Growing up in Mexico, one of 10 children, it seemed like there was only one way out of the poverty. Soccer. It is the national sport of Mexico, as hot there as football or baseball is for any boy growing up in the United States.

Art Ramos was just a boy when he picked up a soccer ball and he has never put it down, even though he polished his artistic talents with a degree and a career in graphic design.

It is the graphic design that supports him. It is soccer that gives his life meaning, as he helps hundreds of Norman boys and girls develop their soccer skills, challenging them to work, inspiring them with stories of playing professional soccer as a teen-ager in Mexico.

While he has natural athletic ability, getting to the top of his game took more than that. A lot more. Immersing himself in the feel of the ball, the smell of the grass. Thinking constantly of the game. Not sitting idle, but having the ball in his hands all the time. "Discipline," he said. Constantly working at being a better soccer player. Conditioning his body. Eating right.

"My brothers, they played soccer, but they didn't have the discipline that I gave to the game," he said.

He also was dedicated to getting an education, and each day walked across the bridge into El Paso to attend an American high school with a basketball and football team. He talked the football coach into fielding a soccer team, but the coach wasn't really that interested or qualified. So before long, Ramos was coaching the team, developing the soccer program in the school.

College would have been out of the question financially, except that through Methodist connections at his school he got a full scholarship to Oklahoma City University. After graduating with a degree in art, he returned to Mexico and pursued a career there. Still playing soccer, he was coaching informally, working with street kids at times, lifting them up through the discipline he expected of his players.

It was friends from college that encouraged him to come to Norman in 1990. In Norman, he began coaching with the competitive teams. Parents began to ask him to work individually with their son or daughter. There were so many wanting his time that he began to work with small groups in training clinics. Still coaching for the Norman Youth Soccer Association in season, he has just taken the job as an assistant soccer coach at Norman North. There were nearly 50 scheduled for tryouts. He planned to select 18 for the team.

His expectations are always high.

"I am very strict on discipline," he said. "That's the way I teach. And I don't like what I see sometimes, like the way they act to their parents."

His coaching includes lessons on life. Respect others. Work hard. Do your best. Eat right. He even extends his expectations to the parents to not put pressure on the kids and to control their conduct and sideline coaching at the games.

His expectations won't waver. There will be practice five days a week. "If the weather is not good, we can go to one of the rec centers and do conditioning training. My parents (parents of his students) sometimes ask me to give them a break," he laughed.

With his NYSA teams, there have been times when the field was wet and they would tear it up in practice "so I have them come over here to my apartment and we run around here."

Trips to his apartment, his home for the past 12 years, are a treat for the players and parents alike, for nearly every inch of the apartment, from walls to special display cabinets, is covered with Coca Cola memorabilia. Bottles, cans, clocks, paper cartons, shirts ... the list could go on and on. There is even a wooden bottle-shaped display case that he built himself and includes Hot Wheels type toy cars in the Coca Cola theme.

"Kids bring me things," he said. "Their parents bring me things. I tell them that my waterbed is filled with Coke." There isn't room for much more, and he threatens his apartment manager with moving out and leaving it all behind.

He works all afternoon and evening with kids on the soccer field, and at age 51, he can still run with the young ones. "The parents ask me how I do it."

Ramos gives his vegetarian lifestyle credit for his good health and his high energy level. He gave up drinking soft drinks years ago "and I don't smoke or drink." He doesn't own a car, finding that a bicycle meets all his transportation needs.

At the end of the soccer day, usually around 8 in the evening, he turns on his computer and begins to earn his living as a graphic designer. "Soccer, the money I earn from soccer, lets me help my family."

Proud uncle to 35 nieces and nephews, he is supporting several in college. Of the 10 brothers and sisters, he said "I was the only one that got the chance." He pauses momentarily, then adds, "I have a lovely family."

He goes home for several weeks each winter to soak up the warmth of family, and the sunny warmth of Juarez. With him he takes as much new and used soccer equipment and clothing as he can get together to give to youngsters there. "My kids (his players) and parents give me the balls and clothes they can't use any more, and I take it there."

While he loves Norman, and is a U.S. citizen, he will return to Mexico one day and have time for his family and his art. But always there will be soccer.

Know an interesting Norman neighbor? Call the city desk at 366-3530 and share their stories with us.

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