What brings a smile to his face is a recurring daydream about his next trip into Tierra Amarilla.
It goes a little something like this: Head pressed to a foggy window, eyes fixed as far ahead of the bus as possible. Out in front is a sheriff’s cruiser, lights clearing a path for an uninterrupted escort back to the school.
Along the road are people waving and honking, some holding signs, others snapping photos.
When the wheels come to a stop, he descends into a cheering mass of familiar faces and open arms. All of them would be anxious to get a glimpse of the coveted blue trophy that has never been theirs to own.
“I think,” Atencio says, reality creeping back in, “that there would be parties and celebrations for at least two months. But only if we win.”
On Saturday, Atencio leads the Escalante football team into the Class A state championship game at Capitan.
As the team’s quarterback and one of its top defensive players, the 6-foot, 187-pound junior is as big of a reason as any the Lobos are having an historic season. He has rushed for 2,564 yards, passed for 1,118 and accounted for 53 touchdowns in 12 games.
Saturday’s game kicks off at 1 p.m.
The Lobos (11-1) have never won a title. They’ve come close.
In fact, Atencio’s dad was part of a near-miss in the early ’80s when Escalante’s undefeated season ended in a semifinal loss to Moriarty.
“The unity, the camaraderie this team has, it wasn’t there in my era,” says Felipe Atencio. “He and the boys, they’re letting us re-live the dream through them. As parents we tell them all the time that this, right here, is the next chapter in the book, that they’re doing something they will remember for the rest of their lives.”
Atencio describes his son, the oldest of three boys — Estevan is a freshman lineman on the team, Tomas is a bruising YAFL player in second grade — as a humble, respectful kid with college dreams and an unyielding work ethic. And like many residents in the Chama Valley, he says a state championship would make legends out of every player.
“Are you kidding? T.A. would go crazy if we won this thing,” says Dusty Giles, Escalante head coach. “We’re at a level this school has never been to before. Every week it seems like more people show up at our games.”
Like any quarterback, Atencio’s DNA mandates two things when talking about his own play and of those around him.
First, he wouldn’t mind using an occasional seven-step drop and chucking the ball down field the way his favorite college football team (Oklahoma) does. Second, he lauds his teammates for their unparalleled success.
“There are probably 10 or 12 of us who lived in the weight room in the summer,” he says. “We all had jobs. I worked doing forest service stuff, some guys worked in stores or building fences on a ranch. When we were done we’d meet there and lift for four or five hours, Monday through Friday, every week.”
Friends and teammates like running back Cody Casados and linemen C.J. Deyapp, Isaac Baca, Matthew Leyba, Brandon Redwine and Jeremy Garcia; they never doubted they’d be in this spot some day. Along the way they’ve forged bonds and settled on some creative nicknames. Garcia is “Moose” and Casados is “Cowboy Wody.”
If all goes well Saturday, they’ll all have new identities by time they roll down the hill heading north along Highway 84 toward Tierra Amarilla.
“I think we’d all be heroes,” Atencio says.
Contact Will Webber at email@example.com.