TEMPE, Ariz. — When Will Hernandez returns to Las Vegas during the offseason to see his family, he can’t leave without making one stop.
The Arizona Cardinals‘ guard makes sure to swing by Lety Villarreal’s house for some tacos or horchata — a traditional Mexican drink made with rice, milk and cinnamon — just like he has for the last 14 years. Sometimes he brings his cousins or his mom, Angelica. Sometimes it’s just him.
And it doesn’t matter if Villarreal isn’t home. Hernandez, the son of Mexican immigrants, will wait.
It’s not just her food and drink he’s waiting for — although that’s a major bonus — it’s the woman who has become another grandma to Hernandez. Villarreal hasn’t just fed him. She’s been there for Hernandez when his family went through some of its toughest times.
She talked. She listened. She watched Hernandez grow, mature into a man and, now, play in the NFL.
“I would always tell her about my school and football, how football was going and just talk to her about life,” Hernandez said. “She had a lot of life wisdom for me.”
Villarreal is going to be one of 60 to 80 of Hernandez’s friends and family members in the stands Sunday at Allegiant Stadium for his first game in Las Vegas as an NFL player when the Cardinals visit the Las Vegas Raiders (4:25 p.m. ET, CBS).
“She said that she’ll feel very excited,” Villarreal said through her daughter, Mayra Gomez, who translated for her mother. “But she thinks that she would have no words because she’s never been to a game like that, but she would probably feel very, very happy.”
Hernandez met Villarreal when he was 13. His family — his parents and sister — had lost their house during the Great Recession and moved into a small building in Hernandez’s uncle’s backyard. Villarreal lived across the street, selling street tacos out of her garage for $1 each. She still remembers Hernandez running over to her house after he played outside, hungry. He started out eating five, maybe six tacos. Eventually, as he grew, his orders would reach the double digits.
She had all the meats: carne asada (skirt or flank steak), tripe, pastor (spit-grilled pork), cabeza (roasted head of an animal, usually beef or pork), lengua (beef tongue), chorizo. And all the toppings — the salsas, the diced onions, the cilantro. All homemade.
“She had all the sauces you want, as spicy as you want them or as mild as you want them,” Hernandez said.
As Hernandez got older, his order became more consistent: six lengua and four tripe tacos, plus a quesadilla. Now, at 335 pounds and in his fifth NFL season, Hernandez pointed out that he doesn’t eat as much as he once did — but he confidently slipped in that he’d still put down 10 tacos easily.
Villarreal — who calls Hernandez “Willy” like he calls her “Lety,” which is short for Leticia — is all but a part of the Hernandez family at this point, he said. That comes with its perks. If Villareal is out of her horchata when Hernandez is in town, she’ll make a batch especially for him.
“We always give her stuff about that,” Gomez said. “We’ll be like, ‘Oh yeah, just because it’s Willy, he’s extra special?'”
Now she’s 57 and has been selling tacos out of her garage on the weekend for the last 18 years. They’re up to between $2 and $2.50 each, but she still has people come from all over Las Vegas to eat them, who walk up her driveway and enjoy them at tables she set up inside her garage.
Her and Hernandez have talked casually about Villarreal opening a brick-and-mortar restaurant at some point, throwing around ideas, but she’s content.
“She likes to do her thing,” Hernandez said. “She’s a little hard-headed sometimes, but she’s gonna do what she wants to do, and nobody could tell her any different.
“So, all I know is I’m going to be a loyal customer for life.”
In part because of how loyal she’s been to him.
At first, Hernandez’s parents gave him money to buy Villareal’s tacos. Five dollars here, six dollars there. It added up. When his mother and father felt financial strain, they had to cut back.
Villarreal didn’t let that stop Hernandez from eating. It was her way of keeping some semblance of normalcy in their lives. Living behind his uncle’s house, Hernandez’s family had to keep all their clothes on one rack in the living room. The building wasn’t big, with the roof standing just about 5-foot-6 high, Hernandez remembered.
Hernandez, barely a teenager, saw a life he never knew before.
“It did open my eyes to a lot of things that I didn’t know before,” he said. “A lot of things that I’ve taken for granted. Like, something as simple as like having your own room, having your own closet.
“It really was, like, part of my mentality growing up and what helped me get to where I am.”
The stresses of losing a house, moving into a relative’s backyard and not having their own personal space couldn’t be ignored. They lived like that for about two years.
“But we got along actually pretty great, now that I think back,” Hernandez said. “And it did show us, too, that, like once we got past that stage, that anything that life could ever throw at us, would be fine. We’d be able to handle it.”
Hernandez didn’t let his family’s financial situation keep him from his tacos. He eventually ran his tab to $700, and he didn’t have the money to pay her back at the time. He went across the street and asked if he could pay her back later. She told him to keep eating what he wanted and they’d figure it out later.
Hernandez was drafted by the New York Giants in the second round of the 2018 NFL draft. Armed with a $3.5 million signing bonus, Hernandez could repay her, which he did, two-fold. He gave Villareal $1,400 in cash one day, as much to pay her back as to say thank you.
“Like you had nothing, begging for tacos, pretty much to the point now where you can pay her for thousands of dollars worth of tacos,” he said. “Even though when I was poor as hell and when I had a lot of money to give to her, she treated me the exactly the same …
“To her, it wasn’t about the money. It was about her authentic self and an authentic relationship.”
When Hernandez returns Saturday to Las Vegas, it’ll be the first time his extended family watches him play in person, and there will be a lot of them. Each of his parents has five siblings, who all have their own families, so the Hernandez section will run deep with uncles, aunts and cousins.
They’ll have their eyes on him, but Hernandez knows there will be more.
“I also get to go back,” he said, “and have all the high school kids that grew up watching me and that are watching me now and show them that like, ‘This is real. It could happen.'”
Sunday will be his chance to show that he turned his childhood into something.
“She feels that it’s like a Mexican dream about a kid that fought for his dream,” Villarreal said. “She just feels very proud of him that he continued to fight for his dream and he’s making it.”