There is a definite juxtaposition to the life of Bryce Santana.
His mother, Tarah, tells the story of a birthday for her son in the seventh grade, a day that Bryce pocketed some $300 in gifts. Which he promptly spent buying canned goods for the homeless.
The Bryce Santana who wore the colors of the Los Lunas High School football and basketball teams inhabited another persona altogether. Unmovable on the court and relentlessly brutish in pads as arguably the most influential two-way player in New Mexico. His work at defensive end – where he dominated throughout the season – stifled offenses everywhere he went.
His football exploits led to a scholarship at the University of New Mexico. He’s also a district player of the year in basketball. And now Santana can add this to his résumé: He is the Journal’s 2019-20 metro male Athlete of the Year.
“It excites me,” Santana, 18, said of his selection. “It lets me know that everything I’ve been working for since I was a little kid is coming true.”
Santana was hugely impactful for the Tigers on their march to the 2019 Class 5A state football final against Roswell.
The senior defensive end finished with a 5A-leading 13 sacks, and 22 tackles for losses.
Los Lunas’ “Rhino” package on offense was a boon for both the Tigers and especially Santana, who took a direct snap and scored 15 rushing touchdowns last season – nearly all of them untouched – and even threw for a score in the playoffs.
In his football career at Los Lunas, he’s also been a quarterback, a strong safety, a linebacker and a tight end.
“Everywhere he’s been, he’s stood out,” said Los Lunas football coach Jeremy Maupin. “This is one of the best dudes I’ve ever met in my life, and a kid I know is going to go far in the world.”
No one need tell his parents this, as they tout his work as a student – his 4.25 GPA puts him in the top five in his class – plus volunteer efforts at nursing homes, at church and with the Special Olympics, among other interests.
“During the summer, they did a basketball camp, and Bryce took the lead to help a kid with Down Syndrome, and Bryce went and helped him and was really patient,” Tarah Santana said. “And the kid had the best time ever. The mom wrote a Facebook message, saying this was the best camp her son had ever been to.”
Santana averaged 13.5 points for the Tigers basketball team as he was named the District 5-5A Player of the Year. He is 6-foot-4 and 270 pounds, or basically the weight of about two point guards.
“I can’t say enough good things about him,” Los Lunas basketball coach Travis Julian said. “The kid is a freak when it comes to strength. He’s probably the strongest kid I’ve ever coached. He gave us, basketball-wise, something that other people had a hard time matching up with.”
Los Lunas’ other defensive end, junior Tyler Kiehne, is considered the top football recruit in the state for the 2020 prep season. He played both sports alongside Santana.
“When we’d be going at it in practice, in basketball … he’s hard to stop,” Kiehne said. “He’s very strong. As far as football, I’ve seen him hit people in front of me so hard. He’s just a rock.”
Santana played in just one state football final for Los Lunas; he suffered a concussion the day before the 2018 championship game and missed it. That stung badly for a kid who’s been madly in love with football since he was a tiny boy. But he got another chance last season, when the Tigers, for the second straight season, fell to Roswell in the state final.
“I think we created a winning culture and we created it the right way,” Santana said. “It was insane, feeling the whole community (having) your back. It was a little upsetting we didn’t get to finish it the way we wanted.”
Santana didn’t receive a Division I offer until the Lobos came on board with new coach Danny Gonzales in mid-January, and Santana admitted that he was late in understanding how the recruiting process worked and learning why it took so long.
His family was rightly thrilled the Lobos signed their son to a letter of intent since both his parents are UNM graduates. Translation: The Lobo ticket office is hearing from plenty of new season-ticket holders from Valencia County.
“We didn’t have a reason to support the team until Bryce got on there,” said Aurelio Santana, Bryce’s father. “The Lobos haven’t been doing all that well, but now there’s excitement about coach Gonzales bringing back the old Lobo mindset.”
And New Mexico, for Santana, is, he hopes, a stepping stone.
“I’ve been dreaming of this since I was a little kid,” he said. “It gets me a step closer to what my ultimate goal is, which is to play in the NFL.”