Ties that bind: In tiny Winkelman, 8-man football champs reflect copper community’s perseverance

Ties that bind: In tiny Winkelman, 8-man football champs reflect copper community’s perseverance

The picturesque small town of Winkelman has faced its share of hardship, but it also rebounds from challenging times. Its 8-man football team recently captured the state title. (Photo courtesy of copperbasinaz.org)

The picturesque small town of Winkelman has faced its share of hardship, but it also rebounds from challenging times. Its 8-man football team recently captured the state title. (Photo courtesy of copperbasinaz.org)

WINKELMAN – From arsenic in its soil to ravaging floods to a battered economy, this tiny copper mining community located near the confluence of the Gila and San Pedro rivers about 90 miles southeast of Phoenix has endured repeated challenges.

But like the 1,000-foot smokestack that stands tall above Winkelman and the adjoining town of Hayden, its residents have continued to rise above the challenges, and at 1 a.m. on a November morning, they are celebrating.

A symphony from about 50 car horns honking in unison fills the early morning air along Arizona State Route 177 as a convoy of parents, players and staffers from Hayden High School pulls into the G.J. Bar & Grill in nearby Kearny. After a celebratory meal, they continue on toward the Lobos’ football field another 8 miles down the road to ring the victory bell there.

It has been 51 years since the town’s little school has rung that bell to celebrate a state high school football championship. The Lobos, who won a championship in 1972 in the state’s smallest 11-man-football division, had just devoured Mogollon High School, 62-30, to complete a perfect 12-0 season in eight-man football and capture the state 1A championship.

The championship victory snapped a string of three straight state titles Mogollon had won. A Hayden fan in attendance wears a blue T-shirt with “Our town. Our school. Our family” emblazoned upon it.

It is a slogan the community takes to heart.

“Any time we go out of town for a game, there’s a crowd. There is a super crowd,” said Dave Lagunas, the school’s former baseball coach. “It doesn’t matter where. We are there for the kids. You know, we’re very proud of the blue and white.”

The area has been hit hard by floods. One in 1926 destroyed most of the farmland and flooded an area known as Winkelman Flats. (Photo courtesy of copperbasinaz.org)

Family is a thread that connects the school’s most recent state championship to the one in 1972. One of the stars against Mogollon was sophomore Kino Lorona, whose father, Geronimo, is an assistant coach and former Lobos star. Geronimo’s father and Kino’s grandfather was Bobby Lorona, who was the coach of that 1972 team.

This latest generation is making its mark in eight-man football, which might be obscure to many sports followers but is the only brand of football many of the kids in Winkelman – a community of about 300 people in Arizona’s copper corridor near the western boundary of the San Carlos Reservation – have ever known.

Most of the 34 players on Hayden’s football roster have never even played standard 11-man football.

In recent years, small-town schools have found their footing through eight-man football. Rules are similar, but to adjust for fewer players on the field, games are often played on a field reduced to 80 yards between the goal lines and 40 yards in width.

Still, with fewer players, it is a wide-open style, and games often turn into high-scoring affairs.

Winkelman is one of the smallest incorporated towns in Arizona by area and population, and the copper industry is the primary source of income for the town and the adjoining community of Hayden. The smelter in Winkelman was built in 1912, and that 1,000-foot smokestack, added in the 1970s, is in clear view from Hayden’s campus and for many miles beyond.

Hayden High’s enrollment places the school among the smallest 1A programs, meaning that almost every athlete is involved in several sports. Few concentrate on just one. (Photo by Alfred Smith III/Cronkite News)

There are signs of a once-thriving copper town everywhere, such as the mountain of “tailings” – the waste material leftover after the smelting process – piled along the highway. There is a conveyor belt that once carried crushed ore from train cars to the mill and smelter that stretches over the highway. And the hillside just north of Hayden’s baseball field is scarred by the lava-like black flow of hardened “slag,” another remnant of the mining operation.

Although the smelter at its peak of operation provided jobs for hundreds of families, it also led to health problems for many in the area and designation as a federal Superfund site. Between March 2008 and October 2009, ASARCO removed soil from at least 260 residential properties between Winkelman and Hayden under direction of the Environmental Protection Agency.

Some of the issues in the area include the presence of lead and arsenic in the air due to smelting process. The soil is also contaminated with lead and arsenic that has settled to the ground from the air. There are the tailings waste piles in the area that could be accessible to the public, according to the EPA.

This led to a federally mandated toxic waste mitigation process, which continues today.

The community has also survived three destructive floods, including one in 1926 that roared down the San Pedro Valley, ruining most of the farmland and flooding lower Winkelman. There were also floods in 1983 and 1993.

Hayden High School’s enrollment has hovered around 80 students for at least the past eight years, said Hayden Principal Pamela Gonzalez. The school’s enrollment has dwindled as copper mining operations have been reduced.

Hayden’s enrollment places the school among the smallest 1A programs, meaning that almost every athlete is involved in several sports. Few concentrate on just one.

Hayden football coach John Estrada, who worked at the mines for 23 years, used one word to describe how Hayden’s sports programs have been able to remain competitive through the tough times: “Pride.”

Although Hayden High School’s enrollment has hovered around 80, it has a proud tradition of sports which it displays proudly in its school. (Photo by Alfred Smith III/Cronkite News)

One feels the community spirit two to three hours before a Hayden football game, where a tailgate party is a reflection of the Mexican culture and sense of family in Winkelman, which has one of the more predominantly Hispanic populations in Arizona.

“We have music, we have a DJ, you have some Cumbias happening on the stereo,” Gonzalez said about the festivities and Latin American music at the tailgates. “It’s just that kind of gathering. It’s very family-oriented around here. Very, you know, rich in culture.”

Lagunas attributes the boost in the Hispanic population in the area to the employment opportunities the copper industry provided during the boom period.

“Everything was good until, oh, I want to say to the early ’80s, when they had the big (mine) layoffs and depression,” said Lagunas, a two-time Arizona Republic small school coach of the year and a former city council magistrate in Hayden. “A lot of people got laid off.”

Lagunas, who led the Lobos to five state championships and for whom the school’s baseball field is named, said there was an area for Hispanics called San Pedro in the early 1960s on the other side of town in Hayden. It wasn’t until 1961 that the Hayden and Winkelman school districts merged to create the Hayden Winkelman Unified School District. Before then, some Hispanics in the San Pedro community commuted to the other side of town for the area’s nearest elementary school and the high school.

“By that time, there were a lot of Hispanics in Hayden, Winkelman and San Pedro, especially in the San Pedro area,” Lagunas said.

Lagunas was a part of the sea of blue that Hayden fans created with their royal blue T-shirts to represent the Lobos at the state championship game against Mogollon. He said many companies, such as grocery stores, construction companies and restaurants in the area pledge donations and rally in an effort to honor the kids.

Donations are imperative to support the school’s athletic programs, which face uncommon challenges. Lagunas, for instance, said issues with mercury in the ground under the basketball floor in the high school gym are forcing the team to practice at the junior high.

To put into context how critical donations are to the team, the championship rings the Hayden football players are set to receive to honor the school’s first championship in 51 years were paid for entirely through donations.

Estrada played football and baseball and wrestled during his time as a Lobo. His son, Lino Estrada, was a three-time wrestling state champion at Hayden before earning a full-ride scholarship to Grand Canyon University, where he earned All-American honors.

Hayden High School capped its 2023 undefeated season with a championship in 1A football. (Photo courtesy of Jose Garcia/azpreps365)

Estrada said he and his “compa,” the late Bob Bohrn, who was affectionately known as “Coach Bob,” were responsible for jump-starting the Pop Warner program in Winkelman, where many of the kids in the area got their first feel of the gridiron. They also collaborated on the school’s junior high program before reaching Hayden High School.

“Unfortunately, he passed away last year of cancer,” Estrada said. “But we were together for years. And I used to tell him, because he was my compa – he baptized my eldest son – I would say to him, ‘Compa, I remember when you guys used to walk down to the field, and I’d stand here, you know, and hear the cleats and that would get me motivated.’”

When the Lobos stormed the field for the 1A championship game at Coronado High School in Scottsdale, they were motivated by Coach Bob as all players wrote his name on their wrist tapes.

The Lobos take pride in the many scars that are a reminder of what the school and community have gone through.

Hayden’s basketball gym has a mural that reads, “NEVER GIVE UP! STAY MONTI STRONG,” along with a photo to honor former student Santiago “King Monti” Piña, a three-sport athlete at Hayden who survived significant head trauma suffered in a car accident in 2015. Piña’s chances at life once looked bleak as the accident landed him in a coma and on life support for three weeks.

And in 2017, after the Las Vegas music festival shooting, doctors told the family of former Hayden High School student Jovanna Calzadillas, who was wounded in the shooting, that she would not survive the bullet that pierced three lobes in her brain. Remarkably, she did.

Since recovering from that life-threatening injury, Calzadillas and her husband, Frank Calzadillas, have sponsored a $500 scholarship for Hayden High School students called the Perseverance Scholarship.

“It’s unfortunate what happened, but, you know, they play a positive role,” said Lagunas, who lost a 19-year-old son in a truck rollover crash. “They’ve shown that kids can overcome some of those difficulties.”

Senior running back and linebacker Renee Ochoa said those former students play a “big role” in what the teams now want to accomplish on the field and help explain the passion they share while doing it.

“Just to have that to fill you up and go out there and use it as motivation,” Ochoa said. “Just to know they came from Hayden, we have to go out there and show them we have a lot of heart and soul.”

Alfred Smith III

Sports Reporter, Phoenix

Alfred Smith III expects to graduate in June 2024 with a bachelor’s degree in sports journalism. Smith III is a sports editor at ASU’s student-led newspaper, The State Press.