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Ex-Aggie, Steeler Gerela Takes On Challenge at Gadsden

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ANTHONY, N.M. — Three miles from Texas. A million proverbial miles from New Mexico prep football relevance.
Here, among the flat-land farms that line most every two-lane road in this dusty sliver of Doña Ana County, you find a 64-year-old Canadian-born, multiple-Super Bowl champion, a former New Mexico State Aggie embarking on what is likely the final professional challenge of a storied career.
Reacquaint yourself with Roy Gerela, who is now the head football coach at Gadsden High School.
“My career,” Gerela said, “is done and over. As far as coaching, I’m not one of those guys that will be here for a long period of time. All I want to do is get a program started in the right direction, then turn it over to a young guy and let him keep it going.”
There are many football-playing posts in the southern half of New Mexico, but perhaps none so remote — historically speaking — as the one at Gadsden, which is as much an afterthought as any football program in 5A.
The last time Gadsden had a winning record? That would be 2000. The last time Gadsden had an official playoff game, the result of having qualified through a district? That would be 40 years ago.
Perhaps looking to interject some life into this moribund program, Gadsden hired a genuine New Mexico football legend in the offseason, and certainly the only former NFL player serving in this capacity in the state.
If  you were looking for a celebrity factor among the state’s coaching fraternity, Anthony — with bowed heads to Clovis’ Eric Roanhaus — would be the place to start. This is Gerela’s first head coaching job.
When the Panthers had an opening, Gerela, who was coaching special teams at Gadsden, didn’t plan on throwing his name into the hat. His hand was somewhat forced. Or, at least firmly encouraged in that direction.
“I was asked to do it,” he said. “By the kids, by the football players, by a lot of teachers and some of the administration. I had applied before and nothing had developed.”
Gadsden’s players knew what Gerela offered, and figured everyone would benefit from the arrangement.
“We were picking his brain,” said senior cornerback Adrian Llanez, “and his knowledge of football was great. A lot of us liked what he had to bring.”
Final chapter
The silver-haired Gerela still wears one of the rings from his Super Bowl-winning days as a placekicker with the Pittsburgh Steelers.
On this day, looking tan and relaxed in a white polo shirt and shorts, Gerela is packing up his civics textbook (he teaches social studies) and is about to start another Gadsden practice.
The challenges that lay ahead are extreme.
Although Gadsden won the state’s state title for independents in 1983 and 1984, the Panthers are not exactly a name brand. The program has endured 11 consecutive losing seasons. In the 12 seasons between 2000 and 2011, Gadsden has 26 total wins. When you factor in that half of those 26 came in 2000, 2001 and 2002, the program has just 13 victories in the last nine seasons.
Although the enrollment math doesn’t back him up, Gerela firmly believes the Panthers should be paired with the likes of 4A-sized Santa Teresa, Deming and crosstown Chaparral. Instead, they have found themselves the decades-long sacrificial lamb to wolves like Mayfield and Las Cruces.
“We’re at a 4A level trying to play 5A football,” Gerela said. “You can’t do it.”
This is Gerela’s second stint as a Gadsden coach. He was an assistant from 1997-2002, then later assisted at Hatch Valley from 2003-04. He also is a former kicking coach for his alma mater, New Mexico State.
“I think the reason why I took this on is because the kids asked me,” he said. “I knew some of the things that needed to be done in the offseason that weren’t being done since I was here.”
That started and ended with a strict, and demanding, conditioning program.
Gerela wouldn’t even allow his players into the weight room until he felt they had earned it.
To that end, a nearby canal proved quite useful.
Gerela had the Panthers running it, doing cone drills inside of it, and literally had them climbing the walls of that canal.
“It’s crazy,” Llanez said, “how much stronger we’ve gotten.”
Past and present
Gerela, born in Alberta, Canada, played high school ball in Hawaii before joining the Aggies. In the NFL he kicked for the Houston Oilers (1969-70), Steelers (1971-78) and San Diego (1979).
He was coaching at Chaparral before coming back to Gadsden several years ago. The high school is just a couple of minutes drive from the Texas/New Mexico border. In fact, the state line divides this unique town in two. Gerela said he does believe Gadsden cannot only be competitive in football but can win.
“We all trust in him,” said senior two-way lineman Fred Martinez. “So far, he’s been the best coach we’ve had here.”
Gerela wanted to surround himself with promising young assistants, to ensure that the program, when he stepped away — and he strongly hinted that this could be a one-year hitch — would not be barreling in the wrong direction. He’s selling hope here as much as any X’s/O’s package.
He even dipped into Albuquerque’s YAFL program — specifically, La Cueva’s area — to find an offensive coordinator.
“He asked me if I was ready to coach at the high school level,” Brett Henson said. Henson, the son of legendary Animas coach Billy Henson, played at Hatch Valley when his dad was the superintendent and Gerela was an assistant with the Bears.
Henson is installing the spread offense at Gadsden.
“We’re going to have to develop athletes,” Henson said, “more than relying on talent. But they’re tough kids, because of the way they’ve grown up. These are impoverished kids. A lot of them, they’re the man of the house. But they take on that role. They dedicate themselves to that. That’s why I like this place. It reminds me a lot of the kids when my dad was coaching at Animas.”
Certainly, Gerela doesn’t dream that one day national magazines and TV networks will descend on Anthony the way they once did in Animas during those heydays when Animas reeled off seven straight Class 2A state titles from 1984-90.
But Gerela does dream that Gadsden will emerge from the shadows, and they’ll begin to be taken more seriously. If and when that happens, it is likely that Gerela will have left Gadsden long before then.
But he likes the notion of stirring his competitive juices at this stage of his life.
“One more shot, just for curiosity’s sake,” Gerela said with a smile. “Just to see if I can pull this thing off.”

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