The route from Aguascalientes, Mexico, to North Manchester, Ind., reads over 2,000 miles long. For Manchester University men's soccer player Julio Luevano, each part of that journey has been worth it.
The 33-year-old MU sophomore, majoring in exercise science, will tell you he "can't believe" where he is at right now. Married with three children, he's living in his own words "the American dream" of family, a job he enjoys at nearby Hi-Grade Egg Producers and being able to play soccer.
"He's truly an inspiration," Manchester University head coach Dave Good said. "You think what he went through to just get here … it's amazing. He's proven to be more than just a player – he's also a mentor to the younger guys. He always tells me he'll do anything to help the team … playing any position. He's a natural leader, and we named him one of our co-captains this past fall."
Luevano's trek to Manchester University and United States citizenship began back in his homeland of Mexico. Admitting that "the economic situation was bad enough and I wasn't able to do what I wanted to do," he wanted to get on to a better way of life. So, with a friend's help in April 2000, he finally decided to head north.
"I'd tried to become a professional soccer player and also worked through maybe becoming a doctor at a Mexican college, but I had to give up the doctor pursuit as my mother needed my help at home, and the soccer possibility faded as I didn't know someone to go with me to the tryout which is necessary (in Mexico)," he said. "I did find a pretty good job making almost 2100-2500 pesos a week which is a lot of money (compared to the minimum wage of 300 a week), but I felt like I had the chance to do much more if I went to America. It wasn't an easy decision, though. I had to leave my mother and siblings behind. They're still there, but I'm hoping to have them join us some day."
The trek wasn't easy, either, with some harrowing situations. "We had to wait for rides just to get to the border," Luevano remembered. "It took a few days. Getting across was very difficult. We had to take it slow, going through the woods at night, as we were crossing illegally. There wasn't any choice of another way.
"I remember, as we got into Arizona, we were on some private property at night and were shot at," he added. "I heard a bullet whistle past my ear. I knew then that I had to make this work for the best."
Even when they made their way safely in the states, it was still a long trip in a van, according to Luevano. "We had to wait three more days in Arizona after we crossed," he said. "We finally got to North Manchester a few days after that."
He did make connections with some of his friends' acquaintances and landed a job at North Manchester Metals. Through all of that, he managed to keep playing soccer with a local Hispanic team that, according to Good, was one of the best town teams around.
That's where he met coach Good and the Spartan soccer program. A bond formed.
"I told Coach I wanted to play for the team the first time I saw him," he said with a sheepish grin. "I obviously didn't understand having to be enrolled in college. I still remember that and chuckle about my foolishness.
"I kept telling him I'd play for him one day though," he added.
Luevano slowly picked up English, reading magazines, watching TV and listening to the radio. A short while after he arrived, a young woman saw him and wanted to make a connection.
"My friends told me Danielle wanted to meet me," he said. "I kept pushing it away and pushing it away, but finally, I said okay as long as one of you could be my interpreter. So, one of my buddies and his girlfriend came along but they left as soon as we got together, so the first date was a little rocky.
"Danielle was a true blessing though," he added. "I don't know what I would have or would be doing without her. She has been amazing from the minute I met her."
The two were married two years to the day he began his journey. With he and Danielle now together, Julio knew he had to get into college and get a better job for his future family.
The first step to that was American citizenship. Wanting to do things the right way, Luevano went to the American consulate and talked through how he'd gotten here and what his next step was. A judge informed him he would have to go back to Mexico for four-to-six months as a punishment for his illegal status.
"I was pretty devastated, as was Danielle," he said. "Our first child was young, and we had another one on the way. I asked the judge later if I could just pay a fine, but he said that wasn't possible, and it wasn't his problem. So, I went back home.
"That was the toughest bit of time in my life," he added. "I missed Danielle and our child, and then she had the baby which was another C section (as all three of their children were). I was on the phone with her and mom … we were all crying. But, I just kept thinking I have to finish this. I can't stop now because it's get hard."
After six months, he was allowed back in with a Visa and then four years later, he became a U.S. citizen. "I'm so grateful," he said. "This has been a difficult process but the end result has been more than I could have dreamed of."
Luevano's dream didn't stop there. He still longed for the college degree.
Due to his time in North Manchester, he had built a rather strong network of friends. One of those was MU Spanish professor Arturo Yanez. The two had met at some of the soccer games Julio played in through his town team.
"He knew I was looking into college, and that I needed my GED," he said. "He helped through the process and also introduced me to some staff at the university."
Another person connected to MU, Joe Burgos, who was a pastor at Julio's church, knew future Manchester University president Dave McFadden. He spoke to McFadden about Luevano coming to MU, and McFadden said he would he do what he could to help. Finally, in the winter semester of the 2012-13 academic year, he made "good" on his promise to Coach Good and himself by being enrolled.
Even with everything he's accomplished, Luevano admits, at times, things still aren't easy.
"There are still moments of discrimination for myself and other foreigners," he said. "It was the worst when I first arrived, but it's gotten a lot better since I've learned English and been able to defend myself. Still though, I've been walking down the street at night, going to the store and or coming back from something, and sometimes people will yell some cruel things. All of us aren't drug dealers or wanting to take jobs away and so on … some of us may have taken that way but not all of us. I'm constantly focused on proving those individuals wrong.
"With all of that though, this is still a dream come true," he added. "Sure, things will be tough from time to time, but they are for many people. I always go back to how grateful I am to be here and all of the great friends I've had help me to get to this point. That will never change."
He added that he would like to bring another member of his family north, too.
"Bringing my mom from Mexico to have her with me in the graduation ceremony is something I'm really hopeful for," Luevano said. "I want her to be proud of me and show her that what I did (having to leave her behind in Mexico) was really worth it."
Good and the Spartans benefitted from Luevano's first year in the program. He was amongst a four-way tie for the team goals lead (two) and topped the squad with 25 shots while also recording the lowest goals-against average of any MU goalkeeper (2.22) after five starts in net.
"Looking beyond what he did for us on the field, Julio's mentorship has also been important," Manchester University's head coach said. "I notice him having conversations with his teammates sharing his more experienced and mature perspective. When some of the other players start complaining about anything, all we have to do is point to Julio and they get the message…. 'Think about what he went through'."
"We're all fortunate that he carried through with what he wanted to do," he added. "From my first conversation that I had with Julio years ago, he told me that one day he would end up playing here. It's awesome and inspiring that he made it happen. Working full-time, husband and father of three, 33 years old … he's a unique student-athlete. It's great to have him at Manchester and part of our team."