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Artesia braces for a season without its beloved prep football

On Friday, minutes before what would normally be game day for the start of high school football at Artesia High School the Bulldog Bowl’s lights are out and the stands are empty. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

ARTESIA – It is Friday, 7 p.m. Opening Night. The tailgaters have filtered in and taken their seats. The season ticket holders, giddy with anticipation to get things started, are in place. The student body is ready. The band and the cannon, too. Inside Bulldog Bowl, arguably New Mexico’s most famous football venue, it is a sea of orange as the bitter Eddy County War rivalry game against Carlsbad kicks off. It is, at last, football season. Except, it isn’t.

“This,” 1978 Artesia graduate and former Bulldog football player Randy Bristow said, “is gonna be the saddest year in history.”

Indeed, this was to be opening weekend of the 2020 prep football season.

But Friday night lights are, for the first time, going dark this fall, and the prep football community, not surprisingly, is in a sour mood. Friday was to be the first game for most schools in New Mexico, including Carlsbad-Artesia, one of the state’s most celebrated rivalries. This calendar year will be the first since 1977 that they don’t play one another.

And in Artesia, where the home school has won 30 state championships and where you find possibly the strongest symbiotic relationship between an individual team and its home city anywhere in New Mexico, the silence cuts bone deep.

“Given our history, it’s the heart and soul of our town,” senior receiver Braxton McDonald said. “You really feel a city’s love for the game.”

There was, in a sense, football to be found on this particular Friday night. Local radio station KSVP, which broadcasts Artesia football, aired a replay of the Bulldogs’ 2017 game against Carlsbad. For the next nine Fridays, the station will rebroadcast a past game against the school that the Bulldogs were scheduled to play that particular night.

It’s not the same, but for some, getting an audio fix of retro Artesia football certainly beats no football at all.

“This is who they follow, the Artesia Bulldogs,” athletic director and legendary former football coach Cooper Henderson said. “I think people are having a hard time, because it’s a big part of our identity.”

What to do

Artesians, and not just football players, are faced with an odd and depressing decision: how to fill their time on a Friday night when there’s no football as an outlet – and how to handle, in general, this most upsetting of years that has been largely at the mercy of the coronavirus.

Asked about how he’d spend the evening, “Probably, I’ll just sit at home on the back porch, listen to music and watch the sunset,” said a melancholy Micah Foster, 43, who has lived in Artesia since he was 16 and has had two sons recently go through the Artesia football program. “I knew about the Bulldogs before I even knew where my roots were.”

Bulldog Pride Screen-printing, on 13th Street, is a retail store that sells Artesia High School gear. Normally on the Thursday and Friday leading up to a home game, it flies a bright orange Artesia flag outside the front door and has a steady stream of traffic.

On this Friday afternoon, not so much.

“It’s just crazy,” store owner Corinna Herrera said. “Artesia is a town that will follow the team, whether they have a child who plays or not. As soon as (kids) are talking, they’ll tell you they’re a Bulldog.”

Driving west on Main Street from U.S. 285, there is a sprinkling of those familiar orange flags planted in the sidewalks on both sides of the street.

There is also one in front of Henry’s Barbecue, where Artesia’s football players normally gather on Friday afternoons for a team meal. They walk en masse down the street from the football fieldhouse to a restaurant that is closed to all other business as the team eats. Then they walk back to the stadium to rest and prepare for kickoff.

“It’s just sad,” said Henry’s employee Rachel Aguilar. “A lot of kids are struggling. They can’t be at school, and they want to play with their friends.”

Artesia’s high school students are remote learning. And for now, they are prohibited from any team-oriented workouts.

Many longtime residents here are angry, specifically at Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, for removing football from the high school sports calendar this year.

“It just ain’t right,” said Jimmy Mason, who owns Bennie’s Western Wear on Main Street and who has two sons, Clay and Glenn, who were part of state championship football teams in Artesia. “This virus is a bad deal, but these kids … if anyone should be able to handle it … .”

Staying the course

The New Mexico Activities Association this summer approved a maximum of seven regular-season games to be played starting the first weekend in March next year, with state finals in the larger classes scheduled for early May.

Some coaches in the state have expressed deep concerns about players having too much idle time – both in these summer months and the quiet months ahead.

“I think people need people in their lives,” Henderson said. “I worry about the long-term (implications) of us not being in school.”

Other administrators in Artesia share that point of view, although they said they believe the community, including the student body, will emerge from the crisis as strong as ever.

“It didn’t take long for this community to show its resilience,” said Artesia Superintendent J.R. Null, “and continue to be optimistic and positive about the opportunity to play in the spring.

“I believe the anxiety people are experiencing right now will make that first game as exciting as ever,” he added.

Null said administrators, coaches and staff are reaching out to students to maintain as much in-person or face-to-face dialogue as they can, to ensure that they engage their students and fill some of their void.

“Certainly, the value of athletics is extremely important, whether it’s football or any other sport,” said Mike Phipps, former Artesia football coach (1974-83) and later superintendent. “Kids not being able to experience that is a tremendous loss.”

One of the roles of current Bulldogs coach Rex Henderson’s is to work with his athletes electronically, which is about all he can do right now given current NMAA restrictions as they relate to football. But he, like Null, admires the way football players are adapting, even as he acknowledges their confusion and disappointment.

And that even applies to the head coach, as Henderson tries to fathom a fall in Artesia without football.

“I don’t know that I’ve wrapped my head around it yet,” he said. “Maybe I’m crazy, but I think once it’s time to play football, I think it’ll feel the same.”

The future

For now, stadiums across the state will remain empty, and thus the realization that there won’t be games this fall is beginning to seep into everyone’s veins.

“The community, as a whole, shuts down on a Friday night,” Artesia senior quarterback Cord Cox said.

The first day of scheduled practice is Feb. 22 – coincidentally, that is six months from Saturday.

“It’s strange, honestly,” said Artesia dentist Katelyn Gunn-Buckles. “We’re all a little bit discouraged.”

But the town is adapting as best it can, said Mason.

“We’ve taken it a lot better than I thought we would,” he said.

Eventually, Bulldog Bowl will be filled again. And high above Mack Chase Field, there are 30 footballs, each representing a state championship season, painted in orange on the east side of the press box, sort of inanimate sentinels watching over what is New Mexico’s most recognizable high school sports program.

But this year, at 7 p.m. on what should have been opening night, Bulldog Bowl was silent and inactive. The only living beings inside the entire venue at that hour were a few birds camped out atop the stadium press box, looking out over the field.

Seems everyone is missing football.

“It’s a special time in these kids’ lives that you can’t recapture,” Mason said. “These seniors, they are the kings of the mountain. And there’s no mountain.”

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