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When San Francisco linebacker Fred Warner arrives for Monday night’s game, he will be wearing the jersey the Mexican national soccer team.
Warner earlier this season wore a Mexican flag on his helmet as part the NFL’s international diversity campaign.
San Francisco linebacker Fred Warner breaks up a pass intended for Rams wide receiver Allen Robinson (1) earlier this season.
MEXICO CITY — When Fred Warner arrives at Azteca Stadium for Monday night’s game against the Arizona Cardinals, he will be making a popular fashion statement. He will be wearing the jersey — customized with his name and No. 54 — of El Tri, the Mexican national team that will open its World Cup campaign against Poland the following day in Qatar.
This isn’t pandering to the locals. Warner is proud to honor the location of the San Francisco 49ers’ Monday night game as well as his own Mexican heritage. Earlier this season he wore a Mexican flag on his helmet as part the NFL’s international diversity campaign.
“My mom’s father was from Mexico,” he said. “My father is Panamanian and African American. My mom’s mom, my grandmother, is French Canadian. When they say what kind of flag do you want, it’s kind of hard to choose.”
While Warner never met his maternal grandfather, who died when Warner’s mother was young, he identifies with his Mexican heritage and remains close to his grandfather’s side of the family, who live in Los Angeles.
Growing up in San Diego, both of Warner’s parents spoke Spanish (he was raised predominantly by his mother), and Warner can understand a lot and can speak enough to get by. He grew up with a lot of Mexican Americans but identified as African American.
“What you usually get recognized for is the color of your skin, you know, so I’ve always gone as African American,” he said. “But when people actually do ask and take an interest in wanting to know my full background, I always tell them exactly what it is.”
Though his hometown of San Marcos was a quick drive to the Mexican border, he never went to Mexico until he got into the NFL and could take some luxury vacations in Cabo San Lucas.
“My wife and I went to Las Ventanas,” newlywed Warner said of the luxurious resort. “It was the best ever. “
Cabo is like a home away from home for a lot of West Coast athletes. Famously, the the trade of Matt Stafford from the Lions to the Rams was finalized while both he and Rams coach Sean McVay were at the same Cabo resort while a would-be suitor, 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan, was also there in a different hotel. It’s a quick trip, and at times can feel like an extension of Southern California (which, historically and geographically, it is).
“I feel like Mexico is close to a second home for us,” Shanahan said. “I go down to Cabo a lot and there’s a great group of Mexican fans down there, so I’m hoping it’s the same in Mexico City.”
Mexico City, the largest city in North America and the fourth or fifth largest city in the world depending on what data you use, is not Cabo. It is a massive metropolis of almost 22 million people.
A city that size is sure to have a lot of 49ers fans. The 49ers played the first regular-season game outside of the United States in Mexico City in 2005. The fans were enthusiastic but not well-informed of the American version of football. That has changed in the past 17 years and, according to a poll done in 2021, there are 22 million NFL fans in Mexico.
Alfredo Gutierrez, an offensive lineman on the 49ers practice squad, was born in Tijuana and has spent time in Mexico City. He played collegiate football in Monterrey and traveled to Mexico City for college games.
“I think there will be a lot of fans,” he said. “I think there’s a fan club in Mexico City.”
Actually, the 49ers fan base lists four fan clubs in or near Mexico City.
“It’s pretty cool and exciting that our team is playing in Mexico City, and that we’ll be on the field in Azteca,” Gutierrez said. “All the guys are asking me questions and I’m ready for them. Even history questions.”
Gutierrez is the one who gave Warner the customized El Tri jersey, which should help the support for the 49ers.
Warner’s interest isn’t just in growing the game in Mexico, but also in expanding diversity in the league itself. Hispanic Americans are passionate about the NFL. But, while they make up almost 19% of the U.S. population per the last census, only 0.5% of NFL players identify as Hispanic or Latino.
That is one of the reasons Warner wants to make sure people know his heritage. He worked with Nike on an awareness campaign, done in partnership with the Hispanic Scholarship Fund, announcing “Yo soy Federico Warner,” in a video celebrating his roots.
“The representation of Mexicans in the NFL is pretty small,” Warner said. “I wanted to show other people my culture and show representation. I feel like anybody can work hard at something, and if you really put your mind to something you can achieve whatever you want in life.
“I wanted people to be able to look to me for inspiration and be like, ‘Yeah, I can do it too.’”
Ann Killion is a San Francisco Chronicle columnist. Email: Twitter: @annkillion
Born in San Francisco and raised in Marin County, Ann Killion has covered Bay Area sports for more than a quarter of a century. An award-winning columnist and a veteran of 11 Olympics, several World Cups and the Tour de France, Ann joined The Chronicle in 2012. Ann has worked for the San Jose Mercury News, the Los Angeles Times and Sports Illustrated. She is a New York Times best-selling author, having co-written “Solo: A Memoir of Hope” with soccer star Hope Solo,”Throw Like A Girl” with softball player Jennie Finch and two middle-grade books on soccer, “Champions of Women’s Soccer” and “Champions of Men’s Soccer.” She was named California Sportswriter of the Year in 2014, 2017 and 2018. She has two children and lives in Mill Valley.


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