Senior defensive end returns from concussion protocol just in time for championship game, the last of his football career

By Will Webber



Santa Fe New Mexican


One last ride, as it should be. For the better part of two weeks, Nico Armendariz figured he had played the final football game of his life. On Saturday, he’ll get that chance — on his terms, not someone else’s. “I had to rely on everyone else to carry it through so I could play again,” he said Monday. “Watching the game from the sidelines, hanging back at practice. It was hard.” A senior on the St. Michael’s football team, the 6-foot-3 defensive end will be on the field this weekend when the Horsemen face Robertson in the Class 3A state championship game. Armendariz got medical clearance Monday to resume full contact after suffering a concussion in the team’s quarterfinal win against Raton two weeks ago. Pushed into the state’s mandatory concussion protocol, he was held out of team activities until he passed a pair of workouts with the school’s athletic trainer. That meant missing last week’s playoff game, too. Exactly when the injury happened, Armendariz said, is a total mystery. “I couldn’t even tell you,” he said. “It started with me feeling a little fuzzy, then having blurred vision of halftime in that Raton game. I don’t really remember that much or what I did to do it.” He came off the field early in the third quarter, sat on the bench and felt a throbbing headache roll over him. After a brief examination by the team trainer was told he was done. Moments later he was embraced by his father, Armando, the team photographer who patrols the sidelines during games. The two shared a long hug and a private conversation as the game resumed without him. “It’s always nice to have him down there because he’ll give me some relief when something goes bad,” Nico said. “He always tells me it’s only temporary, that it will pass in its own time.” That said, his return to the field was no longer in his control. Out for at least a week, he needed his teammates to come through for him and keep the season going. They did just that, rallying from 14 points down in the final nine minutes to beat Raton, then hammering New Mexico Military in last weekend’s semifinals. When the Horsemen come running out of their inflatable helmet and onto the field this Saturday, he’ll be back in his familiar blue No. 88 jersey knowing he’s only got 60 minutes of football for the rest of his life. “When it first happened it was pretty emotional because I was wondering if I’d ever play again,” Armendariz said. “It wasn’t up to me. This last game, it’s up to me.” His return adds depth to an already solid defensive line. The unit completely shut down NMMI and will be a focal point in Saturday’s title game. The Horsemen are seeking their sixth state championship, their fourth since Joey Fernandez took over as coach and taken the team to seven previous trips to the finals. “Nico’s been a big part of what we’ve been doing around here and, yeah, I think it had to be hard on him not being able to play when everyone knows a loss ends everything for us,” Fernandez said. “He’s a veteran, someone the other kids can look up to. We’re a better team with him out there.” An edge rusher, Armendariz has the lateral quickness to pursue plays to the outside and the size to disrupt an opponent’s passing game. He has three sacks and 36 tackles in 10 games. The last two years, however, have presented some challenging moments for him. On the first day off full-pads workouts before his junior season, he tore the meniscus in his right knee and never played a down as the Horsemen reached the state finals. He said he went into surgery facing two options: Crutches with months of rehab and a heavy brace, or having the ability to walk out the front door under his own power. “I woke up in my hospital bed and the first thing I saw were crutches,” Armendariz said. “I started crying.” He said he felt good enough to potentially play in time for last season’s playoff run but opted not to because he’d fallen out of game shape. It made for a long, trying time — but one that ignited the kind of passion that has carried him through another solid season for the Horsemen. Now faced with just a few days left in organized football, he said he’s ready to put everything on the line for his team and for those who stood behind him through thick and thin. “Without school this week it’s actually easier to focus now more than ever,” he said. “You wake up and it’s all about football. You’re free to think about it all day and stay locked in.”