Kai Golden was excited to be the difference-maker for the New Mexico State Aggies.
The Mountain View High School defensive tackle, all 6 feet 3 inches and 290 pounds of him, bought into head coach Doug Martin’s vision months ago. The Aggies had little lineage to offer, but they promised a hope and a dream. This was before they became the feel-good story of the college football season.
In a year in which a former walk-on quarterback, Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield, won the Heisman Trophy, no turnaround better sums up topsy-turvy 2017 than NMSU’s: After 57 years in college football’s purgatory, the Aggies are going to a bowl game.
Martin, in his fifth season as head coach, spent Golden’s entire recruitment telling him he could be the first.
Now the plans have changed. Now Golden and his group can be the next. It’s a big difference.
“When I committed, it’s not that I didn’t have high hopes for these guys, but I definitely felt like the kids coming in, we’d be the class that would be the guys to make the difference,” Golden said. “But now it feels like we’ll have even higher expectations, which is great.”
For a long time, Martin and his assistant coaches — including his son, Cory, the Aggies’ wide receivers coach and the staff recruiter assigned to Tucson — had sold Golden and this year’s crop of recruits a vision for the future. But so had so many previous New Mexico State coaches, about 56 years worth of them. Martin said he was trying to get recruits to “buy-in on credit,” and after a 10-38 record after four years, the bill was coming due soon.
This year, with a senior-laden roster including career 4,000-yard-rusher Larry Rose III, the Aggies are 6-6 and headed to Friday’s Arizona Bowl to face Utah State.
Suddenly, everything changed for the team and for its recruits, including Golden, who had 63 tackles and 10 sacks for Mountain View this season.
“This is going to boost the class,” Golden said. “Way back in March or April, when I sat down with Coach Doug, I bought into their ideas and philosophy. I knew they would be successful. I think this is the fruits of their labor. This is a big opportunity for them, and I’m glad it’s here in my home so I can witness it.”
Or, well, not.
As it turns out, the lone New Mexico State football commit from Tucson won’t even be able to cheer on his future team on Friday.
Golden will be one 58 high school football prospects playing in the Offense-Defense All-American Bowl in New Orleans on Friday, on a roster that includes players destined for Oklahoma, Florida State, Alabama and LSU.
Golden is disappointed he won’t see the Aggies in person. He’s tried to follow the team as closely as possible this season. He moved around his schedule according to the Aggies’. For at least one household in Tucson, New Mexico State football was appointment viewing.
“I tried to be at home whenever they were playing,” he said. “At that point, I was committed. It’s exciting seeing the guys you’re going to play with. Every time they’d win, I texted congrats to the coaches, and even when they lost, I texted and they told me what went wrong. I tried to put myself in the situation they were in.”
Golden is just that kind of kid, the kind to take on the mood of his teammates, current and future.
“He’s a kid who has goals and dreams,” Mountain View coach Bam McRae said. “Dominant athletes normally have a plan. Every day, he shows up, and he does things for a purpose. He works out, studies film, works on how he treats others. He loves cars — I think he wants to be an automotive engineer, and he’s as passionate about that as football. He’s just a young kid with a good head on his shoulders.”
He was a team leader for the Mountain Lions, said McRae, who knows a thing or two about recruiting himself.
McRae walked-on to Arizona and spent a decade working for the Wildcats strength and conditioning program. The sixth-year Mountain View head coach has dealt with his fair share of pitch meetings.
He understood what the Aggies were selling Golden.
“As a coach, when you’re recruiting kids, you have to get kids to see past the obvious,” he said.
“You have the programs who aren’t doing so well, but you let them understand they can create history themselves. The programs that aren’t the national powers, they have to do a good job of selling the dream.”
Soon enough, Golden will travel east on Interstate 10 and start a new life in another desert.
He is attracted by the potential to contribute early, as the Aggies could have some holes to fill.
Most importantly, he was attracted to the vision Martin was selling. A vision for the future that somehow became the present.
“I knew going in that my recruiting class could be the best and biggest class they’ve had,” Golden said, “and going to a bowl game this year, it feels like we can try for even better. There’s not that legacy there. We can be the people to go in and put our names in the history books.”