Art Abreu Jr. knows exactly when he knew what kind of person he wanted to be, and he has the Dallas Cowboys to thank for it.
It was in the mid-1990s and a group of Cowboys came to Las Vegas, New Mexico, for a charity basketball game against a team of New Mexico Highlands University alumni that included the likes of Gene Mathis, Mark Cassidy and Les Montoya. It was supposed to be a friendly game, but that’s not how it played out.
“It was Michael Irvin, Eric Williams, the ‘Great Wall of Dallas’ (linemen) was there, and they were supposed to let the Dallas Cowboys win the basketball game,” Abreu Jr. said. “Well, whatever happened, they pissed off the wrong group of basketball players.”
The game came down to a final shot for the Cowboys, and Abreu Jr. recalls Irvin driving the lane and a Highlands player – all 6-foot-4 of him – swatted the shot away.
On the alumni’s ensuing possession, the same player went to the other side of the court and completed a 3-point play after getting fouled by Irvin to win the game.
That player? Then-Robertson head football coach Art Abreu Sr. Even though he was a decade older and nowhere near the size of some of the Cowboys, Abreu Sr. didn’t back down from the challenge.
“I mean, my dad vanished behind Eric Williams (guarding him), and my dad is a huge man!” Abreu Jr. said.
Still, the huge shadow the big man cast during his time with the Robertson High Cardinals stuck with Abreu Jr. If anything summed up how he felt about his father, it was when he asked Abreu Sr. to be his best man at his wedding in 2015. Abreu Jr. felt his dad taught him the most valuable lesson about what it means to be an adult.
“A man does what he has to do, not what he wants to do,” Abreu Jr. said.
That motto might very well underscore the Abreu family legacy, and it helped Abreu Jr. reach the pinnacle of a coaching career Dec. 1.
Abreu Jr. put his stamp on the family coaching and athletic tree when he guided the Taos Tigers to their first state football title that Saturday with a 14-7 win over Bloomfield in the Class 4A championship at Anaya Field.
His grandfather was Leland Abreu, who coached multiple sports in Northern New Mexico and is best remembered as a head basketball coach at West Las Vegas, Peñasco, Taos and Highlands. An uncle, Ernie Abreu, led St. Michael’s to a state football title in 1964, while another, Ed Abreu, played football at Clemson University in South Carolina in the mid-1970s.
His dad was a multisport talent who graduated from Taos, played football and basketball at Highlands and got a tryout with the USFL’s San Antonio Gunslingers and the NBA’s Los Angeles Lakers. He was head football coach at Robertson from 1991-2003.
Abreu Jr. understood early on what it meant to be a part of the family.
“Being an Abreu, there is a set of expectations for you,” Abreu Jr. said. “You need to excel and do your best. You need to be an outstanding member of the community. You have to carry that torch, that 18 wheels of expectation. As an Abreu, you’re raised to put that thing on your back and carry it.”
—EYE IN SKY—
But Abreu Jr. wasn’t alone in carrying that load into the 4A championship. In the coaches’ booth above Anaya Field was Abreu Sr., who is the Tigers’ offensive/ defensive line coach and one set of “eyes in the sky” for his son. The father-son tandem has been together for the past four years at Taos, and it has been a roller coaster of fun for Abreu Sr.
“What a ride,” Abreu Sr. said. “There is nothing at Disneyland or Disney World that compares to what I have been on. And I got to do it twice.”
It was 17 years ago on a Saturday that the Abreus took the same path, albeit in a different manner and with a less thrilling outcome. Abreu Sr. was the coach and Abreu Jr. was the tight end and defensive end at Robertson when it faced an undefeated Lovington squad that rolled to a 59-3 win. That was just one stop on the pair’s journey, though.
It seems that everywhere Abreu Jr. went, dad was always in tow.
After Robertson, they paired up at Highlands as Abreu Jr. played tight end and Abreu Sr. was the line coach in the mid- 2000s. When Abreu Jr. joined the Cowboys coaching staff, his dad went to the radio booth and called games until 2011 before Abreu Sr. decided to retire.
That all changed, though, in 2015, when Abreu Jr. left his job as an assistant coach at Highlands and took the job at Taos. Abreu Sr. said he was blindsided by the decision.
“I didn’t want him to take over a struggling program, but obviously that was the best move for him,” Abreu Sr. said. “He didn’t even give me a chance to give him any advice.”
Nor did Abreu Jr. give dad a chance to decline a position on his staff even though Abreu Sr. made it clear the “retire” sign outside his home was permanent.
Well, that’s his story.
“Oh, all 6-4, 300-pounds of him I had to drag (to Taos) – my ass,” Abreu Jr. said.
Besides, even dad knew it was inevitable that he’d find his way back with his son.
When his son started playing for him, Abreu Sr. admitted he was harder on him than the rest of the team because he recognized the stigma of being “the coach’s son.”
Reflecting on those days, Abreu Sr. expressed some regret at his actions although he feels it helped shape his son.
“I think some people thought I was abusive to him,” Abreu Sr. said. “You try to train them the same and treat them the same, but in reality, they have to be the example.
You want them to have the same experience as their teammates, but you have to get that respect from them. So you have to work a little harder, and you pick on your son to get messages through to them, to be a role model to the rest of the team.
“That is a little unfair and he put up with it.”
Roberta Abreu, Abreu Sr.’s wife, acknowledged that the ill will occasionally made it to the dinner table, and she had to play referee.
“There were times when the work came home,” Roberta Abreu said. “But there were times when I had to say, ‘Stop. We’re going to sit here and be a family. Let’s eat.’ And they did.”
Abreu Jr. acknowledged that at times he bristled at the treatment, but he also understood the delicate situation his dad was in.
The side effect was that Abreu Jr. became an excellent football player, earning All-District 2-3A player of the year honors and a spot on the Class 3A North-South team.
“At the time, I might have felt a little sorry for myself, that he was picking on me,” Abreu Jr. said. “I wouldn’t be the man who I am today without those lessons.”
What surprised Abreu Sr., though, was that his son came to Highlands after a year at the New Mexico Military Institute while he was an assistant and stayed at the school as a fellow assistant, too.
“I thought he’d go to Mars, get as far away from me as possible,” Abreu Sr. said.
When his son got his first head coaching job, it was with the caveat that Abreu Sr. would come with him. Of course, it took the blessing of Roberta Abreu for it to happen, and she thought her husband would only stay for a year. She has been the backbone of the family, a role she said she accepted because she understood what Abreu Sr. wanted to do in his career, and later, her son followed suit.
“They told me, ‘We’ll go for one year. He’ll help me set up the program and he’ll go home,’ “ Roberta Abreu said. “I said, ‘OK, I can handle that for four months, six months, a year.’ And here we are four years out, but look at what it became! These guys go after it, they get after each other, but in the end, they’re still father and son.’ “
And what a pair they were.
As the sun settled behind the stands of Anaya Field, Dec. 1, several players wanted one more photo with their head coach— this one with him lifted on their shoulders. As they picked Abreu Jr. up and he raised his right hand in a “No. 1” pose, there was dad, with his hand on Abreu Jr.’s back subtly offering support.
It’s a hand that has never really left.
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