Capital High School literally had that new-paint smell to it the first time the state’s knuckle-dragging beast came to town for a prep football game 29 long years ago.
Artesia and it’s incredibly rich history was the top-ranked team in 1990 when it was sent to Santa Fe’s south side to face the Jaguars in what was then the Class 3A playoffs. The Bulldogs had won 15 state titles before that game was played. They’ve added another 15 since; a dozen more than the next closest school, and more than twice as many as anyone not named Lovington.
Artesia returns Friday night in the opening round of the Class 5A postseason. They’ll bring an army of support staff and fans, all clad in the bright orange that has become synonymous with football glory.
Put it this way; if there were a Mount Olympus of New Mexico’s prep football powerhouse programs, Artesia would own the joint.
If there were a Mount Rushmore of coaches, retired Bulldogs field general Cooper Henderson would loom large above the rest.
The Bulldogs have never gone more than five years between championship game appearances, making opening round games like this a mere appetizer for bigger moments in the weeks ahead.
“I told the players after last week’s game [against Santa Fe High] that 50 years from now, all your coaches will be dead and gone, you’ll all have kids and grandkids of your own and this will be the game you’ll all talk about,” Capital head coach Bill Moon said.
“Well, 50 years from now, they could be standing around saying that [the Artesia game] will be the one that started a new history for us, that it will be the game everyone else remembers,” he said.
Moon said the Jaguars were excited to see the playoff bracket that had them at No. 7 and Artesia as the No. 10 seed. The idea of the Bulldogs as a double-digit seed is one of the most unusual things about this prep football season.
“Artesia’s Artesia, so if you’re going to play them, you might as well get them at home when you can,” Moon said. “It doesn’t really make any difference if they’re the favorites, which they are. Honestly, who would have imagined when this season started that we would be hosting a playoff game, let alone against a team like that? No one. So let’s all quit talking about it and go play.”
Capital (6-3), arguably the most overlooked and disrespected six-win team in the state, was the District 2/6-5A champion and got to where it is now by grinding through the regular season without much beef on the front line or a passing game to brag about.
Artesia (5-5), a loser of three straight despite one of the highest scoring offenses in the state, brings the familiar brand of pass-happy football that makes hometown heroes out of Bulldogs quarterbacks and legends out of skill players.
“You want a Twilight Zone moment?” Moon asks. “That 1990 game? Artesia’s coach had the last name of Henderson, just like they do now. Capital’s coach was named Moon back then, just like it is now.
“Our tailback’s last name was Padilla that year and now it’s his son in there now. Their quarterback’s name was Houghtaling, just like it is now. And now here we are, what, 30 years later playing on the same field. If that’s not odd, I don’t know what is.”
Cooper Henderson’s son, Rex, is now the Bulldogs’ head coach and star quarterback Clay Houghtaling is the son of former Bulldogs and New Mexico State QB Ty Houghtaling — but not the same family member Moon mentioned in the 1990 game.
The only constant is Moon, the first head coach in Capital’s history and now the architect of a program that has become a legitimate 5A contender.
Asked about that game 29 years ago, Moon lauds the play of then-tailback Rick Padilla, the father of current Jaguars star running back Luke Padilla.
There’s one play, in particular, that comes to mind.
“Wait, was it the halfback pass?” Rick Padilla says. “That has to be it. Late in the game, it was fourth down and they called a halfback option pass but I couldn’t find my guy, so I tucked it and ran. I still remember coach Moon standing with his foot on the sideline showing me where the first down marker was. I thought I got there, but they marked me short.”
Actually, no. That’s not the play.
Moon does remember that one; it resulted in a turnover on downs that preserved Artesia’s 14-6 victory, but it’s not the one.
Padilla was the team’s backup tailback who was cast as the starter after all-district star Manuel Gonzales got hurt.
Whereas Luke Padilla has become one of the state’s most dominant runners with a north-south style and disciplined approach off the field, Rick Padilla was a multisport athlete who had amazing instincts and, as Moon says, a fraction of the physical strength his son now has.
“We ran a sweep to the left from about the 40 with two minutes left, and Rick broke his guy’s ankles as soon as he got outside,” Moon says. “But the best part was him getting down the sideline to a second guy never knowing the first guy was coming up from behind him.”
Padilla engaged the second Artesia defensive back and simultaneously ducked out of the way of the first would-be tackler.
As Moon says it, the first player flailed his way into the sideline, taking the second guy with him.
“The third guy eventually brought Rick down, but I’ll always remember it because it was like he sensed the first guy was there the whole time without ever turning to look for him,” Moon says. “He always had amazing instincts. You see a little bit of that in Luke.”
Another memory from that night?
The Capital coaches had T-shirts printed urging players to make their own tradition. Capital opened its doors in 1988, and that ’90 team was its first trip to the playoffs.
“We made our own tradition along the way,” Moon says. “Maybe now we should get shirts that say we need to make our own history. That’s what a win against Artesia would do, make history.”