New Mexico School for the Deaf building around 6-foot-4 senior
Deven Thompson is the litmus test for any prospective football player at New Mexico School for the Deaf.
At 6-foot-10, 240 pounds, the senior might be the most imposing figure on a football field, but it can play to the advantage of any Roadrunner during practice. If the players can take on Thompson in the open field or in an individual tackling drill, they can handle just about anybody who lines up across the line of scrimmage.
“They lose that fear [of getting hit],” said Thompson, the Roadrunners’ leading receiver from last year. “And they stay more aggressive because of it. They’re prepared because of practice for anybody we face.”
That has been part of the process of rebuilding what was one of the better football programs in the six-man division. It is Year 2 of the second act for NMSD football. After canceling the 2016 season just days after its first scrimmage because of a lack of players and injuries, the Roadrunners want to continue the positive direction the program had after last year’s 3-3 record as an independent.
NMSD head coach James Litchfield III said playing an independent schedule took the emphasis off of competing in a district in favor of player development, which was needed for the players who never played the sport.
“Playing independent really helped us, in terms of having access to equal play, equal experience,” Litchfield said. “I think playing in a [district] can be challenging for some of these boys. Playing independent allows them to grow, build up their skill, build their confidence and develop their experience of playing ball.”
Litchfield said that philosophy was behind the Roadrunners playing as an independent this year. The Roadrunners have 14 players in the program, which is an improvement from last year, but a couple of the freshmen and eighth-graders are playing football for the first time.
An encouraging sign for NMSD, though, is that it is now playing in a league for its middle-school flag football program. Giving the younger players a chance to learn how to play at a younger age should have a long-lasting impact when they compete at the high school level.
“When they haven’t played, there are different things to consider when you have to teach them plays or routes,” Litchfield said. “When you’re teaching that to a group of kids who haven’t played before, it’s tough.”
This year’s team, though, shouldn’t struggle with a lack of experience.
Most of the 2017 squad returned, and the Roadrunners benefited from the return of senior Luis Villalobos, who left the school after the 2016-17 year. Villalobos admitted he missed playing football, but saw a different mindset from his teammates than he saw before.
They take practices, workouts and weight training more seriously than before. That was evident Thursday, as the team lifted weights and did plyometric training before hitting the field.
“I felt that [two years ago], there was a lot of arguing, a lack of respect with teammates,” Villalobos said. “I felt just bummed out. It’s different now. I feel very proud of the team now. I feel like they want it. They are ready to win. Regardless of if we win or lose, they want to win and there’s more mutual respect and unity.”
The attitude adjustment can partly be attributed to the success the school had last year in track and field and boys basketball. The Roadrunners won their first district basketball title in 40 years, and Thompson won the javelin and the discus at the Class 1A state meet in the spring.
If anyone embodies the new-and-improved attitude, it is Thompson. The senior spent much of the summer playing basketball and getting into the best shape of his career. He shed about 20 pounds and is more mobile than ever.
Thompson has big goals for this year — like a winning season in football, making a deep run in basketball and defending his throwing titles in the spring.
“Compared to two or three years ago, I think our success has pooled in more numbers [in many sports],” Thompson said. “I think we expect those numbers to get better and kids to show up more.”
If the younger Roadrunners can handle Thompson in practice, they certainly can handle what lies ahead for their prep careers.
N.M. School for the Deaf Roadrunners
Last year: 3-3 overall (played as an independent)
Head coach: James Litchfield III (fourth year)
Key players: Julio Portillo, junior, 5-foot-8, 160 pounds, QB/LB; Jacob Stevens, senior, 5-10, 165, RB/LB; Deven Thompson, senior, 6-10 , 240, WR/DL; Luis Villalobos, senior, 5-11/170, RB/LB.
Outlook: It is Year 2 of the Roadrunners’ reclamation project after forfeiting the 2016 season. They will compete as an independent program, and their schedule is filled with games against fellow deaf schools. NMSD has 14 players. Villalobos brings a physical presence to the program after missing last season, while Portillo is a talented athlete who will move around on offense. If the program can make it through another season in good health in terms of roster size, the school might return to district play. As it stands, the program simply wants to build upon the positive vibe that a 3-3 mark in 2017 gave it.
Sept. 6 — at Carrizozo, 6 p.m.
Sept. 15 — at Wisconsin School for the Deaf, 2 p.m.
Sept. 22 — at Iowa School for the Deaf, 2 p.m.
Sept. 29 — Arkansas School for the Deaf, 2 p.m.
Oct. 6 — Missouri School for the Deaf, 2 p.m.
Oct. 13 — at Washington School for the Deaf, 2 p.m.