When Woodson arrived in the spring of 1958, he could find only eight boys whom he considered proper material. He had only 35 football scholarships, and there was no money for more. But Woodson has long been known as a most compelling recruiter. By the fall, he had a respectable team. It was made up of a few leftovers, several transfers—and 25 freshmen. Border Conference rules allow freshmen to play varsity sports and these were good freshmen. They won four games, lost three others by a touchdown or less, and New Mexico State was on its way.
Woodson has one weakness as a coach—defense bores him. However, when he came to New Mexico State he conceded that some defense might be necessary. Accordingly, he hired Tom Moulton to coach the line; next year he hired Paul Alley to work with the ends; this past summer he hired Howard White to coach the defensive backs. As a result, New Mexico State began to show progress on defense last year, and the progress has been respectably sustained this year.
But New Mexico State still lacks depth, and it must score quickly and often to win. The boys who have been scoring quickly and often for the last two years are Gaiters and Atkins. Both came together from Santa Ana ( Calif.) Junior College with big reputations, and the reason they picked New Mexico State was a man named Harry Skinner, an alumnus ('37) who had a business in Los Angeles and a son playing on that same Santa Ana team. "Man," says Gaiters, who was raised in Zanesville, Ohio, "we didn't know where it was, but we went." "You went," says Atkins. "I just followed along." For four days after they arrived in Las Cruces, Atkins kept his bags packed, just inside the dormitory door, trying to talk Gaiters into going back to southern California. It was well for Pervis Atkins that he decided to stay.
In Woodson's offense, the left half—or tailback, as Woodson calls him—runs with the football approximately half the time. The right half, or wingback, does what Atkins did so well against Arizona State—catches passes, acts as a decoy and blocker and only rarely carries the ball. Gaiters went to tailback at New Mexico State and Atkins to wingback. It was a logical choice, for Gaiters can run like an angry bull. He has unusual starting speed and is in full flight after two quick strides; he is not particularly elusive but he will run around people or over them without worrying much about the choice.
Running, however, is all that Gaiters can do. Atkins, on the other hand, is faster, more elusive and almost as strong, a perfect tailback type. He has wonderful acceleration in an open field. But Atkins is also an exceptional pass receiver and a good blocker, and Woodson needed those talents out on the wing. " Atkins is the best college football player in the country," said Coach Bobby Dobbs of Tulsa.
Gaiters, who was married last summer ( Atkins was best man), is the clown of the Aggie team, the joker, the funny guy who keeps everyone relaxed, a happy football player who laughs as he runs with the ball. He is not a particularly good student, but he gets by, and Gaiters is not a man to worry about grades—or anything else.
Atkins is an intensely serious young man who spent three years in the Marine Corps before playing football at Santa Ana JC. He is studying criminology at New Mexico State and after graduation plans to mix probationary work in Los Angeles with a pro football career. Last summer he worked at a Southern California institution for delinquent children and has helped out at a Las Cruces youth commission. But all life is not serious with Pervis Atkins; he has a great love for music, particularly modern jazz, and for the past month has been conducting a disk-jockey show on a Las Cruces station, combining music (one of his favorites is Cal Tjader, his theme song Cannonball Adderley's This Here) with interviews of his teammates.
Despite the great speed and scoring ability of Gaiters and Atkins, there are many who feel that New Mexico State's success hangs even more on the passing and play-calling and leadership of Charley Johnson, a good-looking boy with a blond crew cut who came to the Aggies from the ranks of the unemployed. When Johnson graduated from high school in Big Spring, Texas, a four-sport letterman in football, basketball, baseball and golf, no large schools seemed interested in his talents. He went to Schreiner Institute, a junior college in Kerrville, Texas, but the school dropped football after Johnson's freshman year. He tried to get into Texas Tech and Hardin-Simmons. Neither was impressed. But Woodson was looking for a passer—Woodson is always looking for a passer—so Charley went to New Mexico State.
His first day on the campus, Johnson moved his bride of two months into one of the school's married students' housing units, signed up for the tough chemical engineering course and went out to take over the football team. He has been running it ever since. Johnson is an excellent passer; he completed over 52% of his throws last year, and he has completed almost 60% of his attempts this year. He has thrown at least one touchdown pass in every game. Johnson is smart and quick and when he is out there Woodson doesn't have to worry about calling any plays from the bench.
Johnson and Atkins and Gaiters all complete their eligibility this season. This makes New Mexico State opponents very happy, for they know even a Warren Woodson doesn't come up with players like these every year. But what they forget is that Woodson did it when people had never even heard of New Mexico State. There is no telling what he may accomplish now that he no longer has to tell prospects where the blamed place is.