Football teams honor lost coach
By Susie Ouderkirk
Las Cruce Bulletin
All of southern New Mexico honored Coach Roger Grays on Saturday, Dec. 5 in a very real way. The Organ mountains stood strong, ornamented with a lush skirt of green, a testament to the abundant summer rain. The sky was that glorious (exclusively) New Mexican blue, and the Field of Dreams was a cross hatch of emerald and white. The stadium was blanketed in orange and crimson garb and ablaze with flashes of sunlight sparking off the instruments of the Centennial and Artesia High School bands. Music filled the stadium like a melodious fog, and cheering rumbled through the stands.
Of course one thing was missing. Roger Grays. Or, as he’s known to so many, Coach Rog. But all of southern New Mexico came together that day to compete, to move and run and throw and catch and cheer and to support each other and to show solidarity for a man who could have been our father, our brother, our son, our friend.
And the people who came to the game, the Class 5A New Mexico High School State Football Championship, all honored Coach Rog in the best way possible. They respected each other, the game of football, the stadium, and one man who made a difference.
Grays, 44, died Dec. 2 after sustaining injuries in an automobile accident on Nov. 26. He was a physical education teacher at Desert Hills Elementary School and the offensive line coach for the Centennial High School Hawks.
The two teams, the Artesia Bulldogs and the Hawks, were meeting for the first time. Centennial, undefeated in the season, is a new school in its fourth year of existence and was playing in its first state football championship game. Artesia, 11-1, was playing for its 29th state title.
The loss of Coach Rog affected both teams and undoubtedly dampened the spirit of the Hawk gridders, but they honored him with a clean game full of surprises, suspense, a roaring comeback and several lead changes. The band dedicated a performance of the Centennial fight song to the coach, and a moment of silence preceeded the opening kickoff.
The energy in the stands was vibrant and raucous but respectful; what you didn’t hear was foul language or hateful chants.
From my seat in the press box, I could see the Artesia team and the fans that filled the east side of the stadium. They are old pros when it comes to football, and I was keeping an eye on them, looking for signs of bad behavior and poor sportsmanship. But they were model citizens for all four quarters.
About halfway through the first quarter —the Hawks were down by two touchdowns— I heard passionate, obviously female, cheering coming from the VIP booth next to the press box. I heard two women, undoubtedly knowledeable about the game, “coaching” the troubled Hawks.
“Come ooooonnnnn,” one growled. Then a laugh as a Centennial cornerback batted a ball away from a receiver: “There you go! There you go, baby!” When Centennial held Artesia on a critical third down, one of my enthusiastic neighbors shouted, “Good job!” and applauded with vigor.
Hearing female football fans around me, I couldn’t help but want to meet them. I peeked my head into the VIP box and found two charming ladies fully engaged in the game. We introduced ourselves, and I discovered I was sharing this very special game with the mother and sister of Coach Rog. I was amazed that these two women, who had just a week before lost a son and brother, were at this game in good spirits, loving and supporting Coach Rog with a bravery I couldn’t fathom. Not only were they there in his absence, they had the strength to put aside their grief to cheer on a group of young men facing a formidable opponent without the support of one of their mentors.
Coach Rog’s mother and sister had come from Waco, Texas, and were fighting a battle of their own to honor him in a very public forum among thousands of strangers during the darkest hours of their sorrow.
“He was my only son,” his mother whispered to me. And she smiled a little. I understand now where Coach Rog got his happiness and joy.
Even though Centennial didn’t win the state championship, Coach Rog’s mother and sister made the day unforgettable. Their laughter and happy banter taught a lesson. We, as humans, have a choice: pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional. Choose to be joyful.