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COLUMN: There’s no football now, so let’s revisit the past

RIO RANCHO, N.M. — If we weren’t going through this pandemic, in the Aug. 23 issue of the Observer you’d be reading about No. 1 Cleveland High’s Friday night victory over visiting Centennial.

How did quarterback Jeff Davison do? How about Tre Watson and Trey Ortega? Did the offensive line give Davison enough protection? How about the defense — any sacks?

You wouldn’t be reading about Rio Rancho High School’s trip to Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff to face Willow Canyon High, out of Surprise, Ariz. That game was to be played yesterday, and I’d be headed home after spending the night in “Flag.”

Instead, football fans, we’ll wait till March for the start of the 2020 season; at least, that’s the plan for now. Stay tuned — everything’s in flux.

Since it seems likely the ACC, SEC and Big-12 football conferences’ teams will be playing games this fall, the success or failure — by COVID-19 stats — could lead to what happens next for “contact sports.”

I think the last time I wasn’t at a high school football game as a reporter or broadcaster was back in 1978, when I was working what turned out to be a one-year gig as a Realtor. (I even went to real estate school.)

This all got me thinking — something you can easily do while social distancing — about some other football seasons and some unusual (for me) games and outcomes.

1979: My first year of covering high school sports. I was new to the Valencia County News-Bulletin and, like today, had other beats (cops, city council) to cover. I had two teams then: Belen and Los Lunas. Former Lobo Rex Henington was BHS’s head coach; Randy Castillo (I believe) led the LLHS Tigers. By the way, I was also the sports director at KARS-AM, and did play-by-play on numerous games; there were times then when the only way you’d know what happened, if you weren’t at the game, was either by listening to KARS, reading the next week’s News-Bulletin — or checking out a small story in the Albuquerque Journal, where I got my first byline there as a free-lancer. In most of my radio gigs, I was working alone, having to keep stats as the game progressed. (I still use the same scoresheets today.)

Also that season, in a non-Valencia County contest, I visited Mountainair, found a few sponsors willing to pony up a few bucks to air commercials, and on a Friday, drove to a school then known as Navajo Prep. I handled the entire nearly three-hour broadcast, reading the commercial spot, in what turned out to be an 80-0 victory for Mountainair. I was paid $25 for all that work, and that was negated by a speeding ticket I got from a state cop after stopping for lunch at a restaurant in Cuba.

1982: Then competing in District 2AAAA with the likes of Del Norte, Eldorado, Valley, Rio Grande, Cibola and Manzano, Belen won five of its six district games and was poised for the postseason.

But only the top two teams were advanced to the playoffs, and Del Norte and Eldorado also went 5-1 in their district games. After a vote — notice the other teams were APS schools — the Eagles were left out.

Hold the (rotary-dial) phone: Belen took the matter to court and was awarded a playoff berth. Drop that phone: Carlsbad came to the Hub City and ended the championship hopes with a 36-15 victory in what was one of two pre-playoff games; Del Norte also lost a pre-playoff.

1986 (or ’87): In another radio/newspaper game, this time covering a Los Lunas game vs. Mayfield at Aggie Memorial Stadium — a blowout win by the Trojans, then in a new district (3AAAA) with Las Cruces, Gadsden, Eldorado, Cibola, Manzano and the Tigers. I cannot remember details from the game, only that after I had all my radio gear packed up, I was the last one to leave the stadium and literally had to drop the box over the chain-link fence, then climb over it.

1989 (or ’90): In a rare opportunity, as a free-lance play-by-play guy, a radio station in Grants asked me to cover the Pirates’ playoff game in distant Lovington.

I said I would and drove there, setting up my gear before hearing the Grants bus had a flat tire or other problem and would be arriving two hours late. Having never been to Lovington before (or since), I went out for a walk to see the sights. When I returned to the pressbox, I discovered they’d packed my gear and given my spot to someone else. How could this be? After hearing my protest, they let me broadcast the game from ground level in one of the end zones. I’d have to watch the scoreboard to figure how many yards were gained or lost, especially when the guy with the ball was moving laterally — and that’s not easy.

That may have been the epic nightmare of my broadcasting days. Lovington shut out the Pirates that afternoon.

1997: Hello, Rio Rancho. Working a handful of part-time jobs, I was covering prep football games often as a “stringer” for the Albuquerque Journal. (Interestingly, to me at least, is the fact that I’ve had bylines in the Journal every year, from 1979-2020.) In the ’97 season, which was the first for the Rams, I covered three of their games: a 27-20 loss to Rio Grande at Milne Stadium; a 19-0 loss at Albuquerque Academy (my notes mentioned RRHS never crossed midfield); and a 49-21 loss to New Mexico Military Institute in a game played at Albuquerque Academy. (In retrospect, I guess I could have left out the word “loss,” because the Rams went 0-10 that season.

1998: Still stringing for the Journal, I was assigned two Rams games: Their initial homecoming (dubbed “Coming Home”) game, a 28-18 loss to Moriarty at Bernalillo High School, still the Rams’ home field; and a 37-3 loss to Cibola at Milne Stadium.

1999: I only covered one Rams’ game that season, and, coincidentally, it was where this all began: at Belen. Who to pull for?

Still seven months away from becoming the sports editor at the Observer, I was pulling for a win by the Eagles. It didn’t happen; I finally saw RRHS win a game, this time a hard-fought 14-7 outcome in which the Rams’ defense surrendered only 111 yards.

2000: Hello again, Rio Rancho. I’m on the western sideline at Rio Rancho Stadium, this time working for the Observer, and covering what became my first of 90-plus consecutive RRHS games. Final score: Rams 21, Kirtland Central 14. In a weird coincidence harkening back to 1982, the Rams face — and lose at — Carlsbad in a first-rounder. Coincidence 2: The Cavemen’s coach is a guy named Kirk Potter; his name comes up next.

2009: Watch out for a brewing Storm — and, hello, Cleveland High. I’m in the east end zone when Garret Hayes plunges in for the Storm’s first TD in their inaugural game, a 49-6 trouncing of the host Jaguars at Capital High in Santa Fe. Potter’s the coach, and although the Storm miss the postseason with a 5-5 record, better days lie only two seasons ahead.

2011: I’m at the Field of Dreams for the Storm’s 48-28 comeback win over host Mayfield. I’ll never forget Reece White catching a pass from eventual Gatorade winner Cole Gautsche and racing down the east sideline for a TD, as the Storm shut out the Trojans, 34-0, in the second half. It’s only the Storm’s third season, and by the way they’ve played since then, it wasn’t a fluke. Goodbye, coach Potter; welcome, coach Heath Ridenour.

The Rams’ Frankie Morlock ran for 49 yards on this carry vs. Goddard … unfortunately, a loss for RRHS.

Cleveland High opened in 2009, and I’m almost back where I started, less a radio gig: two local teams to cover — and I should have been at those teams’ openers Friday and Saturday.

There have been too many great memories since the ’09 debut of the Storm to list here; suffice it to say, Cleveland has three state titles and the Rams have two. And there was really no better way to end last season than having them meet in the 6A championship game at RRHS.

And I’ll be back in Los Lunas on March 3, when the Storm open the 2020 campaign: Coincidence or psychic phenomenon? You be the judge.

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