That championship season
October 12, 2022
The Snake Pit arena at Tucumcari High School contains dozens of banners commemorating various titles its teams have won over the decades.
On the south wall of the gym, one stands out. It is a blown-up team photo of the 2002 football team. Amid the identifying text is a line in yellow script: "New Mexico State Champions."
Twenty years ago, the Rattlers were in the middle of an eventual run for a state title. The team suffered setbacks and didn't even win their district. But the Rattlers qualified for the playoffs, kept winning, and upset a heavily favored Santa Rosa team 10-9 for the championship in what is believed to have been the largest crowd ever at Rattler Stadium.
Several coaches and players from that team were interviewed for this article. Contemporary accounts in the Quay County Sun from the season also were used.
Sam Nunn, the team's quarterback and linebacker who now lives in Texas, said a seed for a championship was planted several years before with the arrival of coach Dub Smith and a group of players tired of losing.
"We'd been a ragtag crew ever since I'd been there, never had much success," Nunn recalled. "When I was a freshman, we had a group of seniors that had been beat around for three years that decided, 'We're not going to do this crap anymore. We're tired of being losers,' and they had a coach who had the same attitude."
In 2000, Tucumcari was undefeated until it lost on the last play of a controversial state-championship game at Eunice. Players and coaches still express dismay over that loss.
In 2001, the Rattlers suffered injuries to seven or eight starters, plus two key players who moved away, and never got going.
AJ Molinas, an offensive guard and defensive tackle on the 2002 team who lives in Louisiana, said he felt confident "we had something special" about that upcoming season.
"We had a bunch of returning starters on the line, both on offense and defense," he said. "And we had good, second-string type players who could come in and give us a break when we were tired or got hurt."
Wayne Ferguson, line coach and offensive coordinator for the Rattlers in 2002 who now is athletic director, said the team had another intangible.
"The team bonded more that year," he said. "The previous two years, we had some internal issues."
The Rattlers looked like a powerhouse the first half of the 2002 season. They crushed Menaul, Questa, Espanola, Raton and Cuba by a combined score of 201-10.
Playing against a Texico team at its homecoming, Tucumcari ran into trouble. The Rattlers committed six turnovers and lost 25-15.
Molinas said the shock of the loss helped reset the team.
"It was one of those deals where it was a reality check and humbled us a little bit," he said.
Smith, now in his 80s, took responsibility.
"Our alignment wasn't what it should have been," he recalled. "On Monday, I was determined not to chew the kids out. I knew we were a better ballclub than what we showed against Texico and just needed to correct our mistakes."
Tucumcari rebounded with a 54-22 win over Laguna and prevailed 19-6 over Clayton.
The Rattlers faced Santa Rosa for the district championship, and Tucumcari lost 40-21. Rattlers running back Jonathan Reno, a 1,300-yard rusher that season, also was hurt.
Tucumcari again had to regroup.
"The team thought I was going to chew them out because it was a big rivalry," Smith recalled. "I told them we made a few mistakes and should have won the game.
"I told them we could either fold and the season was going to be over, or we were going to be determined ... to win a state championship."
John Span, who coached the Rattlers' receivers and defensive backs at the time, said the senior-laden Lions overwhelmed their opponents.
"That year against Santa Rosa, every game was over by the half. They just beat teams so bad," he said.
Tucumcari finished its regular season with a 26-19 comeback win over Albuquerque Academy and qualified for the playoffs.
The Rattlers handled Lordsburg 22-6 in the first round, then squeaked by Estancia 28-27 in the semifinal by stopping a two-point conversion.
"They had a big guy at running back, and it seemed like forever before the refs blew the whistle," Span recalled Estancia's two-point try. "If he would have fallen over the line, we would have lost."
The big game
For the title game, Rattler coaches knew they would have to take a different approach in their rematch against Santa Rosa and its single-wing offense.
"What we wanted to do was get them in a close game and see how they respond to it," Span said. "They hadn't had any close games at all that year. We had close games."
Ferguson said the staff sought to narrow the field against the Lions.
"We adjusted the defense a little bit different than what we did in the district with alignment and who had what assignments," he recalled. "We bottled them up pretty good, took away their outside attack and made them funnel everything inside towards Sam Nunn and some of our bigger players. We knew if we could slow Santa Rosa down, it would frustrate them."
Nunn said he'd played against Santa Rosa since eighth grade and knew its tendencies.
"I got all the linebackers off to the side during that week of practice and coached them up pretty good," he recalled. "Their offense wasn't that difficult to defend. It was just getting enough bodies to jam it up and make the tackle."
The morning of the game, Nunn realized he had forgotten to take home his lucky gym shorts. He dashed in his pickup truck to the school.
"Luckily, there was an administrator in the building for some reason and let me in," he recalled. "I ran down the hall, put on my shorts and left with them on."
Later, while driving to the locker room, Nunn said he was irked to find a Santa Rosa fan had taken his usual parking space.
"It lit a fuse, which turned out to be a good thing," he said. "I remember saying, 'We're about to beat these guys. We got this.' I was fired up, and I think it fueled the other guys."
All those interviewed remarked about the electric atmosphere of the game. It drew 4,211, a record for an AA title game.
Extra bleachers were brought in, and fans lined both sides of the field. Trucks placed chairs on flatbed trailers so fans could watch the game over the fence. A plane flew over the field with a banner that read, "GO RATTLERS WIN STATE."
"It was absolutely crazy. It was chaos," Molinas said of what he saw at Rattler Stadium. "It was filled like no other, I can promise you that."
"The noise was unbelievable," Nunn said. "I remember standing out there in the huddle, waiting for a play to come in, and seeing the bleachers looking like they were moving three to four feet. I thought those old bleachers were going to go."
Nunn said he also saw several players from Tucumcari's 1959 state-champ team.
"They obviously didn't live there anymore, but they came back for that game. It was good to see that," he said.
Tucumcari placekicker Bernie Banuelos kicked a field goal and an extra point after a Pablo Pacheco touchdown. That PAT proved to be the difference; Santa Rosa's placekicker missed his extra-point attempt.
On third down and 4 and nursing a one-point lead with less than two minutes left, the Rattlers needed a first down to keep the ball out of the Lions' hands.
Freshman running back Eric Holt almost demanded the coaches give him the ball, saying he would get the first down.
Span saw the logic to Holt's plan but admired his audacity.
"We knew they were keying on our other two running backs," Span said, smiling, "but this is a state-championship game, and freshman says, 'Gimme the ball, coach. I can get a first down.'"
Holt got the first down. When the clock ticked down to zero, Tucumcari fans stormed the field in celebration.
"It was one of the greatest feelings you'll ever have, especially with the guys I'd been sweating with and practicing with for years," Molinas said.
After the loss two years before at Eunice, Nunn said he didn't quite believe he'd won.
"Because of that experience I had, it took me probably an hour after the buzzer before it set in," Nunn said. "Finally, the reality was, 'We did it; it really happened.'"
Days later, Tucumcari took up 17 spots on the 2AA all-district team.
In addition to the big team photo in the Snake Pit, the 2002 season still is commemorated with a special T-shirt that hangs on a wall of Tucumcari City Hall.
Smith was fired as THS football coach in 2008 and later retired. He splits his time between a cabin near Las Vegas and a townhouse in Lubbock, Texas.
"I coached in Texas for 32 years, but I have say those 10 years in Tucumcari, I wouldn't trade them for anything," Smith said.