Unsung Heroes 2019

Citizen of the Year 2019: Art Abreu Jr.

Carrying a team, a family and a community on his shoulders

By Staci Matlock
Posted 10/10/19

The Taos High School head football coach lead the Tigers to the school's first football championship in 2018. His efforts on behalf of his team on and off the field earned him the nod as the 2019 Citizen of the Year. He was honored along with eight other Unsung Heroes on Wednesday (Oct. 9) at El Monte Sagrado in Taos.

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Unsung Heroes 2019

Citizen of the Year 2019: Art Abreu Jr.

Carrying a team, a family and a community on his shoulders

Posted

For two minutes at the end of the fourth quarter on a November night last year, much of Taos held its collective breath. The fate of the town’s first state football championship trophy hung in the balance. By the time the clock ran out, the Tigers had clinched the Class 4A title against Bernalillo. 

“It was just unbelievable. It was the most beautiful thing, other than giving birth to my two kids,” said Roberta Abreu, mother of the Tigers’ head coach Art Abreu Jr. “It was kind of like reaching the epitome of what I had dealt with and worked with my entire life of being a coach’s wife, a player’s mom, a coach’s mom. 

“It had been forever for it to happen,” said Roberta, who almost never missed a game and sat in the same spot near the 50 yard line underneath the announcer’s stand where her husband, Art Abreu Sr., was offering guidance to his son from the coaching booth. “I’m just so glad that the Taos administration gave my son the years to put a program in place, that would prove our kids could do it, that they can be just as tough and rugged and carry this championship on their shoulders.” 

Building a championship team takes time and sacrifice, in ways that people who aren’t students of the game might not fully grasp.

Art Abreu Jr.’s sacrifices and what he accomplished on and off the field are what make him this year’s Citizen of the Year. 

Those accomplishments, he said, wouldn’t have been possible without the people who had his back, like his mom.

Rebooting

A few years ago, if you had told Abreu Jr. he would guide the Taos Tigers to their first state football championship, he might have raised his eyebrows and let out one of his belly-deep laughs.

Back then, he had quit college. He was working and putting on some pounds. “We Abreus love to eat,” he said with a grin sitting in the Tigers’ weight room.

He didn’t think sports would be part of his life again.

It was a time of deep self-doubt — the kind that would later help him understand some of the low points his players feel. It also helped him understand at a bone-deep level what they have to do to rise above and conquer that doubt.

A coach got him back on track. “He looked me up and down, squared me up and said basically I was wasting my life,” Abreu said. "Told me to get back to Las Vegas and play for his son.”

Abreu Jr. quit his job and returned to his Las Vegas hometown to attend New Mexico Highlands University and play football for the Cowboys. Getting back into the game “was a little difficult. It was so sad to the point I couldn’t even complete a mile jogging,” Abreu Jr. recalled. “You gotta hit rock bottom before you know where you are going to be at.”

He fought his way back and ended up as starting tight end for Highlands for three years. He finished a bachelor’s in physical education and a master’s in sports administration. “Now I’m thinking about going for my Ph.D. at UNM,” Abreu Jr. said.

Resilience

His resilience is due in no small part to his family. 

Abreu Jr. was steeped in sports from the day he was born — a son, nephew and grandson of coaches. “He has been surrounded by sports, all sports, not just football, from the day he was born,” said Roberta.

His dad was his coach growing up. It wasn’t easy. Even his dad admits he made an example out of his son on the field. 

Junior also wasn’t an easy kid, said his parents. He went his own way, butted heads with his dad. 

“My son has always gone on his own path,” Roberta said. She worried at one point he wouldn’t land where he did, back in sports with a path forward.

“But you have to let them go, light another candle, say another prayer and hope they find their way,” she reflected. 

From his parents and both sets of grandparents, Abreu Jr. learned a kind of code that he strives now to pass on to his players.

He learned, “A man does what he has to do, not what he wants to do. There are those days you don’t want to get out of bed or do this or that, but for the betterment of your team, of your day, of your relationships, you do.”

He developed, he said, “a sense of urgency to get up and get things done, go full on. Don’t live a mediocre life. Live a righteous life.”

Working for a title

Building a championship team was a four-and-a-half-year effort for Abreu Jr., one which required support from his wife, his parents, Taos High School and the Taos community, which is not shy about telling a coach how the game should be played.

“We had to start with a lot of basics, the basics of pushups, basics of situps,” Abreu Jr. said. “Four-hour sessions of mind, body and soul.”

“What I do isn’t for everyone. You have to be a special person to hang around me,” he said. “I have expectations. I have standards. Be the best version of yourself that you can be and you’re going to be fine.”

He expects excellence off the field as well — maintaining grades, dressing up on Thursdays before game day, demonstrating good sportsmanship even when they lose. 

He had to understand every person on his team to know if they had it in them to be champions.

“You have to know the soul of a team, the soul of an individual, what they are capable of,” he said.

His dad is proud of the man his son has become. “He had the courage to do this because society is very unforgiving,” Abreu Sr. said. “People pushed back at the coaching method — said it was too harsh, too much structure, too many rules.” 

But Abreu Sr. believes it paid off in the form of a championship trophy and a group of young players who know what it takes to get there. 

Taos High School Athletic Director Nickie McCarty said Abreu Jr., “really transformed the culture, the mindset of the team.”

McCarty said while Taos teams have brought home plenty of other state championships in other sports, this first one in football was particularly special. “It brought the whole community out,” she said. “It put Taos on the map.”

While Abreu Jr. is demanding, “When kids need him, he’s there,” McCarty added. “That says a lot about his character and personality. Kids know he cares about them and that’s why they’re willing to work.” 

Overcoming adversity

Abreu Jr. sees the rough hands some of the kids on his team are dealt — not enough food to eat, absent or troubled parents, traumatic events.

“Some of these kids have to work just to make sure they can pay a bill they shouldn’t have to be paying or figuring out what type of sandwich they can make,” Abreu said. “It hurts.”

But he doesn’t treat them any easier because life won’t off the field. He sees his role as teaching them how to get up and keep going, no matter how many times they get knocked down.

“Hey, if God dealt you a bad hand you develop that into what you can,” Abreu Jr. said. “You put down a card or two and see what you get out of that draw. If you have to fold it a couple of times to find the hand you need, do it.

“What’s worse is you release them to society and think, ‘Are they going to come back?’ Or is society going to swallow them?”

His dad sees the influence his son has on another generation of young men. “Each generation gets tougher. It’s very sad. It pulls on your heart strings,” “Big” Art Abreu Sr. said. “You try to prepare them for this tough sport and for life, because life throws all kinds of stuff at you. But you also have to have a heart for what they are going through.”

“My son is there for them, but he is tough on them,” Abreu, Sr. said.

His son believes the lessons of his past, the lessons drilled into him by generations of a coaching family, led to that moment when they lifted a trophy.

“If I weren’t around the boys as much as we have been, if I had a different expectation, I’m not sure we would have won the state championship,” Abreu Jr. said. “There’s a lot of things that the boys — the team that just left — had to get to reach that point.”

Sacrifices

Coach Abreu Jr. expects nothing of his players he doesn’t expect of himself.

He is up at 4 a.m. and at the school by about 6 a.m. He’s often not home until 10 or  11 p.m. at night. His wife, Chloe, pregnant with their first child, bears the brunt of sacrifice. She is the one who keeps him going, he said. “She has to sacrifice about eight months a year and only has me for four months,” he said.

Abreu Jr. and Chloe carry on a tradition started by his parents — Thursday night dinners for the whole team. “It was to ensure the kid got carbs at least one meal before the game,” Abreu Jr. said.  “It was to fill the tummy. And everyone takes home a plate.”

That’s a lot of mouths to feed once a week on a coach’s salary, but it is another way Abreu Jr. and his family do more than what they have to for their team off the field. And it isn’t the only time they have made sure a player has something to eat. 

Abreu Jr. faces a tough season, not just because he’s rebooting his program with a young team.

His mom is battling cancer. 

For the first time in years, she missed the opening game of the season and hasn’t been to one since. She is in treatment. 

It’s one of those situations that has knocked the whole family to its knees. Her son has to dig deep to concentrate on his players, the baby that’s on the way and help his parents when he can. He’s modeling again for his players the fortitude it takes to handle whatever life throws at them.

Abreu Jr. said it pains him to look up in the stands and not see his mom cheering from her favorite seat and ringing a big cowbell at every touchdown. They keep her seat open in the stands. She intends to be back there soon.

And her son intends to have a team she’ll want to watch. 

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