When my friend Jimmy (aka Big Bad Wolf) asked me, a dyed-in-the-wool Aggie, to contribute to his book on Lobo athletics he gave me a simple admonition. "Write anything, as long as it mentions the Lobos." Well, here goes.
Growing up in Las Cruces, then living in Southern California for a year where my dad Jerry got an MS at USC, the family had moved to Albuquerque in 1950. There, my dad introduced me to Lobo athletics. I was a little brat of seven and in awe of college athletes.
A 1926 graduate of NM A&M and a good athlete in both football and basketball, Jerry had coached those two sports and served as athletic director at A&M from 1929-40. In fall 1940, his NM National Guard Unit, the 120th Combat Engineers, was mobilized for active duty with the 45th Division (that included Bill Mauldin) in the build up before WWII. After service in Africa, Sicily, and Italy, he returned to coach the Aggies for one year in 1947, but a bad heart developed in Italy prevented him from coaching after that.
My own career as an athlete never materialized, because as a kid of three I had fallen out of a moving car near Old Mesilla – sustaining what the doctors thought was a brain aneurysm. While this was probably a wrong diagnosis, my head developed a troubling, pulse-like hum actually audible to others, and to me, every night on the bed pillow. The humming lasted for a decade and then, strangely, went away when I was about 14. The doctors and Jerry forbade me from competitive team sports (football
was out entirely) through my sophomore year at Highland High in Albuquerque.
Jerry knew everyone in the Lobo athletic department in the early 50s, but had a special friendship with the legendary Roy Johnson, a man who held every coaching position imaginable at UNM. Besides their coaching battles, the two friendly rivals had been active together in pre-WWII days in National Guard summer camps at posts like Camp Montezuma, Fort Bliss, and Fort Hood. When we met Roy once in '52 or ‘53 before a Lobo football game at Zimmerman Field (located just east of present-day Carlisle Gym), Jerry kidded him about an incident from one summer camp. Seems that Roy, a gentle brute of a man, had gotten annoyed at a balking mule during a field exercise. Surrounded by tugging, shoving soldiers the mule absolutely refused to move. Johnson walked up, reared back and slugged the unfortunate beast in the jaw. The mule went down, but quickly got up, quivered a bit, and regained its senses. It was very cooperative thereafter.
I vividly recall sitting, freezing cold in the chill wind, in the west steel-bottomed grandstand at Zimmerman Field, cheering Lobo football teams that featured players like Larry White and Chuck Hill. When excitement reigned, the fans would stomp in unison on the steel, the effect like rumbling thunder. In the ‘50s under coaches Dudley DeGroot, Bob Titchenal, Dick Clausen and Marv Levy, I especially remember ‘Jitterbug' Joe Gale, Phil Spear, Porky Leyba, John Garber, A. L. Terpening, Bob Crandall, Chuck Roberts, and above all, the great Don Perkins. Our gang of buddies from Jefferson Junior High and later Highland High included Jim Zanios, Rick Johnson, Chuck Whitfield (brother Jim was a fine Lobo track athlete) and John La Faver. We were enthralled by Lobo football and idolized Perkins. We missed very few games during a four year period in the late 1950s. John and I would later become Aggies, Jim a Red Raider fullback and owner of Zanios Foods in Albuquerque, Chuck a WNMU graduate land baron in Silver City, and Rick a Lobo and owner of the highly successful Rick Johnson ad agency.
Our gang had taken to sneaking into Zimmerman by various means, including one grounded in the obscure science of speleology. We infiltrated several games via the steam-utility tunnels that ran under the UNM campus. It was a strange, dark and hissy world down there, but pleasantly warm and exciting. With a dim flashlight and a keen sense of feel, we somehow avoided being scalded or electrocuted by the myriad pipes and cables. Dropping into the tunnel through a manhole a block away, we navigated to another opening inside Zimmerman under the bleachers south of the main western grandstand. Surfacing like rats from a sewer, we made it to the running track that surrounded the field, and then to the student bleachers on the east side. There we jumped the front railing and sat among the Lobo students on the 50-yard line, acting like we belonged. We joined in and became adept at the student card stunts that were a big half-time attraction to the town folks who viewed from the west grandstand.
While Lobo basketball was not nearly as popular as football in the early ‘50s, Jerry took brother Jimbo and me to many games at Carlisle Gym. The crowds were sparse and it was easy to get a front row seat right under the basket. With the bottoms torn out of paper drink cups, we made small megaphones and pleaded for the Lobos to "Give it to Toby." Toby Roybal, the handsome ‘Caballero' from northern New Mexico, was a jump-shooting wizard and a bonafide star on an otherwise mediocre Lobo team. No matter the score, we loved Toby and had great fun at the games.
A few years later after entering Jefferson Junior High in 1956, I and one of our Zimmerman gang (who shall remain nameless to protect his honor) began going to Lobo basketball games at Carlisle Gym. At first, Jerry would bring us by car. But later, when I got a red Cushman Pacemaker motor scooter, we came on our own. We would avoid Jerry as it was not cool for junior high men on the prowl for chics to be seen with a parent. We never scored any chics at those Lobo games, but we did learn something of the female anatomy -- a subject in which we were keenly curious, but deeply apprehensive and ignorant.
The bleachers at Carlisle were retractable. When pulled out for games, they were about 20 rows high. The space underneath was a labyrinth of metal framework, but one that could be negotiated by traveling parallel to the rows directly below the seats. Discovering that coins and other booty would fall to the floor beneath the bleachers, we took to exploring. One night while underneath, the national anthem was played. God, what a revelation! When the ladies stood, we had a view right up their dresses! We had no idea what we were actually seeing, what with the dim light and the various folds and tucks of flesh and fabric. But our teenage imaginations ran wild. This must be the coveted ‘promised land,' we assured ourselves. Soon we were under the bleachers for the playings of Hail New Mexico, and the looking improved because the ladies were more animated and ‘things' jiggled delightfully.
After a few games, we grew tired of just looking. We wanted to probe a bit, create some action on our own terms. We were ready, hunkered below for the Lobo fight song at the start of the next game. We had peashooters and a handful of ammunition. ‘Thuuup… rattle-rattle… splat", went the peas. Then shrill female screams and foot stomping, and us laughing hysterically, followed by a thundering male voice and a scowling face looking down. "Goddamnit. Who's under there." We ran like the wind for the front door, a chubby cop in feeble pursuit -- then around back, on to the scooter, a quick kick start, and away like Zorro fleeing in the night.
How did I finally become an Aggie fan after my formative years as a Lobo? It happened a few years later in 1959. It may have been Don Perkins' last year. Zanios and I were on the red scooter on the way to the last Lobo-Aggie football game played at Zimmerman Field. Telling jokes, singing, and otherwise acting like dimwits, I lost concentration and control of the scooter on curvy Monte Vista Boulevard. We hit the curb, the scooter went down, and I skidded along the asphalt on my chest, coming to rest with Jim on my back. A passerby in a jeep who witnessed the debacle took us to the emergency room at Bernalillo County Medical Center where our wounds were scrubbed with surgical soap and slathered with iodine. I will never forget the pain! The doctor took ten stitches to close the gash on my chin. Jim escaped with a lacerated hand and a scraped knee.
Heavily bandaged and a little shaken, we were not to be deterred. We made the game before kickoff time. Unbeknownst to me, but known to Jerry who was still an Aggie insider, Warren Woodson's 1959 team was loaded. It featured the ‘Dream Backfield' of future NFL players, Charley Johnson, Pervis Atkins, Bob Gaiters, the great tight end from Carlsbad, Bob Kelly, and a quick, mobile line that ran the sweep very well. Atkins ran wild that night, scoring on a wingback reverse on one of the first offensive plays. I had never seen anyone move that fast on a football field. The game ended 29-12, Aggies. Jim and I were heart broken. Our Lobos had lost!
But the Aggie team was fun to watch. The victories mounted, and by the end of the year my loyalties had shifted to my future alma mater. NMSU was in the Sun Bowl against North Texas State and Abner Haynes, and returned the next year against Utah State and Merlin Olsen. Several of our original Zimmerman gang joined me in El Paso for those Sun Bowl games, more unmentionable teenage foolery, and partying in Juarez. The marimba bar at the Manhattan Club could play any college fight song in the U.S. Cheap tequila and Waikiki No. 2 beckoned.
But that's another story.