NAIA playoff Hounds reunite after 25 years

By Mickey Winfield, Freedom New Mexico

A quarter of a century ago, a young Eastern New Mexico football team was asked to make a commitment to each other. ‘Hold onto the rope’ was the team motto of the 1983 Greyhound football team. The rope brought a handful of them back for a homecoming reunion.

Head coach Bill Kelley, defensive line coach Glen Johnson and players Keith Wattenberger, Jim Conger, Joe Harton and Tom Gossett were honored at halftime of Saturday’s homecoming game against Texas A&M-Kingsville as one of the best Greyhound football teams ever assembled. Portales Fire Chief John Bridges was also on the team.

Harton was an ENMU sophomore outside linebacker in 1983.

“What’s funny is, some of these guys I haven’t seen in 25 years, and it’s like we haven’t left. It’s like we just picked up right where we left off,” Harton said.

The 1983 season was Bill Kelly’s first of two seasons coaching the Greyhounds, sandwiched between Dunny Goode’s and Don Carthel’s tenures at ENMU. The Hounds were coming off their fifth losing season in the last six years, and Kelley thought it was time for a change.

“We worked hard to win football games,” Kelley said. “But we were (also) hoping that there would be some life lessons that would serve them well, and obviously these guys have gone on to become productive members of their communities. It’s very rewarding and I’ve very proud of them.”

The ‘83 green and silver squad won its first eight games, outscoring their opponents 259-55 in that span. The Hounds suffered their first loss at Texas Lutheran College 24-10, before tying defending national champion Central State (Okla.) at Greyhound Stadium 28-28.

ENMU lost in the first round of the NAIA playoffs 35-9 at Mesa College.

The ‘83 Greyhounds remain the only ENMU football team ever to have made the postseason.

Kelley is now practicing law in Amarillo, and said being back at Greyhound Stadium Saturday afternoon flooded him with memories.

“It brings back a lot of memories,” Kelley said. “It’s the greatest experience to be able to come back with these — they’re not young men anymore, they’re middle-aged men and they’ve got their own families and grandkids. They’re the most special people in the world to me, other than my kids.”

Conger is a coach at Midland High School, but 25 years ago he was an offensive guard for the Greyhounds.

“It’s a nice weekend. It’s good to see these guys,” Conger said. “We were surrounded by a lot of great guys and a lot of great coaches.”

Gossett, left guard on the team, said it was a year of transition for him, as he adjusted to life in college and college football.

“I was just a skinny little freshman getting thrown around all the time,” Gossett said.

Gossett is currently coaching at Fort Stockton, Texas.

Current Portales track coach Glen Johnson was the Hounds’ defensive line coach in 1983.

“It’s been a tremendous time,” Johnson said. “It’s great to see these guys come back and catch up on what’s been going on since we went our separate ways. It’s good to see their success.”

Wattenberger, the city of Portales emergency preparedness director, organized the reunion.

“That was a special year,” Wattenberger said. “It was the right coach and the right group of players coming together at the right time.

Each of the returning Greyhounds had their own tiny rope at the reunion, and Harton revealed the meaning behind the symbol and team motto.

“Think of the person that means the most to you, and (imagine) that they were hanging over a cliff, holding onto a rope, and you were holding onto the other end of the rope — don’t let go of that rope.”

After the football game, the group got together for dinner at the Portales Cattle Barron.

“The hair may be thinning a little bit, but everybody is doing pretty good,” Harton said.