"Funny how fate goes," Max Montoya reflected this summer from his Kentucky home across the Ohio River from Cincinnati. "Two big Mexicans from Los Angeles end up not only here on the same team but on the same line. Who'd have thought it?"
Montoya and Anthony Munoz of the Cincinnati Bengals have in the last decade acquired impeccable reputations, not only as huge offensive linemen in orange helmets, but as citizens.
Montoya, 33, a Montebello native who played at UCLA, is a guard starting his 11th National Football League season at Cincinnati. He has made the Pro Bowl team two of the last three years.
Munoz, 31, born in Ontario, was an All-American at USC and is entering his 10th year with the Bengals. Considered the best lineman in Cincinnati history, he was selected an all-pro tackle for the eighth straight time last season as the team reached the Super Bowl.
The pair, popular with fans, are also distinguished for their involvement with charitable groups; Munoz makes medical missionary trips to Mexico, and both crusade against drug and alcohol abuse.
Rivals in college, they became roommates and friends, though they are not as close, Montoya points out, as people expect. "We're kind of different," he said. "He's a devout Christian. I'm a Christian, but not as strong a one as he is."
They are in a small group of Latinos in the NFL who are not place-kickers. Others include Chicago linebacker Ron Rivera, Phoenix tackle Luis Sharpe and Lupe Sanchez, a defensive back last season for Pittsburgh.
Latino youths, generally of a size unsuited for the sport, do not generally aspire to be football stars. Munoz and Montoya, despite their large proportions, didn't either.
"My childhood dream was to be a professional baseball player," Munoz recalled recently from his suburban Cincinnati home. Unlike football, baseball had Latino heroes, and Munoz's was then-pitcher Juan Marichal of the San Francisco Giants.
Munoz is the embodiment of physical intimidation: 6 feet, 6 inches tall and close to 280 pounds. "My mom's father was 6-4. At least half of my cousins are 6-4 and over," said Munoz. Montoya, who is 6-5 and weighs 275 pounds, played football just one season at La Puente High and said it wasn't until he got to Mt. San Antonio College in Walnut that he developed his talent and became noticed.
The two players believe there are more young Latino athletes considering football careers than when they were growing up in the early 1970s. "They might look at me and say, 'If I continue to work hard, it might happen,' " Munoz said. "The last three years we've had Latino linemen coming into camp with us. This year we have John Guerrero from USC (a 6-4, 300-pound free agent)." Called the league's most athletic lineman by Bengals line coach Jim McNally, Munoz developed his agility in other sports. "In basketball, I was so much heavier than anyone that I had to work that much harder guarding people," said Munoz, who graduated from Chaffey High School in Ontario. In baseball he played third base.
Despite the honors bestowed on him, Munoz approaches the new season as if he were a rookie with a lot to prove, laboring in the weight room that fills half his basement.
"There are still things I have to learn," he said. "Each year my goal is the same: I want to be the best at what I do."
Montoya, known for his meanness on the field, also views hard work as essential: "If you're not going to put in the time, you're not going to last in this business. In your 30s your body starts slipping away."
Named by Pro Football Weekly as the best pass-blocking guard, Montoya's opinion of his skills is more modest. "I'm still fooling them," he said, laughing. "Anthony doesn't have to fool anybody."
When the Bengals lost to San Francisco, 20-16, in the Super Bowl last January, Munoz was heartbroken. "When you think about it there is a tendency to get sick all over again," he said. "But you think of players who have played 10 and 15 years and never even get into the playoffs, let alone the Super Bowl.
"I've been blessed to play in two. The first time (a 26-21 loss to the 49ers in 1982 at Pontiac, Mich.), I was just in awe of being there. I didn't take it in and hold it to memory. This time I stepped back and said, 'Let's enjoy it and be thankful we're in it.' The whole experience was great."
Munoz's Christianity stems from his USC days, when he had to cope with three knee operations. "I had the opportunity to grow as a person and not depend totally on football," he said. "Getting into Bible studies helped me out."
He and his wife, DeDe, have long been active in the Faith Evangelical Free Church of Milford, Ohio, and are now helping start the Hope Evangelical Free Church in the Mason-Montgomery area where they live.