The Good Life
A small-town program has won 25 state championships in 50 years and is richly supported by fans and boosters
VISITORS APPROACHING Artesia, N.Mex., from the west on state Route 82 come upon a water tower on which is painted a large bulldog and the greeting ARTESIA: CITY OF CHAMPIONS. Also adorning the tower are logos commemorating all but a few of Artesia High's 47 state titles, including the 25 football championships that the Bulldogs have won since 1957.
In its remote location, a four-hour drive from Albuquerque and also from El Paso, Artesia is home to the Navajo Oil Refinery, numerous dairy farms and the Border Patrol Academy, but the town of 10,597 is best known for its football tradition. The Bulldog Bowl is regularly filled to its capacity of 6,500, and this year Artesia—fresh off an 82--0 rout of Taos last Friday—has a 6--2 record and its first national recruit. Landry Jones, a 6'5", 215-pound quarterback, who has completed 66% of his passes for 2,237 yards and 25 touchdowns, is bound for Oklahoma.
More common are players such as 5'9", 139-pound senior slotback Coly Hokett, the Bulldogs' leading receiver with 43 catches for 806 yards and 12 TDs, who is likely playing his last season of football. Hokett played soccer until seventh grade before deciding, "I had to play football, I live in Artesia."
Game day is the biggest attraction. Main Street turns orange with Bulldogs flags and fans in team T-shirts, and there are fireworks at the Bowl before the game and at halftime. Then, there's the unusual pregame ritual known as the Dog Pile. The players sprint onto the field through the legs of a 15-foot-high wooden A, burst through a banner held by the cheerleaders and, with fans lining the field around them, pile on each other. "I always get in the back [of the line] because I get claustrophobic under everyone," says Jones. "But we put on a pretty good show."
Coaching stability and community support have helped sustain excellence and reinforce good character. Only three men have coached the football team in 43 of the last 50 years: L.G. Henderson (1960 through '73), who went 110-41-7 and won five state titles; Mike Phipps (1974 through '83), who was 95-28-2 with seven titles; and current coach Cooper Henderson, L.G.'s son, who is 180--52 with 10 titles since 1989. No school bond issue has ever been voted down, and oilman Mack Chase, a former Bulldog who graduated in 1952, has donated millions for athletic-facility upgrades, including the artificial turf in the Bulldog Bowl, and for college scholarships that benefit Artesia students overall. "Our kids are not wanting for anything," says Phipps, now the school's superintendent.
And fan interest isn't measured only in orange clothing and dollars spent. On Tuesday nights the Quarterback Club, a group of 50 boosters, gathers to review game film and talk football with the coach. More important is the club's Quarterback Dad program, which pairs each player with a club member, who contacts him weekly. "Its intent is to let that young man know there's another adult who's very interested in his life," says club president Raye Miller.
In turn the players mentor the town's younger citizens, visiting elementary schools each Friday morning to tutor students in reading. "It's heartwarming to see the little kids who look up to you so much," says senior center Payton Kirkpatrick. "They're like, We want to be a Bulldog."
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