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‘We cheer for who we are’: New Mexico football rivalry spans generations

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‘We cheer for who we are’: New Mexico football rivalry spans generations

Sep 21, 2023 | 7:05 am ET
By Shaun Griswold
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‘We cheer for who we are’: New Mexico football rivalry spans generations
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The Zia flag on the Lobos sideline is used to shield UNM head coach Danny Gonzales. The Lobos lost their second straight game against the Aggies in football 27-17. (Photo by Mark Sanchez for Source NM)

With 10 minutes left in the fourth quarter of the annual Rio Grande Rivalry football game, the Lobos scored a touchdown to close a gap against the Aggies.

After the field goal that left the UNM Lobos down 20-17, Albuquerque resident Albert Vargas led a chant in the high stands on the north end zone with his nieces, nephew, brother and two sisters.

“Everyone’s a Lobo!”

On the very next play after kickoff, the Aggies quarterback Diego Pavia, a graduate from Albuquerque’s Volcano Vista High School, hit wide receiver Jonathan Brady for a 75-yard touchdown pass.

Vargas shouted a few choice words that rhyme with truck and Travis Tritt that all but admitted defeat.

“This is the second time in a row they’ve beaten us, right?” he asked. “Well at least we got to watch the game.”

In defeat, Vargas and his family planned to see each other again, catch up on who is dating who, see how the kids are doing in school and make the same defeatist jokes that happen after every Lobos loss.

‘We cheer for who we are’: New Mexico football rivalry spans generations
New Mexico State safety Devlin Kirklin celebrates with the NMSU student section as a young fan follows behind after the Aggie’s victory over New Mexico on Sept. 16, 2023. (Photo by Shaun Griswold / Source NM)

The game is the game; NMSU’s Aggies won 27-17. As a lifelong Lobos fan and UNM alum, I can say the Lobos might usually lose in football, but not to the Aggies. Despite two losses in a row, UNM (1-2) leads the overall series 73–35–5.

After the Aggies (2-2) won, their marching band, relegated to some of the worst seats in the stadium (think lots of stairs in the sun), continued to play as they had all day. Those in the student section who made their way more than 220 miles from Las Cruces celebrated with players in a fit of euphoria, as Albuquerque Lobos fans kicked dirt.

The experience was described as a communal healing after three years of an ongoing pandemic, economic and political strife and even worries that the rivalry dating back to 1894 was over for good after fatal violence between students and athletes from both schools.

But the game went on.

In the parking lot before and after, families from both schools, some spanning up to five generations, celebrated a game that really only New Mexicans cared about.

Ben Sovernez, of Santa Fe, was with his 95-year-old mother, several nieces, nephews, children and grandchildren. As he talked about how this annual game was something he used to attend with his late brother, his daughter carried his great grandchild to change their diaper.

“It’s a family gathering, and it’s a good opportunity to get together. Usually this is our biggest turnout, family-wise,” he said. “It’s tradition.”

‘We cheer for who we are’: New Mexico football rivalry spans generations
The Pride of New Mexico marching band from New Mexico State University march to the stadium to perform at the Rio Grande Rivalry. The band performed in Albuquerque thanks to donations from NMSU boosters. (Photo by Shaun Griswold / Source NM)

Pointing to his nephew with whom he hadn’t visited recently, he said this game was a reunion of sorts, even if they are a blended family of Lobos and Aggies.

“This is their first tailgate they’ve made, my nephew from my late brother, this is his first tailgate he’s made,” Sovernez said. “We enjoy each other’s company, and we cheer for who we are. And I mean, they went to New Mexico State, but hey, I don’t hold that against them.”

Down the line at another family gathering of mostly Aggies and one Lobos fan, Ryan Chavez grilled hot dogs and fresh Socorro green chiles with his family.

“There’s no professional teams in New Mexico,” said Chavez, an NMSU alumnus who studied on the Lottery Scholarship. “So I think you either root for the Aggies or you root for the Lobos. And the big thing is, there’s a lot of pride.”

The family from Las Nutrias, an agricultural land grant in Socorro County, were also celebrating with their nephew Brent Barker, of San Diego, who studies golf course management and desert water conservation at New Mexico State.

“We’re all here, and we’re all enjoying a sport while seeing a bunch of athletes out there that are getting their degrees that are trying to do the best they can on and off the field,” Barker said. “Out here, I think it’s really interesting because these sports teams can be some people’s livelihoods.”

Father and son hold on to traditional language

That livelihood was also seen in the booths far above the stands, in the form of language preservation for Diné people.

Cuyler Frank, a New Mexico State alum, did play-by-play in Diné while his middle school son CurtBen gave color commentary for a radio broadcast of the rivalry game for KCZY out of Navajo Technical University in Crownpoint.

The family, from Blackhouse Valley near Newcomb, were excited for the game and to use it as a way to express their traditional language.

‘We cheer for who we are’: New Mexico football rivalry spans generations
Cuyler Frank and his son CurtBen Frank pose in the radio booth at University Stadium before the Rio Grande Rivalry on Sept. 16, 2023. The pair broadcast the game in Diné for listeners to KCZY, the Navajo Technical College radio station in Crownpoint. (Photo by Shaun Griswold / Source NM)

“We do have a lot of listeners back home, and our language is slowly declining in use,” Cuyler said. “For me to do this, it’s a way of bringing some form of entertainment that will create some enthusiasm around our language.”

CurtBen didn’t mention his statewide radio appearance to his friends before he left for Albuquerque because he was a little nervous, he said, but he was comfortable enough in the booth with his dad.

“I’m mostly nervous talking in Navajo for a lot of people,” CurtBen said. “It really gives me a lot of confidence when he is here.”

Cuyler, who has developed football translations for Diné listeners, has been teaching his son Diné language since he was a baby and kept up the lessons throughout the broadcast.

“I just want him to follow my lead, and we’ll do some in English, and then it’s gonna go into Navajo. We’ll just have a conversation just like we do at home,” Cuyler said. “I’m very proud today, this is going to be a huge day for us.”

In the end, the rivalry’s biggest win for many New Mexicans was quality family moments.

Just before CurtBen Frank had to go on air and broadcast for the very first time, he looked at his father and said, “I want to spend some time with him and then see what he works on.”