Toby Roybal

Toby Roybal was a Santa Fe High standout and the only UNM men’s basketball player to have his jersey retired.

Toby Roybal would have turned 90 on Tuesday, a day worth celebrating if a huge hunk of this city actually knew who Toby Roybal was.

The following is a booster shot of Santa Fe history; hopefully, a reminder of a young man’s impact on his hometown and, probably, a warning bell that tells all of us — star athletes or couch slugs, building custodians or penthouse-suite magnates — how transitory we are.

So here goes:

If you’ve ever watched a Santa Fe Demons game in what truly is one of the finest high school gyms in New Mexico, you certainly know the name, if not the man. The school dedicated its arena to Toby Roybal back in the 1970s, when the newly built school was just finding its expansive footing on a largely open mesa off Siringo Road.

Roybal deserved the honor. He’s quite possibly the finest male athlete Santa Fe High ever produced — in basketball, a 6-foot-2 scorer who went on to star at the University of New Mexico and even get his name called as an NBA draftee. Those who watched him at UNM in the 1950s marveled at his athletic gifts.

In an era when the game was largely horizontal — intricate weaves and patterned sets resulting in layups or an occasional jump shot — Roybal was a leaper and scorer of shocking proportions and mind-blowing geometry.

In 1956, against Montana, he scored 45 points — a record that stood until 1978. In his era, 45 is often what entire college teams could put on the board.

UNM, which is pretty chintzy when it comes to honoring its own, retired Roybal’s uniform number, 44, after his death.

And that’s where the story swerves. So much of the Toby Roybal legend wasn’t just about his athletic gifts, but how a man’s roots and mortality collided, breaking his hometown’s collective heart.

After his senior year at UNM, Roybal was drafted by the New York Knicks. He was a late-round pick, and truthfully, wouldn’t have made much money had he bothered to go to camp. The NBA of the ’50s in no way resembled the league of today — a worldwide behemoth that pours millions into 19-year-olds. Believe it or not, Toby’s brother Lenny said with a smile last week, the difference in salary between public schoolteacher and pro basketball player wasn’t really so great.

“I think at that time, the starting salary of a teacher was $7,000 a year,” said Lenny Roybal, who later would become the Demons’ coach and patrol the gym named after his brother. “And the salary they were offering him to go play for the Knicks at that time was $7,000 to $10,000 a year.”

Plus, there’s this: Pro basketball in the mid-1950s was barely recognized on the American sporting landscape, so maybe a New Mexico kid’s decision to eschew the opportunity to teach and coach in his hometown wasn’t really so odd.

In any case, Toby Roybal, who grew up on Gomez Road near what now is the Roundhouse, stayed home. His long-held dream, Roybal’s widow Dixie said in a 1991 interview, was to someday coach the Demons.

His start was at B.F. Young Junior High School, and as he waited for the opportunity to run the high school team, he and Dixie started a family. In 1961, the future looked as bright for them as it seemed for the rest of a country gleaming in the reflection of a JFK-and-Jackie sense of promise.

But in the time it takes to take a tumble in a gym class — he was on a trampoline in a gym class — Roybal’s end was put into motion.

At the time, the injury seemed like nothing.

But nothing is always something, right?

Roybal was diagnosed with lymphatic cancer, which quickly spread to his bone marrow. So strong and lithe as an athlete, he was weakened and wan by the time he died in the summer of ’62, not long after his second child was born. A town — actually, an entire state — mourned the loss, not so much because Toby Roybal was so unique, but because he seemed so much like the New Mexico he grew up in: rooted to a place that mattered more than any single talent or ambition.

Some people never have the good fortune of being at the right place in the right time. If Roybal had been born in a different era, maybe he’s a star in the NBA. If he’s born 50 or 60 or even 20 years later, maybe his cancer could have been corralled by the advance of medicine.

Maybe his name wouldn’t be on a building, but in a history book.

And if this were 1971, ’81, ’91, 2001 or even 2011, there would be more people who could still bear witness. But it’s now 65 years after Roybal scored 45 against Montana, 60 years since he coached his last kid at B.F. Young. In the way time humbles us all, there are a lot of people who watch kids in blue and gold uniforms and mutter: “Who’s Toby Roybal?”

I don’t blame them for that. Time always wins. Even when it’s up against heroes.

But I do think the next time you walk into Santa Fe High’s gym, it’d be appropriate to wish Toby Roybal a happy birthday.

Phill Casaus is editor of The New Mexican.

(3) comments

Claire Catanach

I went to school with Toby’s daughter Laura.

Mark Ortiz

Thanks Phill, great story!

John Cook

That's a heartwarming story, Phill. But for the love of took a tumble on the trampoline. An injury didn't cause lymphatic cancer. Did you mean that a little injury caused him to be examined by a doctor who then found the cancer? Or did you mean something else? Who can tell?

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