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Canceled NM Games isn’t the way retiring Hultberg wanted to go out

Fred Hultberg, shown holding medals from the 2017 New Mexico Games, was retiring this year at the end of what he hoped would be a big event. The coronavirus instead forced the cancellation of the whole operation. (Jim Thompson/Journal file)

This was to have been a big year for the New Mexico Games.

Soccer, a sport that once rivaled basketball for participation numbers, was to be brought back after an absence of several years. In response to a request from Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller, more events for kids were being planned.

For executive director Fred Hultberg, 2020 – his 30th and final year at the helm – promised to be a satisfying conclusion to his stewardship of the state’s annual Olympic-style sports festival.

It was not to be.

In a painful concession to the realities of life, sports and business amid the coronavirus pandemic, the New Mexico Games have been canceled for this year.

The decision, Hultberg said in a phone interview, was not difficult under the circumstances. Agonizing? Yes.

It is not about him, Hultberg was quick to say, but about all the people – ages 8 to 80, or thereabouts – who’ll be deprived of the opportunity to gather and compete.

Even so, he became emotional when talking about this abrupt and unceremonious end to his tenure.

“You don’t want to go out this way,” he said. “I didn’t want to do this, that’s for darn sure. We brought soccer back, or at least I thought I did. We brought a few other sports back that we were going to do, and we were really going to go out big.

“Our numbers were going to be the biggest in a long time. Then this (the pandemic) happened. It’s just tough. It’s tougher than heck.”

Even so, Hultberg has had no second thoughts about his decision to retire. He said Andres Trujillo, owner of the New Mexico Roadrunners indoor soccer team and a New Mexico Games board member, has agreed to step in as executive director.

Hultberg said he’ll make himself available to Trujillo and the board as plans are made for 2021. Bringing the Games back, he said, will have its challenges.

“This year, we only got a couple of (new) sponsors because no one wanted to give us any money. They were broke,” he said.

“Our next board meeting is September. … September or October is when you have to go out and try to find sponsors. I don’t know how that’s gonna go.”

In May, Hultberg had announced that basketball, the Games’ signature and most popular and profitable sport, would be canceled for 2020. Baseball, swimming and track and field also were gone.

He held out hope, though, that other sports on the Games’ extensive roster could be contested. Gradually came the realization that it could not happen. Whether the issue was uncertainty about availability of facilities or the impossibility of social distancing, the message was brutally clear.

“It’s been a crazy year that I never thought I’d see in a million years,” Hultberg said. “… Boy, the (COVID-19) restrictions … I can’t get a facility. I can’t get anything.”

When Hultberg took over as executive director in 1991, the New Mexico Games were in their third year and teetering on the brink of extinction. Under his guidance, the Games became a competitive and financial success.

“I’m really proud of the Games,” he said. “We raised probably over $60 million in room nights and all the stuff that people bought when they came into town. Of course, basketball was the main thing.”

For years, 235 basketball teams competed in the Games each summer at UNM’s Johnson Center and at high school gyms around the metro area. And in peak years, there was a waiting list.

There are many, Hultberg said, to thank. Among them: Roger Knight, his former boss at Albuquerque Parks & Recreation, who recruited Hultberg to the job in ’91; countless sport commissioners; APS and the City of Albuquerque.

“It’s been fun, and I really appreciate it,” he said. “I had a good time. I really did.”

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