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Sam Jernigan, more than a coach

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As the east Texas sun sets upon the autumn of his life, the fire from within Sam Jernigan burns to coach and be around kids. He has given his life to developing kids and making them better.

Not a lot of people in Roswell, New Mexico, know what has driven him all those years. Sometimes he’s misunderstood and seen as difficult. If you are not where he is from, his passion and drive could be taken the wrong way. His desire to achieve was about never having to go back from whence he came: the other side of the tracks.

Since he was a kid, that fire in his belly has always burned. To this day, it still burns inside. He has had to fight for an education and to make something of himself. He had to fight to make Goddard football respected, and in the end, that fight turned him into a life he could only dream about. He was determined to break away and have a better life than what had been handed down to him; a family of common laborers. That fight seen him rank as one of the top football coaches in New Mexico history with 212 wins, and six Blue Trophies, which makes him fourth all-time among coaches, including one perfect season in 2012.

The only thing left for Sam to highlight his career is to be inducted into the New Mexico High School Football Coaches Association Hall of Fame. He was recently nominated for the New Mexico Hall of Fame.

Former Goddard football coach Sam Jernigan, doesn’t allow himself to think about anything other than today. Sam recently retired, having taught government and economics at Terrell High School in Terrell, Texas. He was a linebacker coach for the last four years, and two years before that, he coached at South Garland as a coach.

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With the COVID-19 pandemic, Sam is in good shape, benching over 300 pounds and still outrunning some of his players in practice. With an open football season, Sam’s plans are open. If he does not coach this year, it will be the first year he has not been on the sidelines since he was 5 years old.

Never give up

Sam Jernigan looks toward the field during a game. (File Photo)

His coaching life was about making kids believe in themselves, and giving them confidence they could overcome any opponent or obstacles to win. No matter who the opponent was or how big they were. Sam expected his players to find a way or make a way to give their best effort: win, lose, or draw.

Sam knew the high school years were critical for young boys to develop their character, and form who they would be for the rest of their lives. He wanted them to learn one lesson, never give up, never give up, never give up.

Never give up, came from a speech in 1989 during his second year at Goddard as a defensive coordinator. During Sam’s talk at the chalkboard, the players were staring at him.

Sam said Tommy Kirk, a linebacker for the team, kept staring at him the whole time. He felt Kirk was so tough, that you could hit Kirk in the head with a hammer and he’d get up ready to fight.

Sam made two statements during the speech: He concluded with, in anything you ever do in life, you never give up, never give up and never give up, in that order. The other part of that speech was: Sam promised them if they would play with a never-give-up attitude, as long as he was at Goddard, they would never go back to being a doormat for other teams.

Sam has lived that motto every day of his life. He’s had to rebound from defeat in his personal life, and professionally. He knows what it is like to be an assistant coach late-in-life after being a successful head coach. Sam knows what it feels like not to have the final say.

Treating everyone the same

Sam doesn’t talk about the duels with New Mexico coaching legends, Jim Bradley, Eric Roanhaus, Copper Henderson, or Jim Miller. He won’t talk about being selected by Miller to visit with the NFL and learn from them.

No, Sam will talk about his kids. He’ll talk about the superstar players he’s coached, but also the players that have touched his life as much as the stars, the pluggers. Guys that punch the timeclock day in and day out. He held to the belief to treat all his players the same: whether the guy is the 50th player on the team or an all-state player.

The first story Sam will talk about while tearing up, is how one of his players never gave up. This player was in eighth grade and wasn’t good enough to play in a four-quarter football game. The team had a fifth quarter for everybody that didn’t get to play.

When this player was a freshman, he played 10 minutes of the entire season. When he was a sophomore, he played one half of one game the entire season.

As a junior, he was a starter on varsity at center. When he was a senior, this same player was a state champion.

Sam asked, what would motivate you to keep sticking with a kid that didn’t have any athletic ability? Sam felt the kid had the Goddard spirit, and it was all Goddard had. Both continued to plug along. Now, this former Rocket football player that would never quit on himself or the team is a high-ranking officer in the Pentagon. His name is Geof Miller.

Sam never knew what kid would make a play for him, catch a pass to win a game, or recover a fumble. He believed in treating all his players like stars.

Sam talks about unsung heroes like Robert Kerns, he was the team manager for three years. Kerns wanted to play and ended up starting at right tackle as a senior.

“I love what coach Jernigan stands for,” Roswell defensive coordinator Art Bolanos said. “Coach Jernigan didn’t care if you were rich or poor, or what your parents did for a living. If you put in the time, he made you tough and you played for him.”

The beginning

Sam graduated from Abilene High School and played defensive back at McMurray College. He ran a 4.4 40-yard dash and had an NFL tryout. He also had an opportunity to play in the Canadian Football League with the Montreal Alouettes.

Sam’s wife was from Roswell and told him she would not live in Canada. He finished his degree and coached in Texas for nine years. Sam’s first coaching job was at Fort Sumner for two years.

Goddard coach Jim Hite hired Sam as defensive coordinator in 1988. The only thing Hite wanted Sam to do was start the game in a split defense, after that, Sam could run the defense he wanted. When he came to Goddard, they weren’t known as a football school. Goddard had just won state championships in basketball, volleyball, and baseball. The only football championship was in 1967.

Once hired as defensive coordinator, football player Lupe Leyba walked into the coach’s offices and introduced himself. “Hello coach, I’m Lupe Leyba, your defensive captain.”

Sam looked him straight in the eyes with a piercing, serious face and says, “No, you’re not. But it’s nice to meet you.”

Leyba eventually became the defensive captain for the Rockets.

“In all my time with Coach Jernigan,” Bolanos said, “I never heard him say one cuss word to get his point across to a player or coach. I admired that about him.”

Sam feels beating Lovington in 1989 in triple overtime was the start of everything. During his first year as head coach in 1991, one of his biggest wins was beating Roswell and coach Jim Bradley with Ricardo Martinez as quarterback.

Big wins and championships

Sam Jernigan earned seven championship rings while at Goddard. Jernigan won his first ring as defensive coordinator in 1989 under former coach James Hite, in Jernigan’s second season with the Rockets. As head coach, Jernigan won titles in 1991, 1993, 1997, 2008, 2009 and 2012. (Submitted Photo)

It was in warmups before the 1993 championship game at Clovis, a coach was standing along the fence where all the coaches watched the game, said Clovis looked like a junior college football team. The coaches agreed and didn’t know why Goddard was even there. That was until the first play of the game. Goddard’s quarterback, Robert Gonzales was gang tackled and sprained his ankle. Gonzales comes back into the game and throws five interceptions and Goddard is down 17 points at the end of the third quarter.

Sam comes over and talks to his quarterback and calms him down. He asks Gonzales if he ever played baseball? If his teams have ever been down by a lot of runs, only to come back and win? Gonzales laughs and relaxes. Sam tells him, we’re about to come back and win this game. Gonzales throws two touchdown passes to lead Goddard in a comeback to win the championship.

“One of the most brilliant football minds I’ve ever known,” NMMI football coach Randy Montoya said of Sam. “I learned a lot of football from that man.”

In another championship game at Clovis, the play that made Goddard football, according to Sam was this play. Goddard quarterback Robert Gonzales had the ball on the Wildcat 5-yard line with three seconds to go before halftime. The weather was minus 17 degrees, and Sam called for a slant pass to receiver Josh Worley, Worley caught the ball.

“We mark that play as the beginning of our dynasty,” Sam said. “From that point on, when we came out in the second half, we knew we had that game won. Our kids always played differently.”

Kelsey Cunningham was a tight end who ended up being moved to guard. In the championship game against Aztec, he kicked the extra point, the kick was good, but Goddard was called for a penalty. He ended up missing the extra point and Aztec won 28-27.

In the next year, with time moving down, Sam told his running back to move the ball to the middle of the field. Sam was not a fan of field goals, but thought, why not try it. He sent long snapper Chris Chavez in and Mitch Weathers to hold for the kick, the ball was snapped and Cunningham kicked the ball through the uprights from 35-yards out to win the game 17-14 over Los Lunas to win the 2012 championship. Sam believed in Cunningham and gave him a chance at redemption.

In Sam’s first state championship in 1991, he felt more confident going into that game than any other. One of the things that stood out to him as Goddard beat Artesia at the Bulldog Bowl, was the people leaving the stadium.

A big cowboy walked up to Artesia coach Cooper Henderson and told him to get Goddard off of the field. Cooper looked at the man and said, “they just won the state championship, they can stay here as long as they want to. I’ll turn the lights on for them if they want me to.”

Sam remembers after the game a man came up to him and his coaches and congratulated them for the win. At the time, Sam didn’t know that person was L.G. Henderson.

In the 1993 season, Goddard took on the No. 1 team in the state, Eldorado. Goddard beat them convincingly. At the time, Eldorado coach Bill Gentry was the winningest coach in the state with over 300 wins. Goddard beat them, 48-7.

After Goddard had beaten Clovis in the 1993 championship game, the teams walked across the field after the game. One of Roanhaus’ assistants started chirping at Sam about how Goddard cheated. Roanhaus grabs his assistant and tells him to be quiet. After that, he goes back to congratulating Sam showing sportsmanship.

“That set the tone,” Sam said, “to see the difference between some coaches, and other coaches. Some coaches are true champions, they are class acts. Those coaches had shown me how I should try to conduct myself.”

Timing and retirement

Sam Jernigan on the sidelines during a playoff game. (David Rocha Photo)

Sam says he made his decision to retire at the end of the 2012 season. It would have been the perfect way to end his career leaving on a perfect season, but his friends, the Frenchs, and Weathers asked him to stay one more year. He doesn’t regret it.

“Life is about timing,” Sam said. “I’m a big believer in saying the right place at the right time. It’s not that you didn’t make the first down, you did, but you made it in the first quarter instead of the fourth quarter. Had you been here 30 minutes ago, I would have loved to talk to you, but I just hired that dude.

“Timing is a big deal for me. My timing should have been to leave after the 2012 season. My mind had been made up to retire. How can you leave on a better note? Undefeated. I couldn’t stay forever for everybody’s kid.”

His impact is far-reaching, if Sam never coaches another football game, his legacy will live on through his former players. Coaches like Randy Montoya, Art Bolanos, and many others. Sam taught more than football, he taught life lessons as the sun continues to set upon him.

Coaches reflect on Jernigan

Cooper Henderson

Artesia coach Cooper Henderson holds the most state titles with 15 and has 293 career wins.

“When you got ready to play a team that Sam coached, you’d better be prepared,” Henderson said. “I really think he was a very good preparation guy on the game of football.”

One of the things that impressed Henderson was when he was coaching the all-star game. Sam wasn’t a big PR guy. I found that athletes that played for him were very loyal to him and had good things to say about him. Sam inspired his players.

Jim Miller

Las Cruces Bulldawgs coach Jim Miller retired with six championships and is tied for fourth all-time with Sam Jernigan.

“Sam was a great coach with multiple state championships,” Miller said. “His teams always played hard and it was an honor to compete against him and his teams.”

Eric Roanhaus

Clovis football coach Eric Roanhaus is New Mexico’s all-time leader in wins with 343, and is second in state titles with 10.

“Sam’s teams were tough, smart and played hard. I thought that was a direct reflection of the qualities he instilled in them. He’s a good guy. I always had a lot of respect for Sam Jernigan.”

Special players to Coach Jernigan and Goddard football

Lorenzo Snyder, Toby Solis, Jon Solis, Raymond Solis, Chris Price, Ryan Price, Cory Price, Will Patton, Pax Chagnon, Mickie Muccie, Josh Worley, Arthur Lacey, Benton Tipps, Bryan Aragon, Stephen Kane, Jacob Caldwell, Josh Newton, Ryan Skarda, Frank Epinoza, Ryan Delamater, Mike Mccallum, Cale Sanders, Andre Cheatem, Danny Vigil, John Thompson, Tony Alber, Matt Phillips, Sammy Jernigan, Cruz Herrera, Matt Heider, Allen Holloway, Ritchie Ramirez, Allen Gallisini, Randy Montoya, Brandon Rager, Steven Zuniga, Antonio Salverrey, Andy Grey, Drew Jurney, Wes Belding, Connor Thompson, Cecil Aguirre, Jason Salas, Art Bolanos, Hobie McClain and Chase Kyser.

Sports editor J.T. Keith can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext. 304, or sports@rdrnews.com.

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