Fútbol to football: a Fresno State player embraces his Mexican roots

Abraham Montaño (48) lines up to kick a field goal in Fresno State's away game versus Oregon on Saturday, Sept. 4, 2021. (Tyler Van Dyke/The Collegian)

It was the biggest day of Abraham Montaño’s life. 

The butterflies in the first-year Fresno State kicker’s stomach prevented him from getting much sleep. As he boarded the team bus, he listened to his pre-game playlist that includes some of his favorite reggaeton artists like Bad Bunny and J Balvin.

As he looked out the window, he gazed at Autzen Stadium, home of the No. 11 Oregon Ducks – one of the most iconic teams in college football. That college football cathedral was the site where Montaño would make his first college football start. He learned he was starting just a day before the game since starting kicker Cesar Silva suffered an injury in practice. 

Once he stepped on the field and admired the empty stadium that would soon be rocking with fans, it finally hit him.

This was the shot he had been working on for the past couple of years. 

But if you asked him in high school, he said he wasn’t too fond of football. 

Football was basically a foreign language to him growing up. Montaño grew up in a Mexican community on the east side of Salinas. And his father, José Alfredo, made sure he stayed connected with his roots, sending his kids to Mexico almost every summer.

“To me, it was important to see both worlds: life in the United States and life in Mexico,” Alfredo said. “I think it was an important experience for them to have and value what they have here.

Montaño spent his summers helping the family business, where he would make and sell tortillas. After that, he helped around his family’s ranch in Jalisco.

“I think it was something that was a very important experience in my life,” Montaño said. “My childhood was amazing. I never missed a meal and had a roof over my head. It was really an eye-opener for seeing life in Mexico.”

And of course, like many Mexican children growing up, he said soccer was his first true love. Soccer – or fútbol as Montaño insisted on calling it – practically ran through the family.

His older brother, Enrique, was a star player at Alisal High School. After spending a year at Hartnell, Enrique would go on to play three years at San José State University before pursuing a professional career in the United Soccer League.

Vanessa, his sister, grew up around the sport and excelled in it to the point where she had interest from the Mexico women’s national team before an ACL injury forced her to give up soccer.

Even as a four-year-old, Montaño knew playing soccer was a no-brainer, and that’s the only thing he cared about for a majority of his life.

A young Abraham Montaño warms up with a group of older girls in Salinas, California.
Growing up, Abraham Montaño (center) challenged himself by training with players that were older than him. (Courtesy of the Montaño family)

His mission was to become a professional soccer player and one day share the field with his idols – Lionel Messi, Ronaldinho and Cristiano Ronaldo.

When he first started playing, Montaño shined amongst the kids in his age group.

“He was so good with view, so technical, so skillful, and he had a lot of power especially when he started playing with older kids,” his brother Enrique said. “He was driven and curious, just wanted to improve every single time he would train.” 

Montaño described himself to be a versatile player. His true passion, however, was to contribute offensively, even if he wasn’t the one scoring himself.

His dominance carried him into high school. Like his siblings, Montaño went on to play for Alisal. As a freshman, he had a short stint on the junior varsity team. The varsity team called him up but he didn’t see the field as much. Nevertheless, Montaño said it was an instrumental part of his career and what was to come.

He was a key piece in the Trojans’ championship runs. In his sophomore year, the team went 10-0 in the league, earning an MBL-Gabilan title. But the following season, the Trojans had the chance to compete against tougher opponents and play in the inaugural California Interscholastic Federation regional soccer tournament.

During that season, Alisal became champions. They won the inaugural CIF Division 2 bracket. Montaño was a key player and was awarded all-league honors.

Abraham Montaño celebrates scoring a goal and runs past a defender.
During his tenure at Alisal High School, Abraham Montaño (right) played a vital role in the Trojans’ victory in the inaugural California Interscholastic Federation regional championship. (Courtesy of Abraham Montaño)

The soccer journey Montaño envisioned was starting to pan out the way he always dreamed about.

Montaño still asks himself – what is someone with a soccer career and accolades doing kicking for the Bulldogs on Saturdays?

He wasn’t too fond of some aspects of the sport growing up.

“I wouldn’t say I disliked it, but I did hate specific aspects of the sport,” Montaño said.

He disliked how the players at his high school walked the hallways like they owned the place and at times were disrespectful. Montaño especially didn’t take it too kindly that the football team would take up their practice time and space during the beginning of the soccer season.

But the football players were a big fan of Montaño and the power he had in his left leg. Even after multiple attempts of recruiting him, Montaño never budged. His goal was to one day represent his parents’ native country of Mexico in the World Cup. 

But Frank Alvardo, a coach at Hartnell, was the one to finally crack the code with Montaño.

“He told me the potential I had, and I decided to stop being a knucklehead and listen to him,” Montaño said. 

After a successful senior year kicking for the Trojans football team, Montaño returned to play soccer and finished his career with Alisal’s soccer team. But as graduation quickly approached, he was facing a dilemma. While his goal was to always go pro in soccer, his father always wanted his kids to have a career, so a good education was equally important.

Montaño had the talent at the next level. But like his brother, he needed to make a stop at Hartnell College. It was a matter of what sport he wanted to dedicate himself to in college since football and soccer both went on at the same time.

It was the hardest decision of his life, but after consulting with coaches and friends, he decided that pursuing football full-time was the best option for him.

“When he told me he wanted to drop soccer, I was very sad,” his father, Alfredo, said. “He had a bright future ahead with soccer and that’s all he did his whole life.”

Even with how Alfredo felt about Montaño’s decision to play football over soccer, he was always going to support his son no matter what.

“Watching him play on TV just made me so proud of him,” Alfredo said. “How can I not be proud of my kids? They’ve done everything and more than what I could have asked for.”

Abraham Montaño takes the opening kickoff for Hartnell College.
Abraham Montaño spent one season at Hartnell College before transferring to Fresno State (Courtesy of Abraham Montaño)

After his 2019 freshman campaign at Hartnell, he went six-for-nine in field goal attempts. It wasn’t the ideal season he was hoping for, but he had enough clips to send out to college coaches. 

But that was the only film he would be able to use. The COVID-19 pandemic sidelined the entire world, and junior college football was no exception. As the severity of the global pandemic grew, Montaño started to think that this was the end of his journey. 

“I mean, I had a good film, but personally I didn’t think it would be the best,” Montaño said. “ I thought that (the pandemic) for sure was gonna mess with it, but I mean it ended up working out.”

Montaño spent countless hours sending over 400 emails to college coaches but only received one response. It was the one he was banking on.

“Fresno was number one in my list like I really want to go there,” Montaño said. “It means a lot to me just because I come from a very Latino-based community. It feels like home anywhere I go. Fresno State was the perfect fit for me.”

Fresno State special teams coordinator Eric Schmidt liked what he saw from Montaño and met with him virtually in September of 2020. But, according to Montaño, that was the last thing he heard from Schmidt until January.

“There’s so many good kickers around here that we felt like, ‘hey we could get a kid to come in here and walk on and be a really good player,’ ” Schmidt said. “He wanted to come to Fresno State, and this is a place I think that is pretty special to him, and you’re always closer to home and geographically it made a lot of sense for him and we just felt like he was going to be a good fit here.”  

Just a week before the spring semester started at Fresno State, Montaño got a call he wasn’t expecting, but it was the one he had prayed for. 

Schmidt called to offer him a spot on the team as a walk-on. It was an easy decision for Montaño. He accepted the invitation, but it had to be a quick turnaround. Classes were just days away from starting at Fresno State, and Montaño was getting ready to start his spring semester at Hartnell. Just like that, he packed what he needed in his car and moved in with his family in Fresno.

“I swear I think it’s a pretty crazy story because, I mean, all this happened in the span of literally three days maybe,” Montaño said. “I had to pack my bags, I had to start driving down and settling down because the following week school was already starting and we had to report to practice.”

Now that Montaño is at Fresno State, he said he plans on developing both as a player and as a person, by embedding himself in the community.

“This is really a place I can see myself at for the rest of my eligibility,” Montaño said.

He’s off to a good start, according to his coaches. The pressure of playing in one of college football’s loudest stadiums with over 43,000 fans didn’t phase him. He was perfect in three field goal attempts, nailing them from 33, 39 and 22 yards. 

When Montaño makes his debut at Bulldog Stadium, he’s hoping to see a Mexican flag in the stands to remind him who he is playing for: his familia.

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