CABEZON PEAK – The satellite dish on the roof gives it a modern touch, but this old house, in the shadow of 8,000-foot-high Cabezon Peak, once was a trading post and a stop on the stagecoach route.
In the distance, the tip of a local church is visible. A couple of ranches, too, but this is largely a remote and nearly unpopulated section of Sandoval County.
From this aforementioned house, where the Madrid family occasionally sleeps, it is a dozen miles back to U.S. 550, the stretch of highway that connects Interstate 25 to the Four Corners. It is a couple of miles back to skinny N.M. 279, the nearest paved road. And it is a full 70 miles from this spot to the Big I.
Standing in front of this home, it is exactly the right time to inquire of 18-year-old Ayden Madrid, a seventh-generation rancher, as to whether he’s a football player who doubles as a cowboy, or a cowboy who doubles as a football player.
The answer seems obvious even before he speaks.
“I’m a cowboy who’s a football player,” he said. “Being a cowboy has really made me a better football player, because of the work ethic it takes to be a cowboy. You’re branding cows, you’re roping, you’re riding, five hours at a time. It gives you grit.”
The Bernalillo High School senior, who has signed to play college football at Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colorado, was in a cowboy hat and boots long before he was in a helmet and cleats.
Cowboy-ing is both his life and his way of life.
“No doubt about it,” said his father, Paul Madrid. “He’s a heck of a cowboy.”
Ayden Madrid, one of the metro area’s top linebackers, who finished his senior season Friday night in Grants, is New Mexico’s state record holder for tackles in a single season, with 172 in 2019.
“He’s a phenomenal young man,” said Bernalillo High football coach John Cobos.
But football is, in a way, merely a bridge to his future, which is grounded, quite literally, in ranching. He was riding a horse, without assistance, at age 4, years before he first donned football pads.
The work never ends, and the hours of operation are more of a saying – “Can’t see to can’t see,” as Paul Madrid described them – than a clock-punching venture.
On a typical Sunday, regardless of the month – there is little or no time to watch the NFL, even during football season – Madrid saddles up a couple of his horses at the family’s sell ranch, the headquarters where they sell animals. It’s just down the road from the high school.
On this Sunday, his dog Joey at his side, Madrid loads the two horses and herds several head of cattle into his trailer, and makes the 45-minute haul to the largest of the family’s three ranches. This one spans about 40,000 acres, which is roughly the equivalent of 63 square miles. There are other ranches in Santa Fe County and Socorro County.
At this ranch, halfway between Bernalillo and Cuba, there are about 500 head of cattle. The rugged geography of the Rio Puerco Valley is far more suited to four-legged creatures than two-legged ones.
One of Madrid’s chores is to dispense cattle cubes – “It’s like candy to them,” Madrid said as he scattered the contents of a feed bag onto the ground. From behind the wheel of his silver, turbo diesel truck, he traverses dirt roads on the ranch that in certain spots do not even qualify as actual road.
Hilariously, at feeding time, when Madrid approaches a particular herd, they begin to swarm quickly and excitedly – inasmuch as that is possible for cattle – around his truck. Other cattle in the distance are alerted to feeding time by the honk of his horn, and they come a-runnin’.
“I can drive all day long and not cover the whole ranch, it’s so massive,” Madrid said. “You have to pick and choose where you want to go.”
Madrid has to occasionally mount one of his horses to bring in the stray animal or two, though not all are receptive or cooperative. Goes with the job.
“It’s fun, but it’s tough,” Madrid said of life on the ranch. “It’s a lot to manage. Work before play, that’s for sure.”
He’s grown up on ranches, and desires to someday run his own after his playing days end. Madrid also does basketball, baseball and track and field for the Spartans. He’s already played in two basketball games this week.
He was 10 when he was first asked to begin contributing to the ranch, and he often has a laundry list of chores to tend to before he even begins his day as a student.
“Honestly,” he said, “this is what I want to be for the rest of my life.”
And believe it. He is a fully functioning cowboy.
“He’s so composed, the nerves don’t hit him,” Paul Madrid said. “A lot of things we do are life and death. You’re in the pen with bulls, that’s pressure. You’re running full speed on the horse, trying to rope an 800-pound steer that can drag you off. That’s real pressure.”
Football, by contrast, doesn’t seem all that demanding for Madrid, as skilled as he is.
“When you have to wrestle a 500-pound bull calf to the ground … going head-to-head with a human being the same size as him? He’s up for that,” Paul Madrid said with a slight chuckle.
Still, one of Madrid’s first big breaks in the sport came when his father had to persuade a coach to give his young son a look, knowing full well the impression Ayden would probably make.
Suffice it to say, that coach quickly made room for Madrid, a 6-foot, 210-pounder who also played running back for Bernalillo.
“I saw something special in Ayden, all the way back to when he was an eighth grader,” Cobos said. “His work ethic, his talent, those are the things that put him at the top of the food chain as far as football players. It’s astounding.”
Madrid projects an almost unnatural maturity and focus for an 18-year-old, which serves him well in all endeavors, his father said.
“No one can believe his age when we’re working,” Paul Madrid said. “They used to nickname him The Freak. He would do things that grown men were doing, and do them well.”
He’s just as committed to precision in football.
“The biggest thing for me is, once you’re at practice, you’ve got two hours of nothing but football. Nothing else in the world matters,” he said.
Being away from his family and the ranches will be tough once he gets to college, Madrid admitted, but Durango will at least afford him the chance to indulge in his love for snowboarding.
“I’m very excited,” he said of playing collegiately. “It’s always been a dream of mine, and it’s finally coming true. All I ever wanted was the opportunity, and I got it.”
And, at least in one respect, ranching should ease the transition from high school to college.
“A calf kicks you in the leg, you ain’t gonna get that from football,” Madrid said, smiling. “It helps a lot with the pain threshold.”