Almost every football season produces one or more small college teams that win most of their games but attract no public attention outside their immediate areas. Frequently the first national notice these teams receive is at draft time, when their unknown stars pop up near the top of the professionals' "wanted" list. Such a team is little New Mexico State. Last Saturday night, down in the crisp desert air of Arizona, the Aggies won their seventh straight victory of 1960.
They beat Arizona State in a wonderfully exciting game by a 27-24 score, and they did it once again with a backfield that would surprise most sports page readers. It may be the best in the country.
New Mexico State is not noted for its sharp defensive talents—no team coached by Warren Woodson ever is—and on Saturday night in Tempe the Aggie line leaked like a crumbling levee. Arizona State has a good ball club; in fact, it has two or three good ball clubs, and it ran through New Mexico State for 328 yards, three touchdowns and a field goal. At one point early in the fourth quarter the Sun Devils led by a score of 24-14. But then New Mexico's Pervis Atkins, who is the senior partner in the firm of Atkins, Gaiters, Johnson and Jackson, shook loose for a 98-yard kickoff return and a 71-yard run from scrimmage and New Mexico State won again.
Atkins, a 195-pound Negro who can run the 100-yard dash in 9.6 seconds, led the nation in rushing and scoring last year. This season he has been running at wingback, carrying the ball only on occasion, catching passes, acting as a decoy and blocking. Sometimes, however, the Aggies need him to take over, as they needed him Saturday night. When he was through, the lithe Californian with the antelope gait had a season record of 453 yards in only 43 astonishing carries for an average of more than 10 yards a try; he had caught 18 passes for 269 yards; he had scored 10 touchdowns and kicked one conversion for 61 points. The Los Angeles Rams have already drafted him, and they can hardly wait until he arrives next season.
The reason Atkins is playing wingback this year is that his roommate and best friend, Tailback Bob Gaiters, weighs 210 pounds and can run the 100 in 9.8. Gaiters did not have one of his big nights against Arizona—in fact, he had his worst of the season—but still he gained 81 yards in 18 carries, scored a touchdown and almost personally conducted the Aggies on their first scoring drive. When the night was over, Gaiters was leading the nation in rushing, with 917 yards in 138 carries and also in scoring with 98 points.
One reason Atkins and Gaiters are able to run so well is Charley Johnson, who weighs 190 pounds and can't really run very well at all. But Johnson is a smart, cool quarterback who likes to gamble, a marvelous team leader and a boy who throws a football like Johnny Unitas. He has been drafted by the St. Louis Cardinals, and the Cardinals could use him right now. Last season Johnson was second in the nation in total offense, seventh in passing yardage and led everybody with 18 touchdown passes. Saturday night he completed seven of 14 for 61 yards and one touchdown, which gave him a season record of 74 completions in 127 attempts for 929 yards. He leads the nation once again in touchdown passes with nine. His running and passing set up the second Aggie touchdown.
The fourth member of the New Mexico State backfield is a junior named Bob Jackson who weighs 215 pounds and runs over people. He didn't run over very many Saturday night but this was a tough line he was going against and he is still the junior member of the firm. As for the Aggies themselves, their 257 yards running and passing and 27 points scored kept them on top of the major college statistics in both these categories. They have now scored 272 points.
Not everyone will agree that New Mexico State deserves its status as a major college. It does not play Oklahoma or Pittsburgh or Southern Cal; it plays New Mexico and West Texas State and Texas Western and schools like that. But this is a matter of definition. Certainly, to the teams which have been overrun this season, the Aggies from little Las Cruces loom as large as the Chicago Bears.
There was a time, long ago, when victory was not considered a good enough reason for dancing in the streets in Las Cruces. In 1905, for example, the Aggies were unscored upon in five games, although the season ended on a slightly deflated note when El Paso High School held them to a scoreless tie. Again in 1923 New Mexico State overpowered all opposition, including New Mexico Military, Montezuma, Fort Bliss and the Garden Grocers of El Paso. But then the supermarket was invented, New Mexico State joined the Border Conference and, until 1959, it had had only one winning season in 21 years.
Then Dr. Roger Corbett, the New Mexico State University president, decided that enough was enough. Dr. Corbett was on the staff at Maryland when Curly Bird hired Jim Tatum to revitalize the Terps, and Corbett is a man who likes football and believes that it plays an important part in college life. So in 1958 he went out and hired Warren Brooks Woodson to coach New Mexico State.