By Arnie Leshin
I hadn’t been in New Mexico very long. In fact, it had been a sunny, pleasant day in June of 2001when I arrived in Santa Fe from south Florida. Never been here before, was a complete stranger, and as a long-time sports journalist, needed a job.
From a long distance phone call, I was supposed to fill an open spot in the sports department of the Santa Fe New Mexican, but managing editor Rob Dean was away with his family on vacation, couldn’t be located, and there wasn’t anybody else on board able to hire me.
So the next morning I looked through the telephone pages and highlighted the Albuquerque Journal North, then I called it, left a message for editor Mark Oswald, and he returned my call and said he was surprised, that this area is known for writers, but hardly ever sports writers.
So he gave me directions to the Santa Fe office and told me he’d be back in town the next day, but told me to ask for the assistant editor Joe (and now I can’t remember his last name). Joe was a nice guy, was impressed when I displayed all my clippings on a table, especially my stores on professional sports like the New York Yankees.
“Wow,” he said, “we probably could give you some work, but I’ll have to speak with Mark and you should leave all these clippings here.”
The next morning, Oswald called me, asked me to drive over, and said he could give some part-time sports assignments to work with full-timer Will Webber. Said he couldn’t pay much, but maybe I could even wind up at the Journal’s main building in Albuquerque on a full-time level.
This was the last week in October and I had skimmed through the sports pages to see that the fall sports championships, cross country, football,
soccer and volleyball, were set to begin.
Now I had never been in Las Vegas, either the one in Nevada that featured the sparkling lights, the gala hotels, gambling, and star-studded shows, and had never known that there was also a Las Vegas about an hour from Santa Fe, in New Mexico.
So with Webber covering one of the other fall events, I was given directions to my first assignment, in yes, the “other” Las Vegas. Take I-25 east to the Las Vegas exit about 45 minutes away, drive to the next main street and make a right, then turn left four lights away and go straight to the Robertson High School stadium.
I was told it had rained there the day before, and early this morning. I also learned that despite having to forfeit several of its victories, Robertson was playing host to not one, not two, but all three of these 3A state tournament games.
The rain had subsided and the home crowd that supported the Cardinals was piling into the nearest stands I saw, while the visitors of the Thoreau High team took seats in the much smaller standson the other side for this quarterfinal contest.
Thoreau wasn’t supposed to have a chance and trailed 13-0 early on. No room in the press box, so I decided to hang out on the muddy sidelines alongside the home team. I had already introduced myself to Robertson head coach Art Abreau, Sr., and could tell he had a sense of humor and knew everybody.
But he was really upset with the condition of the field, especially on his sidelines of messy quagmire. The Thoreau sideline didn’t look nearly as bad, but his problem was where he and his team stood.
It was still early in the game when he kept harassing the sideline official to have the water and mud cleared up, that it was causing players to slip and slide and have difficulty holding onto the ball and making tackles.
Apparently, the official didn’t care. He just kept looking and listening to Abreau and getting annoyed, so he finally blew his whistle and told the coach if he complains once more, he’s gone, ejected. So Abreau chuckled, looked at me, lowered his tone, and said whatever he said, to which the official threw his yellow flag and grimly told the coach that he was gone.
So Abreau, with his Cards up 20-0, headed for the school’s yellow buses beyond the stadium fence on the east side, and took a seat in one of them.
He strolled around at halftime, joked about what transpired, and when the final whistle blew with the scoreboard showing his team winning 47-6, he gave me a few quotes and told me he would probably be playing Portales in the semifinals next Saturday afternoon, and that the Rams were much better than Thoreau.
So I interviewed some players, said hello to Los Alamos High athletic director Bob Abney, whom I had spoken to on the phone a short time ago, and he said that Robertson was his alma mater.
Next stop was the Journal office in Santa Fe, where I wrote my story and where Webber informed me that I was again going to Robertson next Saturday for the Portales-Robertson tilt.
Not problem there. It hadn’t rained all week, the field was dry and it was a good game, Abreau,working the sidelines more seriously, and the Cardinals
leading 16-14 with 3:30 to go and the Rams threatening. They went from their own 25 to midfeld, recovered their own fumble, ran a play up the middle to the Robertson 43, and then tried a pass-play that was picked off, run back to theirown 35, and it was all over as the final seconds ticked down.
But not for me. Next came Lovington, a perennial power with a load of state championships and where two-way lineman Brian Urlacher played, and after four sparkling seasons with the University of New Mexico, he was a high draft pick of the NFL’s Chicago Bears. Webber came along to do a sidebar, and I was gain writing the main story.
Urlacher? He wasn’t there, but it didn’t matter. It was nice that Robertson did kick a field goal early on, but the 3-0 lead didn’t last long. It began on a play that even Abreau said was the one that got the Wildcats in full gear. It probably wasn’t true, but he could have his own opinion.
His Cardinals couldn’t move the ball much, but was aggressive on defense and had made three big stops to strand Lovington at the Robertson 47 on fourth and inches. It was a controversial call that went the Wildcats’ way, but Abreau made a big fuss and was backed by the boos and other comments coming from the hometown fans.
But the call was upheld, Lovington scored and upped the margin to 37-3 at halftime. It was 52-3 after three quarters, and when the final whistle blew, the scoreboard posted the 59-3 rout.
Then I got some quotes from Abreau, and as the officials ran from the field and to the athletic office, I joined them when I heard one official say to
another that it was a pretty good game. Really? Wonder what game he was at?
No doubt officials have the final call, but 59-3 was only “pretty” to the visitors and their fans.Currently, Lovington has won 17 state football championships.
I haven’t been to a Robertson football game in Las Vegas since, but have covered several at the Christian Brothers Athletic Complex when the Cardinals visited St. Michael’s.
But that same school year while covering a Robertson boy’s basketball contest at St. Michael’s, noticed Abreau. So I wondered up to where he was sitting, said hello, gave him a handshake, and he promptly said, he had to leave. “I was suspended, remember.”
Super bottom line to my three-week adventure in the “other” Las Vegas.
NOTES: Back to Brian Urlacher, No. 54 as a Lovington football star. The town has a street that bears his name, an indoor facility he helped build, and now a new football field named after him in a town where he will always be remembered. His number has been retired and the Pro Football Hall of Famer was honored recently by his alma mater.
No doubt, one of the finest football players to ever come out of New Mexico, In 1995, his senior year, he lead Lovington to an undefeated 14-0 record and the state 3A championship. At UNM, he led the nation in tackles his junior season. He was selected by the Bears as the ninth overall selection.
In 2000, he was named NFL Rookie of the Year. He played 13 years with the Bears, elected to eight Pro Bowls and chosen the NFL Defensive Player of the Year in 2005. In 2018, he was inducted into both the College Football Hall of Fame and the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He is one of 103 individuals to be inducted into both.