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T-Bird Champs Reunited in Tribute to Coach

T-Bird Champs Reunited in Tribute to Coach photo 6/25/2008 10:27:58 a.m. - Hobbs, NM. Recently, in an historic and often emotion-filled reunion, seven members of New Mexico Junior College's first national championship-winning team paid tribute to the man they say was not only chiefly responsible for their win but who also influenced the course of their lives.

Ross Black, NMJC's first head track coach, was honored at a private banquet on Saturday, June 14, in the Daniels Conference Room on the NMJC campus. He was being recognized for the crucial role he played some 37 years ago in the lives of the 21 young men who made up the 1971 NMJC track & field team. After leading them to a near-championship win in 1970, Black helped the team use the narrow loss as motivation to come back the next year and, as he put it, "we made it good," wrapping up the 1971 NJCAA national championship as the first in the young college's history.

The 21-man team consisted of Pat Bales, Clarence Bates, Bruce Boling, Jim Butscher, Jim Campbell, Tom Cantrell, Louis Jackson, James Kurrasch, Rick Loucks, Dennis Martin, Don Michelin, Phil Morgan, Frank Rakoczy, David Ratliff, Lary Ratliff, Wavie Reed, Mike Simpson, George Stevens, Brian Untch, Mike Vaughn, and Brad Winter. The assistant coach was Rayford McIlaney.

While only seven members were able to attend the two-day reunion, which concluded with the dinner and tribute, they more than made it up to Coach Black in accolades and tributes. One by one, the men -- who have made successful careers as politicians, superintendents, teachers, coaches, and oilmen -- shared the impact of what Black had taught them those many years ago. According to Pat Bales, "He taught us integrity, honor, loyalty, and a good work ethic. 'Never give up; work through it.' We did what he asked. We did it without fanfare because that's what we were supposed to do," said Bales.

In addressing Black, Tom Cantrell emphasized the lessons learned off the field. "You were a role model and mentor to me. When I came here, I was an unproven athlete and a poor student. The first thing you did was put me in a remedial reading class at 8 a.m. What it did for me, it taught me, basically, how to read and to comprehend. I went on and really have a
ove of reading now that I probably wouldn't have had," Cantrell said. "We won the national championship, and that was important at the time. But what you did for us as far as teaching us discipline, honesty, and loyalty and all the things we do now, and what we've become in our lives and our families. . . . Most of us have grandkids now. You were the one that taught us all that. You put us on the road to what we've become," he stated.

Also emphasizing Black's ability to reach the young athletes with lasting values was Frank Rokoczy. "Coach Black, I'm successful because of you," he said, "in my work, in my life, and when I play -- whatever I do."

At one point, Brad Winter focused on the difficulty of moving away from home for the first time and Black's subsequent influence. "I had never been away from home," he said. "In fact, I didn't even go to summer camp when I was little because I didn't want to leave my mom. So it was really difficult. I ended up coming down, and it was one of the better decisions in my life."

President Steve McCleery, who earlier in the day provided a personal tour of NMJC's much-changed campus, hosted the banquet and honored the entire team with a slide show presentation, photos, yearbooks, and music from 1971. He also announced that a banner had been made which would forever hang in the college's gymnasium in the Caster Activity Center honoring the 1971 championship and all other subsequent historical sports achievements. "This was a great evening," said McCleery. "It was a genuine pleasure to see how much they all enjoyed their time together and to see the deep affection they have for this man who helped them as both athletes and students."

As for Coach Black, who was described by one team member as "able to . . . push a person to achieve unusual success," he was obviously overcome with the generosity of the tributes and praise, especially after the group presented him with a scrapbook filled with photos of the team from both the past and present. His feelings were reflected in the smile that lit his face as each member came in and in the stories he told about each of the team member's hard work to make nationals. As the evening wore down, Black concluded simply, "I hadn't dreamt that this would happen. It means a lot. It's an indescribable honor for me. . .to have led my best group of boys to such an achievement."

Farrel D. Caster, one of the original NMJC Board members, summed up the college's feelings in a letter praising the group for enhancing the college's reputation while shaping their own piece of history.

"I'd like to thank each of you for the role you played some 37 years ago in bringing honor and recognition to New Mexico Junior College with your national championship win. Such victories are few and far between for any school, but for a young school like NMJC back in 1971, this was phenomenal.
Throughout the years, the subsequent championships earned in NMJC's various sports programs have rested on the shoulders of athletes such as you, athletes who have trained diligently, sacrificed greatly, and ultimately given their very best for a chance to bring glory to their school and to merit the praise of a nation.

While it takes a special team to win something as grand as a national championship, it also takes a special coach to lead a team to such a victory. Coach Black, you generously shared your considerable experience and inspired with your heartfelt passion. Because of your expertise and your unwavering belief in the talent and abilities of your team, each and every member will be forever remembered with honor and respect.

Congratulations again to you all. Be proud of what you accomplished, and know that history will never forget your extraordinary achievements of 1971."

Indeed, history will never forget. We congratulate you all, and we thank you for setting a standard to which we can forever aspire, Champions of 1971.

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