By JOEL McNEECE
Javier Carrasco recalls the roaring crowds, electric atmosphere and the bitter competition with great fondness. For more than 10 years Carrasco, owner of Veracruz Mexican Restaurant in Bruce, played professional soccer in his home country.
"I've always loved soccer," Carrasco said. "It's such a fun game."
He was playing soccer competitively as early as 7-years-old in his hometown of Tuxpan, Veracruz in Southeast Mexico along the Gulf. His parents worked on a ranch raising cattle and horses. Javier was the youngest of eight children.
"We played soccer every day as much as possible," Carrasco said.
Carasco's skills as a soccer player weren't going unnoticed as he began playing in more tournaments throughout the region. His play as an 11-year-old at a tournament in Xalapa, Mexico, garnered him much recognition from professional scouts.
By age 15 they were watching his every move, and he was ultimately recruited to play professionally for Conejos de Tuxpan in 1965.
Carrasco started as a midfielder and defenseman. He said he scored goals every now and then, but that wasn't really his job on the team. He was more of an assist-man, like legendary basketball player Earvin "Magic" Johnson.
"My job was to set up others to score," Carrasco said. "It's a great feeling to put the ball in the perfect spot to set up a goal."
Playing midfielder also required Carrasco to be in top physical condition due to the constant running for 90 minutes up and down the 130 yard field.
"Conditioning just came natural to me," Carrasco said. "I never seemed to get tired."
One of his more memorable games was against rival Tex Coco. His team avenged an earlier 6-0 loss to win 3-1 at Christmas.
"I remember the celebration," Carrasco said. "Everyone was so happy. I played in bigger games, but that one meant the most to me."
Carrasco's 12 years of professional soccer carried him to some of the largest stadiums in Mexico with 30-40,000 people in attendance. But he always dreamed of playing in Mexico's largest stadium – Estadio Azteca in Mexico City. It seats well over 100,000 people and is the largest stadium in Latin America and the fifth largest in the world.
"Even though I never got to play there, I have been to a game in that stadium," Carrasco said. "You can't hear anything. The noise is too bad."
Late in his career, Carrasco caught the eyes of the biggest professional league in Mexico. He was playing in a tournament in Acapulco and had scored four goals.
"It was by far the best I had ever played," Carrasco said. "They were interested in me, but then they found out how old I was."
At 25-years of age, he had too little time remaining in his prime for the biggest league, the scouts told him.
It wasn't long after that he suffered a knee injury during a collision with another player going for the ball. He was told surgery would be needed, but that would cause him to miss a year of soccer, and there were no guarantees he would have a position when he came back.
Carrasco elected to play through the pain, but he was never the same player afterwards.
"My knee would get like this after a game," Carrasco said with his hands around his knee showing the size of a basketball. He fought through it for four years before ultimately deciding he had to give it up.
His years of professional soccer had not made him rich. Carrasco said in his last season (1970) he was making 600 pesos per week (approximately $60).
"That was good money at that time," Carrasco said.
He said the players in his home country make much more money than that today, but that wasn't his motivation.
"We played for this," Carrasco said tapping on his heart. "Now they just play for money."
With soccer behind him, Carrasco married, had a family and then came to the United States in 1996 with his now ex-brother-in-law to find a better opportunity for his family.
They started with the old El Charro Mexican restaurant in Oxford. Today, Carrasco operates Veracruz in Bruce with his sons. They all continue to share a love of soccer.
They keep soccer games on the television much of the time in the restaurant, particularly those broadcast from Mexico.
"I see a lot of the sons of my friends playing now on TV," Carrasco said.
He still finds time to kick a ball around with his family.
"I love to play around with my children and grandchildren," Carrasco said.
He was instrumental in getting a soccer league established in Oxford years ago and said he would love to work with young people in Calhoun County, teaching them the values of the game.
"I particularly like working with the younger kids, ages 5-10," Carrasco said. "I would love to put together a team and teach them to play. They just need to come see me here at the restaurant."