ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Four months and half a century after the fact, Pervis Atkins finally apologized for hurting my feelings.
“Hey, I’m sorry,” he said.
Then, as he did often during a recent interview, he chuckled.
No, Atkins wasn’t sorry at all. Why should he be? All he did that September 1959 night was what he was supposed to do — play sensational football and lead the visiting New Mexico State Aggies to a victory over the New Mexico Lobos.
If an 11-year-old kid watching in dismay from the Zimmerman Field stands couldn’t stop crying in his cotton candy, well, welcome to the world, kid.
For Atkins, 74, this has been a winter of accolades.
Last December, the former NMSU great was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame. On March 4 at the Marriott Pyramid, he’ll become a member of the Albuquerque/New Mexico Sports Hall of Fame.
It’s all a fitting and deserved tribute to a man who twice led the nation in all-purpose yards, earned first-team All-America honors, played on a legendary unbeaten, untied NMSU team in 1960, then went on to play five years in the National Football League.
But where does the story begin?
Where it doesn’t begin, Atkins said, was where stories about great football players usually do: in high school.
Atkins graduated from Oakland (Calif.) Tech in 1953, the same year as future San Francisco 49ers quarterback John Brodie and four years behind a handsome young fellow named Clint Eastwood. Yes, Atkins played football at Oakland Tech, and then freshman ball at San Francisco State. But, no, he wasn’t a star.
“I weighed 153 pounds, or something like that,” he said. “Every now and then they’d give me the ball, and somebody would crush me. I didn’t want to play football any more; it hurt too much.”
To hear Atkins tell the story, it begins during a hitch in the Marine Corps. In the service, he gained the size, strength and speed that would make him a junior-college All-American at Santa Ana College in Tustin, Calif., in 1958. By the time he got to Las Cruces the following fall, he said, “You were gonna get the full Pervis all day long.”
And, yes, indeed, the Lobos got the full Pervis on the evening of Sept. 19, 1959.
That’s when the story begins for me.
As the Lobos lined up for the opening kickoff that night, they were facing a team that hadn’t beaten the University of New Mexico since before World War II. I don’t know if they were overconfident, but, as I took my seat in the stands next to my dad, I was.
“What’s an Aggie, anyway?” I asked my dad, half in curiosity, half in contempt.
Dad was still explaining the origins of the nickname when, on NMSU’s first play from scrimmage, Atkins bolted 56 yards for a touchdown on a reverse. The Lobos never fully recovered and lost, 29-12. Atkins finished with 164 yards on 20 carries.
For whatever reason, the Lobo-Aggie game was again played in Albuquerque in 1960 — this time at brand-spanking-new University Stadium.
Same result, only worse: Aggies 34, Lobos 0, as Atkins scored on a 65-yard punt return and a 25-yard pass from the marvelous quarterback Charley Johnson. For good measure, Atkins picked off a UNM pass while playing defensive back.
Of those days, Atkins savors the memories and is quick to share the credit.
“I was not the only talented person on the field,” he said. “I got written about, and that was nice. I appreciate that very much. But it’s your whole football team out there.”
Warren Woodson, the Aggies’ brilliant coach, took Atkins to church each Sunday in an age during which segregation was still widely practiced.
“All he did was make it a better place for all of us,” Atkins says. “… He opened his door wide.”
Atkins, who lives in Los Angeles, admits he knows little about the Albuquerque/New Mexico Sports Hall of Fame. But any hall of fame that includes Johnson — an inductee just last year — is one he’s proud to be in.
“That’s my brother,” he said of his former teammate and dear friend.
After football, Atkins went on to a career in show business, eventually opening his own talent agency. He even did a little acting, having had a recurring role in the 1970s TV series “Delvecchio,” starring Judd Hirsch.
Long before that, he had a recurring role in one young Lobo fan’s nightmares.