No keeping this Santa Fe High hero down
Fall down seven times, stand up eight
— Japanese proverb
Tilman Conway fell and couldn’t help but laugh.
Conway, a junior at Santa Fe High School, was preparing for the biggest moment of his prep football career on Sept. 7 — a game-winning field goal attempt against Española Valley High to end the Demons’ 35-game losing streak.
As he began to warm up on the sideline while the Demons drove downfield, Conway’s view of green turf turned to black as he lost his balance after one practice kick and found himself staring at the night sky, flat on his back.
Whatever anxiety Conway had evaporated.
“I just overswung on my follow through, and it pulled out my back foot and I fell on my butt,” he recalled. “I kinda laughed a little, and that broke the tension.”
Conway picked himself up and used his new-found sense of calm to focus, remembering a trick Santa Fe High head coach Andrew Martinez taught him to use in pressure situations: Think of three things you’re grateful for.
Conway thought of his girlfriend, Abby Janecek, a volleyball player at St. Michael’s High.
He thought of his teammates.
Most of all, though, Tilman Conway thought of his family — dad Miles Conway, mom Mikahla Beutler, and his late older brother, Quincy Conway.
It is the memory of Quincy that brings equal amounts inspiration and pain for Tilman and his family.
Quincy Conway was 17 when he died in August 2016, just before what would have been his senior year at Santa Fe Prep, when a science experiment he was conducting with electricity at the family’s home in Rio en Medio went awry.
Quincy had just completed a summer internship at Los Alamos National Laboratory. He was a nationally acclaimed rock climber, an outdoors lover and ran on the Blue Griffins’ track and field team. All the while, he displayed a love for physics.
Beutler said the family lost more than a son when Quincy died — it was deprived of an energetic, loving personality of a teenager who enjoyed life and was surrounded by many friends.
“He was on top of the world,” Miles Conway said. “He had a girlfriend. He was on a great trajectory. He just had a little too much confidence and had a dream to solve the world’s energy problems that involved an experiment to use electricity. We don’t struggle with whether he suffered or was in anguish when he died. We knew that Quincy was right with the universe.”
Miles said the family has come to realize there is no moving past the tragedy; it’s a matter of moving through it, because the pain never really goes away.
“There are no pieces to pick up,” Miles said. “It’s a brand-new world — a completely altered reality. For families who have lost a child, it’s rather impossible to describe for people, who haven’t had that experience, of how you conduct yourself in the world.”
The family’s tragedies didn’t end there. Miles Conway’s brother, Sean Patrick Conway, died two weeks later at 28 from an overdose, another crushing blow for Tilman because he was very close to his uncle.
As the family tried to move on from both deaths, Beutler said she struggled with being overly protective of Tilman.
“There is something about losing a kid that you hold on so tightly to that other child,” Beutler said. “Just figuring out how to let him go in the way any 16-year-old needs to be let go and feel autonomous and feel capable of living in the world. It’s hard to find trust in the world that it’s going to hold your child well.”
Tilman said he dealt with his brother’s loss by trying to focus on the qualities Quincy embodied, especially his love for people.
“There wasn’t one person you could find who say, ‘Oh, I didn’t like Quincy,’ ” Tilman said. “Everybody loved him because he loved everybody. It was as simple as that. I really try to take that in my life, too.”
That is easier said than done for Tilman, who was the more quiet reserved sibling to Quincy’s outgoing personality. Tilman said he always looked up to Quincy, but he also wanted to carve out his own path. So while Quincy was rock climbing and playing soccer, Tilman opted for basketball and aikido martial arts.
But his ultimate dream was to play football. “I can’t really explain it,” Tilman said. “It was just something I wanted to do.”
Santa Fe Prep, where Beutler is a counselor, doesn’t have a football program. So Tilman made the decision after completing eighth grade to attend Santa Fe High, although he had to convince his parents. Beutler grew up in Nebraska and was very familiar with the football culture that is a part of many towns in the Midwest, which made her wary about allowing Tilman to play.
When Quincy died, she was even more reluctant. “But you have to let them find themselves,” Beutler said. “So, he is my little Buddha. He has to teach me how he is not an extension of me.”
Tilman played junior varsity soccer and was the kicker on the varsity football team as a freshman. He found comfort in the sports team dynamic — especially with the upperclassmen. He was particularly close to then-juniors Zach Russell and Jonah Baca, and found solace occasionally hanging out with them on the weekends.
“We didn’t have to talk about [Quincy’s death], but it was just being there for me,” Tilman said. “Just having someone there who knew what I was going through.”
When the Santa Fe High program turned to Martinez as its coach in 2017, he made a point to let Tilman know his door was always open. What the player appreciated more, though, was the opportunity Martinez afforded him that spring.
“I said, ‘I don’t want to put this on you, but I think you can be a good football player,’ ” Martinez said. “ ‘But if you decide to play soccer, too, that’s OK.’ ”
That was exactly what Tilman wanted to hear, particularly since his friends who weren’t on the football team kidded him about being “just” the kicker.
“My friends even made these memes that said, ‘When he says he plays football and he’s just the kicker,’ ” Tilman said.
Tilman put in time in the weight room to get stronger, while also learning about the rest of the game. He was still mainly the kicker in 2017, but Martinez had plans to also use him as a running back and a defensive end this year.
The weight room also became a sanctuary for Tilman as he worked through the emotions of losing his brother. “It really did become my outlet, my escape from the world,” Tilman said. “Some people write, some people draw. I went to the gym.”
The work paid off as Tilman began to see significant playing time on defense. Martinez pointed to Tilman’s effort against Moriarty on Aug. 31, as the Pintos began to run plays away from a kid who stands 5-foot-5 and weighs all of 145 pounds.
“He’s not the ideal guy you see at [defensive] end,” Martinez said. “He’s not the 6-foot, 6-2 guy you put there. He plays there because he’s strong at the point of attack and has a good amount of speed to get to the quarterback.”
But Tilman’s greatest attribute is his right leg.
As it became more apparent that the outcome of the Santa Fe High-Española Valley game might dependon Tilman as Sante Fe drove late in the game, his parents sensed the enormity of the situation. The Demons’ losing streak was the fourth-longest in state history.
Tilman’s father recorded the final seconds of the game on his smartphone from the visitor stands, all the while wondering if the moment was too big for his son.
“I was thinking, ‘My gosh, is this too much?’ Because of having gone through what we’ve gone through,” Miles said. “You worried about that, with the stakes being that high.”
As Tilman thought about the three things that mattered most to him prior to the kick, he said Quincy entered his mind for a moment. It’s not something he always does, but Tilman said he sometimes looks up to the sky in the middle of a game, wishing for the one thing he can’t have anymore.
“I’m not like, ‘Oh, he’s looking down on me,’ or anything,” Tilman said. “Maybe I’ll think about him and say, ‘Man, I wish he was here to see that.’ ”
Tilman was locked into the moment after that. He never looked anywhere but the yard marker he was kicking from and Demons holder Luc Jaramillo. He never looked at the flight of the ball as he hit the 30-yard field goal to give the Demons a 23-22 win as time expired and end almost four years of futility.
“It was pure happiness and joy,” Tilman said of his emotions after the kick. “The streak was gone. We can focus on the future.”
So could a family that dealt with so much darkness after the death of two family members. Tilman’s parents both cried after the kick; Beutler called it a “beautiful moment.”
“I hope he gets more of those in football and in his life in general,” Beutler said. “I think the focus and purpose he can have in those moments, it tells me that he’s going to be OK.”
After the celebration and the postgame interviews, Tilman walked off the field and toward his girlfriend and parents. And as he reached the gate, where they stood waiting, Tilman Conway slipped and fell again.
Once again, he stood back up.