left tackle Anthony Muñoz and Pro-Bowl right guard Max Montoya.
Neither Muñoz nor Montoya followed the same path to the NFL as most Hispanics. They weren’t soccer players turned place kickers. Instead, the pair were rugged, dependable linemen who played in a combined 427 career games and led the Bengals to Super Bowl appearances in 1982 and 1989.
As Mendoza, a hulking 6-foot-4, 290-pound lineman, made his way across the field at Milwaukee County Stadium – five miles from his boyhood home on the city’s south side – he spotted the two men he’d idolized.
What happened next, Mendoza will never forget.
“I went up to Anthony and he said to me, ‘You’re Hispanic.’ I said, ‘You’re Hispanic,’” Mendoza said, laughing as he recalled the postgame encounter. “He said, ‘We’ve got to take care of each other because there’s not a lot of us out here.’
“It was a brief, real quick thing, but that was one of those statements that just made my career just in the sense of looking at your idols. Obviously, Anthony was at the top of his game, so just having a conversation with him was one of those things that I would never forget.”
More than a dozen years later, when Mendoza was at Clemson and Muñoz was enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, the pair had another brief encounter.
“We were preparing for the Peach Bowl, and Anthony was one of the speakers at a team engagement,” Mendoza recalled. “We were on an elevator and he remembered me. We started talking which was kind of neat.”
SMALL BUT MIGHTY
At Wayne State, Mendoza oversees a modest training staff of three other people – assistant Cody Vargo, and graduate assistants Landin Mitchell and Brendan Baker. Together, they work with more than 400 student-athletes in team groups.
“Workouts are set up as a team aspect because everything we do is about team buy-in,” Mendoza said. “Obviously, academics is the priority and playing a sport is kind of secondary, but we want to win. We stress the things, the little things that they have to do to be successful and this is part of them being successful in what we do in the weight room.”
Wayne State cornerback Drake Reid is the ideal student athlete who has benefited from the time he has devoted to the class room and weight room. A graduate student at the Mike Ilitch School of Business, Reid, finished his bachelor’s in three-and-a-half years, and was named a semifinalist for this year’s William V. Campbell Trophy, college football’s premier scholar-athlete award.
In high school, Reid said putting on weight and keeping it on was a struggle. But ever since he committed to Mendoza’s training regiment, he has seen the improvement.
“From a strength-and-conditioning standpoint, I came in skinny as heck, with no muscle on my body,” Reid said. “I had some experience with lifting in high school, so I had decent form, but Coach Mendoza was able to really harness the strength that I have and I was able to put up some great numbers this summer; he said that pound-for-pound, I was the strongest kid on the team. That felt good to hear for somebody who is 170 pounds soaking wet.
“As a mentor and someone you can lean on and reach out to for advice, he’s been a rock. He’s incredibly respected in the athletic department and across the nation when as a strength coach and as a man.
“We’re incredibly blessed to have him here at Wayne State.”