As a senior offensive lineman for the University of New Mexico football team, Teton Saltes knows a great deal about protection.
Away from the football field, during the coronavirus pandemic, Saltes, a Valley High School alumnus, is protecting in a much different way that is more meaningful.
On most days, he is delivering food and water to his neighbors, the people in his community of the Oglala Lakota Tribe on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. He wears protective gear and does his best to protect the people of his tribe from the coronavirus. He delivers medicine and other supplies to the residents on the reservation.
“We’re being as cautious as we can,” Saltes said during a phone interview on Wednesday night. “A place like Pine Ridge, we are very susceptible to this virus. We don’t have the resources and the things we need to combat it. So if it hits us here it would devastate us. That’s really scary to think about. We’re making sure we do everything we can to try to prevent it.”
There is no stay-at-home order in South Dakota, but Saltes said the tribal government on Pine Ridge ruled that their residents aren’t allowed to leave their homes. Coronavirus testing in the area is scarce, as people must be showing various symptoms just to be given a test, Saltes said.
“The big thing we are dealing with is that we don’t know who has it,” Saltes said. “I think there have been only 30 people who have been tested, and a handful of confirmed cases. But there’s been a lot of movement, a lot of people who leave and come back. You have to ask yourself whether they’ve been exposed or not. We just don’t know.”
Saltes said he still thinks about football and remains hopeful that there will be a football season. The 6-foot-6, 285-pound tackle remains diligent with his workouts to stay in shape. Sometimes he misses virtual meetings with his offensive line teammates, but offensive line coach Jason Lenzmeier knows that Saltes has a valid excuse.
“Teton is a high character kid,” Lenzmeier said. “He has a lot on his plate. There’s a lot of things going on. A lot of kids couldn’t handle all the stuff he’s got going on, but he does. More credit to him. He’s going to be really successful in life because of those attributes.”
Lenzmeier said the Lobos will lean on Saltes in the upcoming season because of his talent and experience. Saltes is a returning starter and regarded as one of the most athletic football players on the team. He played basketball at Valley and began his Lobo career as a defensive linemen.
Saltes is a valuable player for UNM, yet Lenzmeier said he isn’t worried about the work Saltes is doing on the Pine Ridge Reservation.
“I think he’s doing what he should be doing, helping his neighbors,” Lenzmeier said. “He’s being really safe, wearing mask and gloves. I look at all the health care workers, they’re all doing what they can. We have the easiest job in the world. They asked me as a football coach to stay at home and be safe. I definitely appreciate what he’s doing. That’s just the type of guy he is.”
On the Pine Ridge Reservation, Saltes definitely stays busy. If he isn’t working out or delivering supplies, he’s helping his brother, Adonis (also a Valley alum), who owns a restaurant. Many of the employees at the restaurant are not able to work because of the strict orders to stay at home.
Saltes flips burgers and fixes other meals at the restaurant. When he clocks out, he then helps the people of his tribe.
He called the situation on the reservation, “a struggle,” especially for the children, the majority of whom relied on school meals as their main source of food.
“It’s really tough for a lot of the kids,” Saltes said. “We’re here to alleviate as much stress as we can. Not only the kids and the families, but our government workers and those who are leading the charge against the virus.”
Saltes was recognized as a “Lobo Hero,” this week by UNM Athletics, which has been putting former and current student athletes in the spotlight for their community work amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Saltes was already known for his work with his community. Last season, he was the only junior to be named a semifinalist for the Wuerffel Trophy, an award given annually to the college football player “who best combines exemplary community service with athletic and academic achievement.”
Saltes has spoken to congress on behalf of the “Save the Children Action Network,” and he has also worked on suicide prevention at Pine Ridge.
“I’m just staying busy over here,” Saltes said. “I’m still trying to stay in shape. I’m trying to keep up in the news, and seeing if the football season will be moved. Whatever happens we’ll have to adjust. When there are lives at stake, sports is put to the side because it just isn’t quite as important.”