Teton Saltes’ life has always been about breaking down barriers and helping others do the same.
On Thursday night before a nationally televised audience, he was named the 2020 winner of the Wuerffel Trophy, an award given to the top college football player who exemplifies excellence in the classroom and outstanding commitment to community service.
The University of New Mexico offensive lineman wrapped up his senior season with the Lobos football team in December, earning all-conference honors with a goal of playing in the NFL. He’s doing that by working his way through law school and continuing his charitable work with the Native American reservation of his family roots in South Dakota.
In a normal year, Saltes would have been part of an awards show held before an audience, one that brought together his family and closest friends in an auditorium filled with an anticipation.
The pandemic forced Thursday’s announcement to be carried via a videoconference call. Saltes said he was informed that he’d won Monday but chose not to let his family in on it.
They found out at the same time as the rest of the country, each of them shown in separate screenshots during the announcement.
“I mean, you saw their reactions,” Saltes said. “My mom, she’s still blowing my phone up. Right after the camera cut off, her and my grandparents, they’re all balling and crying. Shoot, they’re more happy than I am.”
The 6-foot-6, 322-pound Saltes is a graduate of Valley High School in Albuquerque. Recruited heavily out of high school, he chose his hometown school and flourished despite a four-year career that saw the Lobos win just seven times his final three seasons.
Lobos coach Danny Gonzales had just one season to work with Saltes, but the two have a relationship that goes back several years. Gonzales unsuccessfully recruited Saltes while an assistant at San Diego State and always sought Saltes out after games between the Lobos and Aztecs.
On Thursday, Saltes said he looked forward to getting his hands on the Wuerffel Trophy, which will be shipped to him in a matter of days.
Asked who would get to keep the award, himself or the Lobo football program, Saltes joked that he’d be willing to wrestle Gonzales for it.
“I’d tell him all the time, we’ll go into a room and only one of us is coming out,” Gonzales joked. “And I don’t play clean. I mean, it’s going to be dirty, so last man standing. We’ll find out who the toughest one is.”
Saltes becomes the first UNM player to ever win a national award, having been named a Wuerffel semifinalist last year after his junior season.
Heisman Trophy winner DeVonta Smith of Alabama was one of several Crimson Tide players recognized. He took home the Maxwell and Walter Camp awards as college football’s player of the year as well as the Biletnikoff Award as the nation’s top receiver.
Four of his teammates were similarly recognized during the two-hour College Football Awards Show, aired on ESPN.
Alabama quarterback Mac Jones won the Davey O’Brien National Quarterback of the Year Award. Tide running back Najee Harris, who scored an FBS-leading 24 rushing touchdowns, won the Doak Walker Award while offensive lineman Alex Leatherwood became the sixth Alabama player to win the Outland Trophy. Rounding things up was lineman Landon Dickerson as the Rimington Trophy winner as the nation’s top center.
Tulsa linebacker Zaven Collins won the Chuck Bednarik Award as the top defensive player. Free safety Trevon Moehrig, who had two interceptions and broke up nine passes, became the first TCU player to win the Jim Thorpe Award as the top defensive back.
Florida’s Kyle Pitts won the John Mackey Award as the top tight end and Miami’s Jose Borregales won the Lou Groza Award as the top kicker. Georgia Tech’s Pressley Harvin III won the Ray Guy Award as the top punter and Coastal Carolina’s Jamey Chadwell was named Home Depot coach of the year.