On the tropical island nation of the Dominican Republic, 800 miles off the coast of Miami, the game of football is as foreign as the tourists who grace the country’s white sandy beaches.
Baseball is king in the D.R., where the sporting soundtrack is the crack of bats and the pounding of leather. The baseball culture is so rich that despite a small population — less than 11 million people — the Dominican produces a disproportionate number of MLB players. Some of the greats include David Ortiz, Adrian Beltre, Manny Ramirez, Pedro Martinez, Robinson Cano, Vlad Guerrero and Sammy Sosa. The list is lengthy.
Football in the Dominican is a different story — a nonexistent one, really. Entering 2017, no Dominican-born player has ever played in an NFL game, according to Pro Football Reference.
Jets linebacker Frank Beltre is trying to change that.
Beltre — who spent the last three seasons playing for the Calgary Stampeders of the CFL — was born in Azua, Dominican Republic and lived there for over a decade before moving to Randolph, New Jersey as an 11-year-old. It was there in Randolph, just more than 10 miles from the Jets’ facility in Florham Park, where Beltre quit the pastime of his home nation and first started playing football as a high school freshman.
“After I came to the United States, I tried to play baseball. I didn’t speak English very well. I didn’t find the right programs to actually play, and I didn’t really like it,” Beltre told the Daily News after a training camp practice last week. “I got a few group of friends from Randolph down the street, Randolph High School, and they started playing football and I wanted to hang out with my boys over the summer. They said, ‘We’ll try football.’ I said, ‘Well, why not?’ I tried it, I loved it and the rest is history.”
Since that point, Beltre’s path to the NFL — a journey that is far from complete — has been steeped with obstacles. He played college football at Towson, a D-I AA school, and garnered little attention as a draft prospect. In spring of 2013, he signed with the Chargers as undrafted free agent. He was released on Aug. 31 that summer. The following January, he signed with a Raiders, but was cut in May before making it to training camp.
Unwilling to give up on his NFL dream, Beltre decided to groom his talents in the CFL, signing with the Stampeders for the 2014 season.
“I went up there with a chip on my shoulder,” Beltre said. “Coming out of a small school, I took it as getting cut by the Chargers and getting cut by the Raiders that pretty much they were telling me I don’t have what it takes.”
While playing up north, Beltre said he received calls from concerned loved ones in the Dominican.
“They want to watch the game. But when they watch it, they have no idea what’s going on at all,” Beltre said. “When I hit or a I get hit, it’s like, ‘Are you all right?’ I’m like, ‘That’s part of the game. Trust me, I’m all right.’”
Beltre spent three seasons in the CFL and put together his best campaign in 2016, totaling three sacks and a forced fumble.
He gives credit to CFL veterans Shawn Lemon and Charleston Hughes for helping him develop as a pass rusher. He says playing on the bigger dimensions of the CFL field made him a “better athlete.”
Beltre won a championship with the Stampeders in 2014, playing alongside current Jets teammate and outside linebacker Freddie Bishop, who joined the Jets before the 2016 season. Beltre is confident he improved substantially as a football player in those three seasons, partially because of rules differences.
In the CFL, the defensive line must line up a yard away from the spot of the ball, which gives offensive linemen more time to react. Beltre has already noticed the benefits of that during the first two weeks of training camp.
“I’m a speed rusher,” said Beltre, who stand 6-2 and weighs 245 pounds. “So I watch the ball and get off down here, and I’ve pretty much beat the tackle.”
Beltre is one of two Dominican players currently on an NFL roster. Coincidentally, Beltre crossed paths with the other Dominican in Saturday’s 7-3 preseason victory over the Titans — former Florida State offensive lineman Josue Matias.
Beltre didn’t play in the game because of a groin injury he suffered in practice earlier in the week.
Nonetheless, the 27-year-old is still in contention to start at outside linebacker for the Jets this season. Beltre was seeing considerable action with the No. 1 defense before sustaining the tweaked groin. He started at OLB for the Green and White scrimmage last weekend and sacked Josh McCown on the opening series.
Outside linebacker remains one the most competitive position battles on the Jets roster, and Todd Bowles said he gained little clarity from Saturday’s game because of injuries. Rookie Dylan Donohue (shoulder) and Lorenzo Mauldin (back) also missed the contest.
For Beltre, the next step is making his first NFL 53-man roster.
If he does, he’ll be a long way from the baseball fields of the Dominican Republic.
“I’m just trying to prove that I’m worthy of playing in the NFL,” Beltre said.