Football in Cuba

The normalizing of relations between the U.S. and Cuba should be a boon to major-league baseball. That’s the sport that immediately comes to mind, of course, when thinking about That Island 90 Miles South of Florida — baseball, then track and field, then maybe boxing.

Believe it or not, though, Cuba also has a football history — a distant one, perhaps, but fascinating nonetheless. In fact, in 1944, when the NFL was suffering from an acute manpower shortage, the Redskins had a Cuban player in training camp. Here’s the story that ran in newspapers across the country:

Redskins sign Monoz 7-26-44

A later story corrected the spelling of Monoz’s name — it was Munoz, apparently — and claimed that, according to the Redskins, he was “the first Cuban-born athlete to play professional football in the United States.” There’s no record, after all, of Rivero ever playing for the Bears, though he was a star back at Columbia. That’s him in the photo below carrying the ball against Union College in 1930:

Rivero photo NYT 10-5-30

Wish I had a photo of Munoz to show you, but he disappeared from the Washington training camp without a trace. (He couldn’t have been too terrific. NFL clubs were so desperate in that war year — the Redskins included — that they suited up kids fresh out of high school.)

The University of Havana did indeed field a football team in those days, though, and continued to until the late ’50s. Havana also was the occasional site of a college bowl game, called at various times the Bacardi Bowl, the Cigar Bowl or the Rhumba Bowl. Some of these games pitted the University of Havana against a visiting American team. Check out the college scoreboard from Dec. 9, 1939:

Dec. 9, 1939 college scoreboard(Georgia Teachers College, by the way, is now Georgia Southern.)

A few years earlier, on New Year’s Day 1937, Auburn and Villanova battled to a 7-7 tie in the Bacardi Bowl, held at Tropical Stadium. This is from The New York Times:

NYT head on Bacardi Bowl story

Auburn-Villanova box Bacardi Bowl

Half-a-dozen players in this box score — at least — went on to play in the NFL. I’m talking about tackles Herb Roton, Jim Sivell and Bo Russell for Auburn and left tackle John Mellus, left guard Bill Rogers and center Stan Galazin for Villanova.

I wouldn’t count on the University of Havana restoring its football program any time soon, but it’s always a possibility down the road. Alberto Juantorena, I always thought, would have made a heckuva wideout.