He could have quit.
All the motivation Xavier “X” Vigil needed was down there on his left knee — the one traced with scars after two career-threatening injuries just 13 months apart. A mere glance was he needed to say, “That’s it, it’s over, there’s no sense risking it anymore.”
He could’ve simply taken off the football pads, turned in his gear and picked up his books, disappearing into college courses and becoming just another face in a sea of bright young wannabes trying to earn a degree.
“I had a lot of time to sit alone at home and think, you know?” says Vigil, a 2017 graduate of St. Michael’s who’s now making his way through his prerequisites at the University of New Mexico. “I could just go to class and be bored in there just like everyone else. I mean, there’s nothing wrong with that, but why give up when I knew I still had a chance? I had to keep trying.”
A redshirt freshman on the UNM football team, he was on the sidelines for the first time as an active member of the team’s roster during Saturday night’s season opener against Incarnate Word. Wearing
No. 36, he’s a backup linebacker on a team whose defense is said to be vastly improved over previous seasons.
Actually, Vigil is the backup to the backup’s backup. Some reports have him listed as fourth on the depth chart at middle linebacker. He will likely get most of his playing time this season on special teams, but may see the field here and there on defense.
When Vigil does, it will be another reminder of just how fortunate he is.
An All-State linebacker and running back at
St. Michael’s, he suffered complete tears to his anterior and posterior cruciate ligaments at the height of recruiting season in the Class 4A quarterfinals against Moriarty in November 2016. In an instant, he went from one of the top athletes in Class 4A (Vigil also was a two-time state wrestling champion) to a kid with a bum knee and lingering doubts about his future.
If he was ever going to play again, it would be on someone else’s terms, not Vigil’s. Not only would he have to earn his roster spot, he’d have to earn the right just to walk through the front door and ask to be included.
“It was very humbling,” Vigil says. “I went through a lot.”
Kevin Cosgrove is UNM’s defensive coordinator and linebackers coach. He’d kept tabs on Vigil throughout his junior and senior years with the Horsemen. He could have closed the book on “X,” but instead offered him a preferred walk-on spot just two months after the injury.
Vigil sat out his true freshman season, lifting weights and going about the business of suiting up for home games wearing
No. 24, knowing he’d never actually get onto the field.
“Every game I’d have my designated helmet spot and I’d just put it down and forget about it until a minute left in the fourth quarter and I’d have to pick it up again,” Vigil says. “The possibility that I might go in changes everything.”
He has steadily bulked up since
St. Michael’s. Listed at 214 pounds his senior year, he tipped the scales at 240 last week. Combined with his 5-foot-11 frame, he has the look and feel of a bona fide college linebacker. If his build doesn’t do it, his full beard does. He’s as intimidating now as he was to teenage opponents just a couple of years ago.
“After the knee thing, I wasn’t sure if I even wanted to play football,” Vigil says. “I thought about trying wrestling again. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do because sometimes it’s easy to forget how fun it is.”
Fun has always been part of Vigil’s legacy. A standout player growing up in Santa Fe’s youth leagues, he carried that through a stellar prep career with the Horsemen before landing at UNM.
As fond as Vigil is of his hometown, he cherishes the thought of trying something new now that he’s a Lobo.
“Meeting people from different backgrounds, people who’ve played in different states, it’s a big change because in Santa Fe it’s basically the same story for everyone,” Vigil says.
Unlike most players, Vigil lives by himself off campus. He and his older brother, Zack, have plans to eventually room together but, for now, the isolation gives “X” a chance to keep to himself and gain some perspective.
Last week when Lobos head coach Bob Davie addressed the living situations of his players, he said there’s always a concern that boredom can lead to trouble. Until this season, the team stayed in a local hotel the night before home games.
Budget cuts have put an end to that, meaning players must fend for themselves without a coach’s supervision hours before a game.
“I think there’s been a bit of a leadership conversation we’ve had with our team,” Davie says. “It’s a pretty big city. A lot of things going on here, there’s a lot of dynamics here. Friday night’s a little bit of a concern with me, with 115 players staying where they stay every night. But it’s about leadership.”
In that regard, Vigil says, “no problem.”
“Albuquerque’s a lot like Santa Fe. There’s not much to do, so all it means to me is going home and maybe watching some TV.”
In many ways, that’s music to Davie’s ears. It shows Vigil has the qualities he’s looking for in his veterans. To get it from a walk-on coming back from a knee injury, it’s the ideal situation for both player and coach.
“Bottom line, I said enough of that conversation,” Davie says. “If we don’t have the kind of leadership on this team and guys don’t respond to the leadership on this team in a positive way, all that doesn’t mean a lot. So we’re not going to do anything. We’re going to have a curfew. We’re going to ask our players to be in, get their rest.”
For now, Vigil will bide his time and wait for his opportunity. He says the biggest adjustment from high school to college is the overall speed of the game. The running backs are lightning quick and everyone around him was a standout during his prep days.
“I play scout every day, and the more I go against everybody, the more I find that it eventually just kind of levels out,” Vigil says. “Kids that I was able to track down no problem in high school, now I actually have to use everything I’ve got to get there. It’s not easy but I’m getting used to it. It makes me better.”
ODDS ’N’ ENDS
What’s in a number? Vigil wore No. 44 at St. Michael’s. It’s one of the few numbers UNM has retired since it was worn by Lobo great and recent Pro Football Hall of Fame inductee Brian Urlacher.
When Vigil arrived, he was given No. 24, a jersey that now belongs to defensive back Corey Hightower. Vigil switched to No. 36 last spring.
“Wasn’t my choice,” he says. “But I’ll roll with it. I’m just happy that I have an opportunity to wear a jersey, you know? It means I’m still out here playing, having fun.”
First game, 2.0: Vigil’s first game as a varsity player at St. Michael’s is one he’ll never forget.
“Bloomfield,” he says. “I remember panicking the night before and coach [Andrew] Martinez talked to me and got me to calm down. Then during the game, my chin strap broke and had to use someone else’s the rest of the day. That was the most stressful part because my helmet kept falling down on my face and coming off every play.”