When the Houston Texans and Oakland Raiders take the field at Mexico City’s sold-out Estadio Azteca on Monday night, Brock Osweiler, Derek Carr and their teammates will be treated to the standard NFL amenities of a recently refurbished stadium. But when the Philadelphia Eagles and New Orleans Saints contested the first NFL game in Mexico on Aug. 5, 1978, the conditions were hardly befitting of professional American football.
“When we went there, they weren’t prepared,” Ron Jaworski, the Eagles’ starting quarterback that season, says of that preseason matchup 38 years ago. “We played in a bullring, the locker rooms were too small, and the goal posts were crooked.”
The idea of playing in Mexico came as the NFL aimed to expand its brand after its merger with the AFL was agreed to in 1966. Two games were played in Montreal in 1969, and the league sent the San Diego Chargers and St. Louis Cardinals (now Arizona Cardinals) to Tokyo in 1976. Two years later, after a push from the local government, the league went south of the border. “The NFL was playing games in nontraditional cities to expand the brand — Memphis, San Antonio,” says Jaworski, now an ESPN analyst. “It was huge at the time to play a game [in Mexico].”
The Eagles and Saints squared off in Mexico City at the 30,000-seat Estadio de la Ciudad de los Deportes, a soccer venue now called Estadio Azul. Although bullfights weren’t actually held there, as Jaworski joked, it sits across the street from the largest bullring in the world at Plaza Mexico. “We were excited about the trip, but the facilities now are 100 times better,” Jaworski says.
It wasn’t just the venue that caused issues. Mexico City’s altitude — approximately 2,000 feet higher than Denver — also presented challenges. “Much like [when we would go to] Denver, we were gassed,” Jaworski says. “I remember very well after pregame warmups. You need to prepare yourself really hard to play at that altitude.”
Sixteen years would pass after the Saints’ 14-7 win over Jaworski’s Eagles before the NFL returned to Mexico. Six more preseason games were played there from 1994 to 2001, with five of those contests in Mexico City. In 2005, the Arizona Cardinals and San Francisco 49ers played at Estadio Azteca in the first regular-season NFL game held outside the United States. But the NFL’s only ventures across borders over the past 11 years have been to Toronto and London.
Jaworski thinks Mexico’s wait after Monday’s game will be significantly shorter. “It’s going to be a long-term thing,” Jaworski says of the NFL’s aspirations to grow in Mexico and other international markets. “I know the people in Mexico love the NFL, and they love football. There’s been great support for the games in Europe. It’s amazing how Beijing loves the game of football. You look around the world now, and there’s an infatuation with the sport.”