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Santa Fe wrestling legend Mike Lujan of Rio Rancho honored by state’s sports hall of fame

RIO RANCHO, N.M. — The New Mexico Sports Hall of Fame recently announced its 2019 annual award winners, who will be honored with the seven “Class of 2019” inductees (Alan Branch, Jimmy Collins, Rob Evans, Holly Holm, Nick Pino, Danny Romero and Carolyn Thompson) at the 47th annual induction banquet on April 5 at the Albuquerque Convention Center.

The trio of award winners, who have made a huge impact on the sports world in New Mexico for many years, are Bernard “Gig” Brummell, Fred Hultberg and Rio Rancho resident Michael Lujan.

According to the NMSHOF, Lujan, 68, has been a wrestling coach since 1972 and a teacher since 1974 in Santa Fe, where he made a huge impact on the youth there. He was the founder and CEO of the Santa Fe Junior Wrestling Program (1975-2007) and since 1995 has served as the New Mexico district’s AAU wrestling sports director. Since 2007, he has been instrumental in raising funds for New Mexico Highlands University’s wrestling program.

“Be careful: Mike likes to talk,” cautioned one of Lujan’s friends, knowing the Observer was going to interview him.

As it turned out, Lujan, 68, talked more about kids he’d helped — pulling them literally out of arroyos to turn them into wrestlers and some into champions — and people who helped him from his South Valley roots.

It’s not been an easy life: As a third-grader, he had a paper route — “We had a coffee can and we put our money into it; I made a dollar a day,” he said. Later, he had a nervous breakdown.

A spiritual man — Lujan will tell you he’s always had God in his corner — he’d never done well in school, thanks to working at an early age to help support his large family. He graduated from Rio Grande High School — where he lettered in wrestling four years and twice finished third at state, and also ran cross country — in 1970 and headed north, thanks to a wrestling scholarship at Trinidad State College, where he also was a manager for the basketball and baseball teams.

He went to the Olympic wrestling trials while at Trinidad State — which unfortunately, dropped the sport — but didn’t make the team. Nonetheless, he was still competing in freestyle wrestling until 1977. (Incidentally, Lujan “invented” a way to break a half-nelson, but it’s only for special occasions.)

Thanks to his decision to compete in track in the spring of his senior year, 1987 NMSHOF inductee Bobby Santiago inspired him to go to college. He earned an associate’s degree at Trinidad State, then later earned his bachelor’s degree in education and psychology at Southern Colorado State in 1974.

“God gave me the strength and the wisdom. I had a hard time at school — I graduated with a 1.3 (grade-point) average,” he said, thankful for participating for two years in a program called Upward Bound, which paved the way for his RGHS diploma.

Because that GPA wasn’t adequate enough for him to accept a wrestling scholarship at UNM, he headed north to Colorado.

“I never drank or smoked — my whole life was God and trying to help others,” he said. “I was the first one from generation to generation from the Lujan family (he had 13 brothers and two sisters) to graduate from college.”

Another “large family” for Lujan is made up of all the teammates, coaches, mentors and others who’ve helped him with encouragement and more.

His turning point, he said, came shortly after he arrived in Pueblo and participated in Teacher Corps, deciding being an educator was the pathway for him.

“I taught kindergarten and third grade and second grade there for two years, under a professional teacher,” he recalled. “I coached a wrestling program there in the little community.”

Later in 1974, he got his first teaching job at Milan Elementary in Grants, staying there for one year. In 1975, after being turned down when he sought a teaching job in Albuquerque, he applied and was accepted by Santa Fe Public Schools, teaching at Kearney Elementary for 16 years, mentored in teaching by Art Aragon.

In his first year in Santa Fe, he proposed a youth wrestling program — and it was accepted and grew to national prominence.

“I was crazy — I loved wrestling,” he said. “I know what it did for me, knowing I had maybe a sixth-, seventh- or eighth-grade reading level when I started college.

“I was the top assistant (at SFHS) for five years, and I want to say this … Santa Fe Public Schools have taken care of me tremendously,” he said. “That’s very important to me.

“The following year (1976), we had 500 kids. I was the first wrestling coach in the USA that started girls wrestling,” he added.

“By the time I retired, I coached (varsity wrestling) 33 years (1981-2003). I had 28 state champions; I had the first NCAA Division II national champion (Jason Tapia); I had 12 or 13 college All-Americans.”

Five of his former high school wrestlers are in the New Mexico High School Wrestling Hall of Fame (Phillip Anaya, Rodney Romero, Jason Tapia, Javier Posa and Don Ortega) and five of his former matmen are now coaching high school teams.

Indeed, his teaching skills and coaching success resulted in SFHS naming its wrestling room after him.

“I was very blessed by God,” he said, still happy and in his 43rd year of teaching.

He’s up at 5 a.m. daily takes the Rail Runner Express to the Capitol City every day, walking from a stop to Gonzales Elementary.

“I spend five hours on the road and I teach three hours,” he said, laughing — another thing he likes to do, besides talk.

What brought the Lujans to Rio Rancho?

“When my wife (Sally) was almost killed,” he said.

Lujan married Sally Thomas on March 18, 1978, in Vermont. “I’ve been here 28, 29 years.”

“She survived a drunk-driving accident (in 1981),” he said, noting the number of surgeries is up to 48. “She’s pretty beat up — a lovely woman who took care of me.”

They have a son and a daughter, plus 10 grandchildren; two of Lujan’s nephews, David and Nathaniel, wrestled for RRHS.

There’s no timetable for retirement, because he loves teaching and coaching.

“You treat everybody the same, whether he’s a state champion or not,” he said. “Work hard — if you win or lose, at least you feel good about yourself because you busted your tail.

“Every kid in this world has something good in them,” Lujan said. “I tell them, ‘If I can teach one thing, it’s to get along in the real world and respect yourself and others. If you can do that then you will go a long way in life.'”

Maybe not as far as Lujan has gone, but a long way.

Not that he’s going horizontal anytime soon, Lujan was asked what would be appropriate for his tombstone: “Mike Lujan did everything to become a good dad and hopefully he touched a lot of lives.”

Mike Lujan: Mat Legend

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