High school football in the Four Corners is approaching a milestone anniversary.
On Oct. 13, high school football in the region celebrates its 100th anniversary.
The sport was played sporadically in earlier years by the local “boys” but was often augmented by other citizens in order to fill their roster. Football became part of the official school curriculum of Durango, Aztec and Farmington High Schools in 1923 when they formed the San Juan Basin Conference.
Fans of the game today likely wouldn’t recognize what historians call the first football game ever played in 1869. It involved 44 players, 22 on each side. There was no line of scrimmage. A mass of players surrounded a bloated pig bladder on the ground and used their muscle to force the other team backward toward their own goal.
By 1890 the rules had changed to simulate today’s game. The first reported game in New Mexico was in 1892 when Albuquerque High School played the “University boys”.
Without school backing, boys created their own “athletic association” in which each player paid a small fee and a captain was appointed. A coach, particularly if he was paid, was not allowed on the field during the game. It was up to the captain to decide play-calling and substitutions. Players who left the game could not return, hence, a complete team might have only 14 to 15 players.
For the first 25 years, the informal high school games in the Four Corners (or as the newspaper called it, “the upper Animas and the lower Animas”) were sporadic. Usually a team was formed just for a Thanksgiving game. Durango High hosted Montrose High in 1903 in the first known game in the region between two high schools.
Farmington played Aztec in 1911 and again in 1913. The latter game reported that the Farmington team (not yet known as the Scorpions) traveled by two hay wagons to Aztec. They stopped in Flora Vista for lunch, and one of the wagons broke down. The delay caused the game to go until dark and the Farmington boys returned late into the night after that long 12-mile trek.
World War I and the flu epidemic that followed curtailed football in the region until 1922, when the schools decided to include sports. They organized a league for basketball competition. The schools ignored the state line since both New Mexico and Colorado were challenged by bad roads leading south and mountain passes going north.
Although the nature of the league changed, it survived for 90 years and included mostly the smaller Colorado schools in its final decades.
That initial football season of 1923 had schools from Durango, Farmington and Aztec. There were no other four-year high schools in La Plata or San Juan counties.
Durango’s official population topped 4,000 while Farmington and Aztec each had fewer than 800 residents. Since they needed to have an even number of teams, Durango, the largest school in the league, fielded two teams. They were the White Team and the Red Team.
As boys signed up to participate, every even number of registries was assigned to one team, the odds one to the other. The enthusiasm in school was robust and good-natured at first. The Whites called the Reds a bunch of “communists.”
As the six-game season progressed with each school playing the others twice, competition at Durango High became less friendly. The Durango teams won that 1923 season, both with 4-2 records.
Bayfield joined in 1924 although they didn’t have any senior boys in their school. The six seniors that year were all girls. The Bayfield boys raised $75 for uniforms and equipment. None had played before. In fact, only two had ever seen a football game when they took on the Durango boys.
The Animas Valley team easily won both times against Bayfield. BHS would play Durango 15 times before the Pine River boys gave up the sport during the Great Depression. They would not beat the Demons until they matched up in 2017.
Montezuma-Cortez joined the fray in 1927. Dolores began in 1930. Kirtland and Navajo Prep (then known as Navajo Mission) got started in the mid-1930s. Bloomfield students attended high school in Aztec until BHS was built in 1957. Shiprock students went to Kirtland Central High School until the 1960s. Piedra Vista was built as the second high school in Farmington in 1998.
The size of communities and schools began to change after World War II. Farmington changed its identity from being “Home of the Big Red Apple” as oil rigs replaced apple trees in San Juan County.
Football competition also changed. Ignacio started playing a six-man version of the game in 1948. The 1950s saw the growth of the oil field industry. State champs in New Mexico came out of Farmington, Aztec and Kirtland. Kirtland also won twice in the 1960s, along with Bloomfield.
Durango won its first title in 1954 and was the only truly southwestern Colorado school to do so until Bayfield did in 1996.
Comparing the 1923 teams to the 2023 participants, over 600 players are in uniform this season in 15 high schools in the region. Only 50 or 60 suited up in that initial year.
One way to show the change over the past century is through equipment. They started with leather helmets or no helmets at all. If a football parent didn’t actually create one for her son, they would cost about two dollars and would be used over and over for years until worn out.
Today’s helmets cost anywhere from $210 to $400 each. With reconditioning, repainting, and replacement costs, a school might budget over $8,000 for helmets.
On the other hand, there is one similarity. An article in the Farmington Times Hustler from October, 1923 reported that the Durango Whites had beaten Farmington, 24-6. Most of the article ranted about the referee’s decisions being due to his “monumental ignorance” of the game. The reporter accused him of being a “cheap sport” who must have had a bet on the game.
Now, 100 years later, fans can be heard chanting any number of things from the bleachers as one of their nicer instructions to the referees or members of a particular coaching staff.
Dan Ford is a high school sports historian living in southern Colorado. He is the author of several books, including "The History of New Mexico High School Football", which has been published in three volumes. Ford can be reached via email at email@example.com