TUCSON, Ariz. -- As New Mexico State's captains walked single file to midfield at the start of the Nova Home Loans Arizona Bowl, an 11-year-old boy wearing thin-framed glasses and a white Aggies jersey sprinted across the field to join them.
Jeremiah Young had stood with his fellow team captains at every coin toss for the past two seasons, and despite some temporary miscommunication with the stadium operations staff, there was no way he was missing the flip for the team's first bowl appearance in 57 years. He slipped into the line in front of the players, and they resumed their march. New Mexico State was ready to end college football's longest bowl win drought.
There were many people in Las Cruces who didn't think this day would ever come for what had long been a public punch line of a football program. Until recent months, some didn't think it was worth trying anymore. Jeremiah's mother, Lori Paulson, wasn't one of those people. She didn't survive long enough to see the results of what she helped to build, but she believed success was coming. When it did, Jeremiah joined the captains in her place.
"To see him out there," said Pete Paulson, Jeremiah's grandfather, "it brings a lump."
Pete moved to Las Cruces -- a community of 100,000 people an hour north of the Mexican border -- in 1974. During his time in New Mexico, the Aggies have had four winning seasons.
He shoed horses for 10 years before buying some of his own and starting a stagecoach-for-hire business, carrying on the Paulson family trade when he migrated south from the Wisconsin Dells. He also took with him a passion for his beloved Green Bay Packers, which meant his daughter Lori would grow up as a die-hard football fan.
Lori graduated from New Mexico State in 2002 and immediately returned for a master's degree. She fell for and eventually married a graduate school classmate, Brandon Young. They had a son. Lori went to work helping the sick with a home healthcare business and casually followed the Aggies from one dismal season to the next.
In 2011, the son of a close friend, a high school football star, joined the New Mexico State roster as a scholarship running back. Aunt Lori and Uncle Brandon, as he knew them, asked if he'd like to eat dinner with their family on the first Sunday night of his first training camp. The following week, he asked if he could bring his roommate along. The week after that, four of them showed up, including an offensive lineman, and they all could think of a few of buddies in the locker room who would enjoy a home-cooked meal.
"My wife was like, 'Wait a minute,'" Brandon said. "'Only two linemen at the table at once. Y'all can bring other people, but with linemen, there's only two of you. No more than that. We don't have room to fit you.'"
They found the room. Lori cooked each Sunday for her husband, father, son and a rotating cast of a dozen or so adopted, football-playing sons. She called the players' mothers to get the recipes for their favorite meals and surprised each one with a taste of home for his birthday week.
The players showed up in the afternoon, spread out all over the living room floor and watched NFL games until it was time to eat. Jeremiah used the players as a jungle gym. Pete joined them, wearing his big western hat, and occasionally pulled one of the players aside to tell a joke he didn't want his grandson to hear. They laughed at each other and relaxed and forgot about whatever team had beaten them on the field the day before.
Doug Martin has experience with fixer-uppers. His previous coaching jobs include long stops at East Carolina and Kent State. When he took the head job at New Mexico State in 2013, he told his wife (and anyone else who would listen) that this reclamation projection would take years of heavy lifting.
The Aggies had long since settled into a state of apathetic disrepair. The team had only 61 of the allowable 85 scholarship players when Martin first arrived. He spent the majority of his first spring practice teaching them how to run on and off the field.
Martin refused to show early recruits the locker room when they visited campus. Without adequate academic support, the team hadn't met the NCAA's graduation-rate requirements once in the program's history. The weight room was outdated, and the nutrition program was nonexistent. A staffer used to make a weekly trip to a local bagel shop to fill a trash bag with donated three- or four-day-old bagels and then lay them out in the locker room. That was New Mexico State's training table.
The biggest problem Martin encountered was a culture of losing. He created a character, Old Man Can't, who he said was looming whenever the players' effort was lacking or a game slipped away or they didn't get the support they needed. That was his biggest enemy in Las Cruces.
"I probably underestimated the depths we were in, honestly," Martin said. "You were selling a vision. You weren't selling anything that anyone could see or had experienced before. The folks that bought in believed on credit."
That was a small group, but Lori Paulson -- two years into her role as surrogate team mother -- was among them. She rallied alumni and Las Cruces locals to provide support and sorely needed resources for the team whenever she could.
Lori was in the frozen food aisle of a Wal-Mart during the fall of Martin's first season when she bumped into Scott Schroeder, a childhood friend from a rival high school, and asked whether he was going to that weekend's game. His reaction summed up the general feeling about another new coaching regime trying to sell a culture change: "Meh."
Attendance at Aggie Memorial Stadium was until very recently understandably sparse. Martin said he could look into the stands during most of his early home games and count the fans.
"You could have held a shotgun practice in there for some of our November home games without having to worry about a problem," said Mario Moccia, who took over as athletic director in 2015.
Lori told Schroeder, whose family happens to own an exercise equipment company that has outfitted dozens of pro sports weight rooms and the White House, that he needed to come down and meet Martin and the team. He would buy in if he got a chance to meet them, she said. He acquiesced to her enthusiasm.
The players now have a fully loaded weight room courtesy of Schroeder, and he's at every game hours before kickoff to organize tailgates and rope more people into the boosters' club. There were others like him, too. Lori kept beating her drum and imagining a day when the stadium would be full.
"At that point, I didn't think the connection between my wife and these kids could get much closer," Brandon said. "But after she got diagnosed, she needed to put her energy somewhere. That was the obvious place for it to go."
Doctors diagnosed Lori with stage IV pancreatic cancer in the winter of 2014. The disease had already metastasized to her liver. It was a matter of when, not if, the cancer would spread further.
When New Mexico State's players found out, they asked "Miss Lori" to serve as their honorary captain for the 2015 season. She became a regular at practices and traveled with the team to road games with her chemotherapy medicine in her purse. In late October, after the Aggies beat Idaho in overtime thanks in part to a miraculous interception for their first win of the year, they gave her the game ball.
The Idaho victory started a three-game win streak, the program's longest in more than a decade. The Sun Belt Conference was not impressed by the 3-9 record. That spring, it informed New Mexico State that the school wasn't a good geographical fit. Its membership would be terminated at the end of the 2017 season.
A contingent at the school thought it was time to take the hint and drop from the FBS level to the FCS level in football. They formed an 18-person review panel and held a heated debate that spring to decide the program's future. Martin was made to sit in a boardroom for two days and listen to people tell him that football was an embarrassment to the university.
"That was probably the roughest time for me," he said. "They formed a committee that had all sorts of people on it, and I had to sit in front of them. Honestly, it was humiliating."
Martin argued that his team could be a point of pride for the school and the community, a selling point to potential students, and it was already headed in that direction. The school had heard that pitch before, but Martin had built a strong, core group of believers during his first three seasons. Moccia, a few financial benefactors and some of the regents had started to see what Martin saw.
"I probably underestimated the depths we were in, honestly. You were selling a vision. You weren't selling anything that anyone could see or had experienced before. The folks that bought in believed on credit."Coach Doug Martin
Ultimately, the school's board of regents voted to stay the course. It helped that the football program had recently received a gift of $100,000 from the life insurance policy of Lori Paulson.
Lori died on March 16, 2016, in hospice care. She wrote her own obituary, which didn't come as much of a surprise to her friends. She wrote about her love for her family, her friends and the New Mexico State football team. It read in part: "I was often told how strong and inspirational I was for so many. The other side of the story is the strength of the people around me. Their strength is what built me up and kept me going."
The school held a memorial service for her, and her casket was carried across the football field in a stagecoach driven by her father and two beautiful, black horses. Aggie Memorial Stadium was as full that day as anyone could remember.
Months earlier, Lori could feel her time growing short. She told the athletic department about the gift she intended to make, and they held a ceremony to name the team's meeting room in her honor. It was the end of her first season as the team's honorary captain. As part of the ceremony, she officially passed those duties on to her son, Jeremiah.
"It was kind of emotional, but it was a good emotional," Jeremiah said. "It was awesome that it could happen. It's nice that I get to carry her tradition on."
That's how a skinny fifth-grader came to be sprinting across the field at Arizona Stadium for a coin toss at the start of a historic day for New Mexico State football.
Nearly 40,000 spectators -- an Arizona Bowl record -- filled the stands, and any onlooker would have been hard-pressed to find more than a few who weren't wearing Aggies colors. The score was tied 13-13 when the Aggies and Utah State took the field after halftime.
Martin paused to soak in the moment. He looked up at the bleachers behind his team's bench and saw a wall of Crimson-clad fans stretching to the top of the stadium. Before the game was decided one way or the other, he knew that he would no longer be selling only a vision. This is what he had hoped to build. He grabbed his son, who coaches the team's wide receivers, before the third-quarter kickoff and pointed him away from the field.
"Turn around, and look at those stands up there," he said. "Because you may never be a part of something like this again."
They fell behind 20-13 early in the fourth quarter, but a touchdown with six minutes to play tied the game and eventually sent it to overtime. Perspiration dripped from Martin's brow. Schroeder paced the sideline.
"She's making us sweat it out tonight," he hollered, shaking his head.
Then Utah State's typically reliable kicker missed a 29-yard field goal attempt on his team's first overtime drive. (He missed four during the game.) Senior running back Larry Rose III, one of the first players to commit to play for Martin, scored two plays later. The 57-year drought between bowl wins was over.
Fans poured from the stands onto the field. Brandon tried to keep a hand on Jeremiah's shoulder to avoid losing him as he weaved through the chaos to find his favorite players. He watched strangers and new fans call out by name the guys who once lounged in his family room and throw their arms around them. He watched players' parents and athletic department employees beam with pride. A drying teardrop rested on the ridge of his cheekbone. It wasn't clear when it fell there.
"It's emotional," Brandon said days later. "It's more than the football team for us. My wife was 36. She was young when she passed away. None of us were ready. ... But this was her mission. She wanted to be a catalyst for all those people in the stands. It's the spirit of it that helps keep her spirit going, and that's important for he and I."
When the team finally made it to the locker room more than half an hour after the game, Martin stood at the door and hugged each player as they walked by. He squeezed Jeremiah and leaned into his ear to say: "You're one of the first captains around here to win us a bowl game in a long time." Then he addressed the team with a trophy in his hand and told them Old Man Can't was dead and buried.
Brandon stood against the wall, listening. He let his hand slip off his son's shoulder. When Jeremiah turned to look at him, he nodded toward the room full of celebrating college kids. Jeremiah smiled and then disappeared into a crowd of his elated big brothers.