By Arnie Leshin
It was 17 years ago when I first made my way to New Mexico’s Las Vegas and got lost before I could find Robertson High School where the state high school 4A football tournaments were being played.
That was my assignment for the Albuquerque Journal North.
And lucky, lucky, lucky Robertson was scheduled to play host to the quarterfinals, semifinals and finals. If it did get to the championship game, it would be a first for the school. But first the Cardinals had to tackle 6th seeded Thoreau on a nasty Saturday afternoon that followed back-to-back days of rain, the kind that was coming down so hard, it wouldn’t let up.
Despite this, Robertson head coach Art Abreu wasn’t concerned about the weather, all he wanted was to win three in a row and get to hoist the state championship trophy for the first time. But first things first and all he knew was he had a game with Thoreau and had no idea who he would play next.
He had a good ball club with a 10-3 record, although it was said the Cards had to forfeit some of those contests. Regardless, they still were named the 3rd seed, and Cardinal Field was packed.
The lineup featured the Vigil brothers, Jono and Curtis, the quarterback was Keith Vigil (no relation) and Abreu’s son was a senior who played wherever he was needed. Jono was the primary wide receiver and Curtis the primary running back.
I had only moved to the Land of Enchantment a short time ago, and didn’t know the history of football in the state, so I got into a conversation with one of the coaches and now I knew a little bit more. I also knew that because of the rain, you had to step where the mud wasn’t, and that was difficult.
At kickoff time, Abreu was a little more concerned about the quagmire just next to his sidelines. On one side, it was a mess of mud, and if you stepped in that area, your shoes became heavier with mud, wet mud. Not even high boots would have held up. Oh, and there were puddles of water, dirty water.
But Abreu only wanted to play football, and wasn’t even thinking about the muddy mess. He knew it was there, but didn’t step in that area. Slush wasn’t his favorite.
Come kickoff time, he stood on his sidelines as his team kicked off to Thoreau. It managed one first down before punting. Now the Cardinals had the ball at midfield after it first bounded in some of the mud spots, and Abreu yelled out to the officials that the ball had to be dried off.
No big deal except when he stepped into the muddy mess when his team had the ball in that area. But he couldn’t avoid it, and let the line official know. He wanted to know if dirt or sand or anything could cover it up. But the official just looked his way and didn’t answer.
But Abreu was right, step in that area and your shoes and sometimes your clothes were a mess, a dirty muddy mess. So he again called out to the same official, who appeared to be getting annoyed. Then, when he figured he heard enough, he got the coach’s attention and informed him that if he said one more word, he would be ejected.
It happened quickly. As the official walked to midfield, Abreu turned to his sideline and said something. The official then came his way, tossed down a yellow flag, and told the coach he was ejected, which meant he had to disappear now and face a suspension for the next game, that is if the Cardinals were still playing.
They handled Thoreau without a problem. The following Saturday afternoon 4th seeded Portales was the semis opponent. The Rams were 8-3 and obviously more of a threat than Thoreau. But Abreu was suspended from that game and wasn’t around to consult with the officials or even shake hands with the other coaches.
Instead he strolled over to the yellow school buses parked beyond the south end zone, and set up shop.
“I gave my coaches signals on plays,” he said, “and didn’t let the officials know it. But no one told me that I wasn’t allowed to watch the game from one of the buses.”
Portales was tough and the final minutes were hectic. But Robertson survived and later on found out that undefeated, top-ranked Lovington was its opponent in the championship game. In recent years before this, the Wildcats had Hall of Famer Brian Urlacker, and the man of many positions led them to back-to-back state titles.
The program has always been a quality one. It also had a reputation for winning, as it did in dominating 12 teams prior to this contest. These days, the Wildcats aren’t as invincible, but still have that reputation and confidence.
Now, with the Robertson stands on the entrance side without a an empty seat, and the Lovington supporters decked out on the other side where the visitors sat, there was no rain during the week and the field was worked on, the grass was trimmed, and even the sidelines were looking spic and span.
And Abreu was back on the sidelines, trading in a yellow bus seat to get closer to the action.
The game looked just fine until the midway point of the first quarter. Leading 3-0, the Wildcats had a fourth and three at the 50 and went for it, and making it barely. In two more plays they were into the end zone and from there they just increased their advantage.
But thought it all, Abreu’s team never surrendered, neither did their fans. The team dug in and played hard until the final whistle of the 59-6 whooping.
Now this past Saturday afternoon up at Taos, father and son Abreu, junior as the head coach and senior as his assistant, were overjoyed to finally have a state championship. For junior it was a time to always remember, as it was for his dad, except that his dad will never forget that crazy campaign, mud and all.
And 17 years later, Taos defeated Bloomfield, 14-7, and the two celebrated the 4A state championship together. As an assistant now, dad worked out of the coaches booth, and that’s always better than the yellow school bus.
One more thing. Shortly after I was covering the Robertson boy’s basketball game at St. Michael’s and asked if coach Abreu was there. So the student pointed to where he was sitting, and I walked up to him, hid my smile, and told him he had to leave because he was still on suspension. We shared a laugh.
Then, with the starting lineups being announced, he got up and started down the stairs. I asked where he was going. He answered, “I have to leave, I’m still on suspension.”