Foreign exchange student del Baño learns football on the fly at Mayo High School
Foreign exchange student Ruben del Baño jumped in feet-first to learn how to play football at Mayo High School this fall. “The first game that I watched was the day before joining the team,” del Baño said.
ROCHESTER — Four months ago, Ruben del Baño had never stepped foot on a football field.
He never watched American football, and he knew nothing about the sport.
The foreign exchange student from Murcia, Spain, walked into Mayo High School in August. A school guidance counselor asked del Baño what extracurricular activities he’d like to participate in.
He considered cross country, a sport that “I have never done in Spain,” del Baño said. “So I was like, ‘I should try that.’”
That idea was short-lived, with del Baño ultimately deciding to join the football team.
He plays rugby at home in Murcia and, while the rules differ significantly between the sports, American football and rugby are played similarly, with physicality a necessity in both sports.
Though there are similarities, del Baño said he knew there would be a learning curve ahead for him. He knew he wouldn’t play much because “the objective was to learn football,” he said.
And he picked a good team to learn with — Mayo went 9-2 this season, advancing to the Class AAAAA state quarterfinals against Big Southeast District rival Mankato West. The Spartans put up a good fight, but ultimately lost, 20-17, in the final seconds.
Del Baño had a tough hill to climb to learn the game: Spanish people don’t watch much, if any, American football, he said. Del Baño said soccer and tennis are watched frequently in his home town. Basketball is occasionally on the TV, but not football.
“The first game that I watched was the day before joining the team,” he said.
Besides learning the game, del Baño also had to adjust his perception of what practices at Mayo would be like.
"Here, they take it so much more seriously than in Spain," he said. "In Spain, rugby is like two days a week, just two hours and then I go lift because I like to lift. In Spain, if you don't go to our practices it’s like, 'It's OK. Next time.' But here if you do not go to practice, it’s like, 'Oh, you didn’t come to a practice. You're not going to play.'"
Del Baño played in two games for Mayo this season. One of his appearances was for a fourth-quarter field goal in the Sept. 16 game against Century. All eyes were on him, making for an on-field memory del Baño won’t forget.
In another appearance, del Baño took the field for a kickoff. Instead of a traditional football kickoff, he did a drop kick, which "was neat," Mayo coach Donny Holcomb said.
In addition to the experience of playing an unfamiliar sport in a country new to him, del Baño was also exposed to new people and new traditions.
Experiencing a new culture is one of the biggest draws to learning abroad in high school. In Rochester, more than 4,500 miles from home, del Baño has learned all about how "America really is," he said, from friends that include football players Ethan Kramer, Tore Papenfuss and Brig Poppe.
"They are very good friends for me," del Baño said. "I’m very thankful for them. They bring me to HuHot, some typical things that people do here. I think that they gave me so much here."
Holcomb said he thinks having del Baño at Mayo "added to the high school experience for the other kids and coaches."
"He was respected and well liked by all the kids," Holcomb said.
Del Baño jumped in feet-first to the American high school experience. Part of that experience was a Mayo tradition: Before the football season starts, the cheerleaders teepee football players’ houses, and the football players return the favor.
Del Baño had never seen anything like it.
"It was so funny," he said. "It was a very good moment just between us."
That teepee tradition was just one of a handful of moments that del Baño experienced for the first time as part of the Mayo football team.
"I think he got a great experience of high school football," Holcomb said, "and the positive culture that high school sports bring."