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Retro Lobo football: Perkins-, Levy-led ’59 UNM team finished with stirring win

When last we visited the 1959 New Mexico Lobos, they were losing 29-12 to downstate rival New Mexico State in their season opener.

The following Saturday, they lost 14-9 at Colorado State.

But things got better thereafter – so much better that the ’59 Lobos’ season-ending, 28-27 upset of Air Force checks in at No. 5 on our list of all-time most memorable UNM football games.

Here’s why:

After the loss to CSU, the Lobos, buoyed by one of the nation’s most prolific rushing attacks, reeled off six straight victories.

Each UNM opponent had no choice but to key on right halfback Don Perkins, an

Don Perkins, who starred as a New Mexico Lobo from 1957-59, went on to a sterling eight-year career as a fullback with the Dallas Cowboys. (Journal file)

Iowa native who’d established himself the previous two seasons as among college football’s best. The focus on Perkins allowed junior-college transfer Billy Brown and Highland High graduate Bob Crandall, who shared the left halfback spot, to run wild.

Brown rushed for 740 yards that season and led the nation with a 7.8-yard average per carry. Crandall finished with 729 yards. Had they been one person, they would have led the nation in rushing by almost 500 yards.

Perkins, meanwhile, finished his senior year with 636 yards, giving him a school and Skyline Conference career mark of 2,001. Fullback Bo Bankston added 385 yards. As a team, UNM averaged better than 5 yards per attempt.

On Nov. 14, though, that six-game win streak had come crashing to a bitter end. Despite a 90-yard touchdown return by Perkins of the second-half kickoff, the 16th-ranked Wyoming Cowboys beat the Lobos 25-20 with a late 78-yard touchdown pass.

Then came the season finale against Air Force, a team that had outscored UNM 86-7 the previous two years.

In 1958, the most successful Falcons team of all time (9-0-2, ranked sixth in the nation) had routed the Lobos 45-7 at Zimmerman Field, with many Air Force fans from Sandia and Kirtland Air Force bases there to cheer on the visitors.

Perkins, who’d come into the game with a foot injury, managed just 1 net yard on four carries before aggravating the injury and being carried off.

As many UNM fans got up to leave before the game was over, with the outcome long since decided, a 10-year-old Lobo fan in attendance heard one of the Air Force faithful say – somewhat snottily – “Well, you’d think they’d stay to support their team.”

The 1959 Air Force team wasn’t quite the equal of the ’58 version, but the Falcons still entered the Nov. 21 game against UNM – played in Denver, not Colorado Springs – with a 6-2-1 record. They’d spanked Wyoming, the same team that had just beaten the Lobos, 20-7 earlier in the year. They’d beaten UCLA.

Thus, it appeared UNM was staring down the barrel of a 6-4 season – not at all representing the talent the Lobos possessed and what they’d accomplished in coach Marv Levy’s second season as head coach.

And when Air Force star quarterback Rich Mayo drove the Falcons to a 14-0 second-quarter lead, the issue seemed all but settled. Two UNM fumbles, one deep in Lobo territory, the other by Perkins at the Air Force 6-yard line, set up the Air Force scores.

New Mexico struck back on a 5-yard Perkins touchdown run, but a 28-yard Mayo TD pass made it 21-7 Falcons at halftime.

The Lobos, though, sprang to life in the second half. A 1-yard Crandall run, a 64-yard Perkins TD on a screen pass from quarterback Chuck Roberts and another 5-yard Perkins TD run gave UNM a 28-21 lead.

Mayo rallied the Falcons with a 23-yard touchdown pass late in the fourth quarter. But Air Force coach Ben Martin opted for a 2-point conversion and the win – there would be no overtime in college football until the 1990s – and Mayo’s well-defended pass found nothing but grass.

Air Force, forcing a UNM punt, got one last opportunity. But Roberts intercepted a Mayo pass at midfield, and victory was UNM’s.

For Perkins, it was a fitting end to a sterling college career. The future Dallas Cowboy Ring of Honor inductee rushed 22 times for 126 yards, returned four kickoffs for 116 yards and scored three touchdowns. Days later, he was named the Associated Press Back of the Week.

And about those so-called faithless Lobo fans: that night, a crowd estimated at 5,000 greeted the Lobos at the airport upon their return to Albuquerque.

“Football Coach Marv Levy and halfback Don Perkins never touched the

Marv :Levy, University of New Mexico head football coach in 1959 (UNM photo)

ground,” the Albuquerque Journal reported. “Fans crowded around the plane when the doors opened and hoisted Levy and Perkins on their shoulders. Other team members were carried off the runway on the shoulders of happy fans.”

Levy told the gathering that he’d never doubted his team would rally from the 21-7 deficit.

“I never saw a team more determined or confident that they could still gain a victory,” he said. “Right then I knew we could win it.”

Perkins went on to rush for 6,217 yards during his eight-year career in Dallas. He’s a member of both the New Mexico and Texas sports halls of fame. Now 82, he lives in Albuquerque.

Levy, 95, left UNM after the 1959 season to take the job at California, eventually winding up with the Buffalo Bills and taking them to four consecutive Super Bowls. He was inducted in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2001.

The Lobos and the Falcons, meanwhile, have met 37 times in football. Air Force leads the series, 23-14.

That thrilling victory in 1959, though, will always belong to UNM.

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