Ledes from the Land of Enchantment

Toby Roybal: Ninety years later, a birthday to remember | Local Columns

Toby Roybal would have turned 90 on Tuesday, a day worth celebrating if a large part of this city actually knew who Toby Roybal was.

The following is a booster recording of the story of Santa Fe; hopefully a reminder of a young man’s influence on his hometown and probably a warning bell that tells all of us – star athletes or couch potatoes, janitors or penthouse suite magnates – how ephemeral we are.

If you’ve ever seen a game of the Santa Fe Demons in one of the best high school gyms in New Mexico, you surely know the name, if not the man. The school dedicated its arena to Toby Roybal in the 1970s, when the newly built school was just finding its sprawling booth on a largely open mesa on Siringo Road.

Royal deserves the honor. He’s possibly the best male athlete Santa Fe High has ever produced – in basketball, a 6-foot-2 scorer who later starred and was even named as an NBA drafter at the University of New Mexico. Those who saw him at the UNM in the 1950s were amazed at his athletic talents.

At a time when the game was largely horizontal – intricate weaves and patterned sets that resulted in layups or the occasional jump shot – Roybal was a jumper and scorer of shocking proportions and overwhelming geometry.

In 1956 he scored 45 points against Montana – a record that lasted until 1978. In its day, 45 was often what college teams could put on the board.

UNM, which is pretty sloppy when it comes to honoring their own, withdrew Roybal’s uniform number 44 after his death.

And here the story hovers. The legend of Toby Roybal was not just about his athletic gifts, it was also about how a man’s roots and mortality clashed and broke the collective heart of his hometown.

After his senior year at UNM, Roybal was drafted by the New York Knicks. He was a late pick, and frankly, he wouldn’t have made a lot of money if he had bothered to go to camp. The 1950s NBA was in no way like the league of today – a global giant pouring millions into 19-year-olds. Believe it or not, Toby’s brother Lenny said with a smile last week that the pay gap between a public school teacher and a professional basketball player isn’t really that big.

“I believe a teacher’s starting salary at the time was $ 7,000 a year,” said Lenny Roybal, who later became the Demons’ trainer and patrolled the gym named after his brother. “And the salary they offered him for the Knicks back then was $ 7,000 to $ 10,000 a year.”

Plus, professional basketball was barely noticed in the American sports landscape in the mid-1950s, so a New Mexico kid’s decision to avoid the opportunity to teach and train in his hometown might not have been so strange.

Anyway, Toby Roybal, who grew up on Gomez Road near what is now the Roundhouse, stayed at home. His long-cherished dream, said Roybal’s widow Dixie in an interview in 1991, was to one day train the demons.

He started out at BF Young Junior High School, and while he waited for the opportunity to lead the high school team, he and Dixie raised a family. In 1961, the future looked as bright for them as it did for the rest of a country that shone in the mirror of the promise of JFK and Jackie.

But in the time it takes to fall in a sports class – he was on a trampoline in a sports class – Roybal’s end was set in motion.

At this point the injury seemed like nothing.

But nothing is always something, is it?

Roybal was diagnosed with lymph gland cancer that quickly spread to his bone marrow. So strong and limber as an athlete, he was weak and pale when he died in the summer of ’62, shortly after giving birth to his second child. One city – an entire state, actually – mourned the loss, not so much because Toby Roybal was so unique, but because he seemed so similar to the New Mexico he grew up in: rooted in a place more important than any individual talent or ambition.

Some people are never lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time. If Roybal was born in another era, he might be a star in the NBA. If he’s born 50 or 60, or even 20 years later, perhaps advances in medicine have contained his cancer.

Maybe his name wouldn’t be on a building but in a history book.

And if that were 1971, ’81, ’91, 2001, or even 2011, there would be more people who could still bear testimony. But it’s now 65 years since Roybal scored 45 against Montana, 60 years since he coached his last child at BF Young. Just as time humiliates us all, there are many people who watch children in blue and gold uniforms and mutter, “Who is Toby Roybal?”

I don’t blame them for that. Time always wins. Even when it comes to heroes.

But I think the next time you walk into the Santa Fe High gym it would be appropriate to wish Toby Roybal a happy birthday.

Phill Casaus is the editor of The New Mexican.

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