Bears’ Garza proud of heritage… and first place

Since he entered the NFL in 2001, Roberto Garza has always been involved in the league’s celebration of Hispanic Heritage Month. It’s just a little different this year. Because not only will his Chicago Bears be honoring Hispanic Heritage Month during next Monday night’s nationally-televised game against the Green Bay Packers, but it will be a battle of undefeated teams vying for first place in the NFC North.

Bears guard Roberto Garza with kids at Clearview Elementary in Waukegan, Ill. Click here to see what the NFL has planned for Hispanic Heritage Month celebrations at this week's Sunday and Monday night games.

“We’re the talk of the town right now,” said the 31-year-old Garza, the Bears’ starting left guard. “Obviously it’s early in the season and we’ve got a long way to go,” he said of the Bears’ surprising 2-0 record. “But it’s a good start.”

The Bears are coming off a big win in Dallas against the Cowboys, the team Garza rooted for as a kid growing up in southern Texas. His hometown of Rio Hondo is about eight hours south of Dallas –- but that was close enough for Garza to have 125 family and friends at the game.

“Growing up in the ‘90s, I definitely have a lot of memories watching Emmitt Smith and Troy Aikman and Michael Irvin,” he said, adding the win over the Cowboys “absolutely” had special meaning to him.

Also having special meaning to Garza is the role he gets to play in the Latino community because of his status as a player in the NFL. On Tuesday, he visited Clearview Elementary School in Waukegan, Ill., and took part in a reading program, part of the United Way of Lake County’s Success by Six initiative.

“These kids are learning English and unfortunately struggling, so a big part of the program is reading,” said Garza, himself the son of Mexican immigrants. “I’m going in there to read some books to the kids, tell them a little about my story, how similar my story is to theirs … The message to the kids is to stay in school and take advantage of the opportunity they have to get their education and move forward in their lives. They’re young right now, but it’s important for them to take a real interest in their education.”

Each year, Garza meets more Latino players who have made it to the NFL, and while he knows Latino football players remain very much a minority on NFL rosters, he’s encouraged to see them at different positions. “(Hall of Fame offensive lineman) Anthony Munoz was one of the guys that paved the way for us,” Garza said. “And many years ago, he thought the only other Latino players would be kickers. Now there are players at all positions. Hopefully it continues to grow.”

As for Monday night’s showdown with the Packers, Garza said the Bears enter this game with more confidence than they’ve had in years. “We’ve known all along and Coach Lovie (Smith) has preached to us that we’re a good team. We didn’t show that in the preseason, going 0-4, but once the season starts the intensity comes up, and we were able to prove that the first two weeks. We celebrated the Dallas victory for a day; now it’s time to move on to the Green Bay Packers. It’s a good rivalry week for us, so everybody’s going to be ready to go.”

For more details on the NFL’s plans for Hispanic Heritage Month, click here.

— Craig Ellenport

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