Mike Powers | News-Bulletin photo
Tigers’ cross country coaches get ready to host an August scrimmage meet.
Larry Padilla clears hurdles, inspires Tigers
In this day and age of coaches surviving only a year or two on the job, be it high school, college or pros, Larry Padilla is an exception.
For 31 years, Padilla has been the cross country head coach at Los Lunas High School, with dual-duty running the track program for much of that time before giving it up.
Imagine never missing a practice or a meet — 34 years total counting his time as a volunteer.
A broken pelvis, knee replacements, cancer or a hunting accident hasn’t sidelined Padilla. Rub a little dirt on it, right?
“I guess it’s just commitment,” the 73-year-old Padilla said. “I was pretty much the same way with my job. Just the way I was brought up. Just have to work through everything.”
Padilla was “brought up” on a farm in Polvadera, a rural community in Socorro County. Eventually, Padilla moved to Los Lunas, working at Los Lunas Hospital and Training School and as a social worker for CYFD.
Larry Padilla was inducted into the New Mexico Track and Cross Country Coaches Association Hall of Fame in 2019.
Coach Larry Padilla, Treyton Padilla and Andrew McKinney pictured in a booklet athletes receive after each season.
This amazing run at LLHS started when Padilla became a volunteer coach after his daughter, Lynette, went out for the cross country team. From there, one thing led to another.
“I’m still enjoying it, yeah. I look forward to it every year,” Padilla said. “I kind of get anxious when summer comes along” and the season approaches.
Padilla was not your typical volunteer. An avid runner, Padilla was the founder of the Valencia County Roadrunners Track Club. When it comes to the intricacies of the sport, Padilla seeks out knowledge.
He would attend New Mexico Activities Association clinics even before he was coaching.
“I also got certified through USA Track and Field,” he said. “I just have to keep learning and willing to change. “
Over those three decades, Padilla has kept the Tiger cross country program in peak form, capturing a district title with either the boys or girls, sometimes both, every year.
The success has led to boxes of memorabilia and awards, including New Mexico Coach of the Year honors in both cross country and track, as well as a spot in the New Mexico Track and Cross Country Coaches Association Hall of Fame.
During 30-plus years there have been some changes to the sport, mainly technical in nature with automated timing systems and such. But have the kids changed?
“No,” Padilla quickly said. “The faces are different but you always have the same type of kids.”
These kids can still relate to their mentor, despite a half-century age difference.
“He’s an amazing coach. I love him,” said LLHS senior Kiyah Padilla, no relation. “He knows what he’s doing. He’s been coaching forever.”
Kiyah’s father competed under Padilla and that’s where the family’s love of running started.
Building relationships is a key to Larry Padilla’s success.
Austin Watts, another Tiger senior, put it this way: “He has high expectations but he sees good in all of us. We all have to make him proud.”
Perhaps it is Larry Padilla’s background in social work that has helped build trust.
“I don’t have to be their friends but I’ve always had a good relationship with them and them with me,” Padilla explained. “Parents will often come to me and say they are having problems with their kids at home and they would say, ‘Hey coach, come and talk to my son. We’re having this issue with him.’”
The kids come and go but some of the parents never leave. At a scrimmage meet in August, Anthony and Carvella Lueras were helping out on the course even though their four children are no longer in the program.
“All our kids loved coach Padilla,” Carvella said. “He worked well with the kids, took them on camps to Red River. So as parents, we were always there to help him.”
The meets and trips became part of family tradition said Anthony Lueras.
“Our biggest memories are like, Red River,” Anthony said. “Even though he didn’t take the kids to Red River this year, we went as a family because we were so used to doing it.”
Mike Powers | News-Bulletin photo
Larry Padilla has a reason to smile as he overcame injury and illness to remain one of the top coaches in the state.
Those memories were almost cut short — twice. In 1986, Padilla was deer hunting with friends when his rifle accidently fired, the bullet striking him in the lower leg. It destroyed his Achilles tendon and took off most of the heel bone. Padilla says he spent two months in the hospital and went through about a dozen surgeries.
“Everything was numb for the longest time,” Padilla recalled as his leg was levitated. “When you experience pain, you kind of say, ‘Oh my, that’s terrible.’ But then when you can’t feel anything, you would love to feel that pain again. That was my motivation.”
While in the hospital, mostly flat on his back, Padilla had plenty of time to think. A classic quote from the movie “Gone with the Wind” stuck with him.
“For some reason that came to me,” Padilla said, paraphrasing that line. “As God as my witness, I am going to get out there and run again and nothing is going to stop me.”
It took more than a year of rehabilitation, but Padilla was back out jogging and then running, increasing the distance as he could.
“I just wanted to get to the point where I was tired again. I wanted to get to the point where I was out of breath when I was running,” he said. “Some of these things that you think are painful or difficult, you want to experience again.”
Twelve years ago came crisis No. 2. While riding on a team bus, Padilla’s doctor called.
“You have prostate cancer,” he said. “Cancer is a scary word. First time you hear that you say, ‘Oh my gosh, what is going to happen?”
Padilla described the situation as “a little bit of a distraction,” focusing on doing his own research, talking to doctors and others who experienced the disease.
He calmly says, “Fortunately I made it.” Indeed.
Padilla still runs with his athletes, closer to the back of the pack than the front these days, still wanting to “feel the heat.” He knows the finish line is in sight for his coaching career.
“I’m here for a few more years. I still have a little bit of time left in me,” Padilla said. “As the old saying goes, I’m in the fourth quarter now. We’ll see how much time is left in the fourth quarter.”
Mike Powers spent more than 40 years as a television news and sports anchor, mostly in the Albuquerque market. He has won numerous awards including New Mexico Sportscaster of the Year. He covers a wide range of sports, including the Valencia County prep scene.