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Aggie Football Legend Atkins Returns To N.M.

By Randy Harrison
Journal Staff Writer
       Pervis Atkins grew up in Oakland, Calif. He’d been a Marine. He’d been on site in Nevada for testing of a nuclear bomb that, when detonated, created a flash so bright “you couldn’t see from here to there,” he says, pointing to his friend Charlie Rogers, sitting attentively on the other side of Rogers’ living room.
    All of that tested his toughness, but in no way quite like his first night at New Mexico State, nearly a half-century ago.
    Atkins was on a football recruiting visit with Bobby Gaiters, a much more heralded high school star from Ohio. Their night’s stay was in converted Army barracks moved on campus to help house an influx of students.
    At night, cows were let loose to roam right outside. The mooing all night and manure in the morning didn’t sit well with a city guy.
    “White Rocks, they called it. Boy did it stink,” he says, laughing. “I said, ‘We can’t stay here.’ ”
    But he did. Gaiters did. And Atkins, now 72, was soon to go from an unknown to one of NMSU’s greatest players ever — the nation’s leading rusher (971 yards in six games) and punt returner (15.1 yards per) in 1959; the school’s first and only first-team All-American the next year.
    “I was ‘the dog,’ ” he says, laughing.
    Atkins and, especially, then-quarterback Charley Johnson represent ties to the days New Mexico State football had its swagger, when victories over the Lobos and Miners were convincing and expected. They led both victorious Sun Bowl teams, in 1959 and 1960.
    The latter team went unbeaten and was the subject of a Sports Illustrated cover story — “The Team The Pros Watch,” Rogers recalled — for all of its NFL prospects playing in far-flung Las Cruces for Warren Woodson.
    The Aggies, alas, haven’t been back to the postseason since and currently bear the burden of the nation’s longest bowl-less streak.
    Atkins went on to play parts of six seasons with the Los Angeles Rams, Washington Redskins and the Oakland Raiders. He settled in Los Angeles after his retirement and went into the talent agency business.
    And he thought many of his athletic exploits had been forgotten until this past spring, when he was one of 75 nominees for the 2008 College Football Hall of Fame class.
    “Totally, totally it blew my hat off my head,” Atkins said. “I said, ‘Somebody’s b.s.-ing me down the road.’ ”
    He wasn’t one of this year’s eventual 13 selections — Troy Aikman and Thurman Thomas among them — but has a chance for future consideration.
    Atkins is part of the weekend revival of the Aggie Nation. Boosters met Saturday night at an athletics fund-raiser in the Albuquerque home of Larry Lujan, president CEO of Manuel Lujan Agencies and an Aggie alum.
    Today, boosters and alumni are gathered to play golf in the Fourth Annual Aggie Shootout at Rio Rancho’s Chamisa Hills Country Club. While Atkins will be golfing in a field including NMSU athletics director McKinley Boston, football coach Hal Mumme, basketball coaches Marvin Menzies and Darin Spence and the like, his friend Rogers, one of the city’s most active NMSU athletic boosters, is running the event.
    Atkins and Rogers met when Rogers was working in the school cafeteria.
    “Back then, the enrollment was 26, 28 hundred and the student body was very cohesive,” said Rogers. “Within a few weeks you felt like you knew everybody on campus.”
    It’s a friendship that has maintained through the years. The two can call each other and within minutes they’re laughing at stories of the glory days, though in their time at NMSU, the glory days were really glorious.
    “He’s my brother,” said Atkins.