Written by: Sam Wasson, Edited by: Jordan Bostic
Pervis Atkins' journey to Aggie football greatness began at San Francisco State University. Atkins ran track and played freshman football for SFSU, but after his freshman year he decided to join the Marine Corps. After spending a couple of years in the Marine Corps, Atkins spent a semester at Santa Ana Junior College. It was during his time at SAJC that he met his future teammate Bob Gaiters. The two had become good friends by the time Gaiters received a football scholarship to play running back at New Mexico State. Pervis, not having anything to do that weekend, offered to give his friend a ride to Las Cruces.
Their first experience of Las Cruces wasn't exactly the greatest. "When we got down there we were put in some barracks that had been transferred in. It was right near where they kept all the farm animals," Atkins remembered. Despite wanting to run back to California right away, the two gave Las Cruces a shot. The men had originally hoped to play together at Santa Ana Junior College, but an eligibility rule would have kept Atkins from playing that season. It was Gaiters who convinced then head coach Warren Woodson to give Atkins a look during their time in Las Cruces. Coach Woodson offered Atkins a scholarship, which he accepted.
Atkins began his Aggie career as the backup for Gaiters. He also played on the line at tight end and occasionally kicked extra points. He got his big shot during the second game of the 1959 season in Albuquerque. The Aggies were playing the Lobos when Gaiters was injured just before halftime. "Coach Woodson looked at me and said, ‘Do you want to play?’” Atkins recalled. “I said, ‘Yeah!’ and he said, ‘You better get in there, they're waiting on you.’" The Aggies went on to win that game 29-12, their first victory over the Lobos in 23 years. They finished the season at 8-3 and 2-2 in the Border Conference. The Aggies received an invitation to play in the Sun Bowl in El Paso where they defeated North Texas State 28-8. Atkins led the nation in rushing that season with 971 yards on 130 carries (7.5 yards per carry). His rushing title was the first of four consecutive rushing titles for New Mexico State and was the first time the NCAA ever had a team win four consecutive national rushing titles. He also scored 17 touchdowns and kicked five PATs.
The following season Atkins and Gaiters shared running back duties. While Gaiters was the focal point of the rushing attack, it was Atkins who kept the Aggies’ undefeated season alive. In their seventh game of the season, the Aggies were deadlocked in a battle with Arizona State in Tempe, Ariz. With the Aggies down 24-14 in the fourth quarter, Atkins returned a kickoff 98 yards for a touchdown and had another 71-yard run from scrimmage as the Aggies pulled off the comeback, winning 27-24.
In the season finale against Texas Western (UTEP) it was Atkins who took over the game after the Miners had taken a 7-0 lead on the Aggies. Mervin Hyman of Sports Illustrated described the game: “Texas Western, audaciously taking a 7-0 lead over unbeaten New Mexico State, paid dearly for its arrogance. Halfback Pervis Atkins began to smash away at the Miners' line; Halfback Bob Gaiters, the nation's leading scorer and rusher, ran for two touchdowns; Quarterback Charlie Johnson passed for another, and soon the Aggies were out in front 27-15 for their 14th straight victory, the Border Conference championship and a bid to play Utah State in the Sun Bowl at El Paso.”
By the end of the regular season the nation had become very familiar with Atkins and this special group of Aggies. Just a few weeks earlier the Aggies were the focus of a story in Sports Illustrated entitled “The Team the Pros Watch.”
“They [Sports Illustrated] followed us around for a little while, and we got a lot of national publicity which led to a whole bunch of guys getting some opportunities,” Atkins reflected. “ E.A. Simms and Billy Locklin, Charley Johnson, [Bob] Gaiters, about three quarters of our team got drafted to the NFL and made the teams that we were sent to.”
Roy Terrell, the author of the article, said Atkins was “faster, more elusive and almost as strong [as Bob Gaiters], a perfect tailback type. He has wonderful acceleration in an open field. But Atkins is also an exceptional pass receiver and a good blocker.”
“Atkins is the best college football player in the country,” said Coach Bobby Dobbs of Tulsa. Other football experts agreed that Atkins was immensely talented and not only selected him Associated Press First Team All-American but also voted him to a 9th place finish in the Heisman balloting that season. It was another honor for Atkins after being drafted in the third round by the Los Angeles Rams earlier in the year. Atkins remains the only Aggie athlete to make First Team All-American.
When all was said and done, the Aggies finished the 1960 season as the nation’s top offense, averaging 419.6 yards per game. NMSU was one of only two teams to finish the 1960 regular season unbeaten and untied. The Aggies were 10-0 and Yale was 9-0. The Aggies received their second consecutive invitation to the Sun Bowl and went on to beat Utah State 20-13.
“They [Utah State] had a big defensive team and Charley and the boys, they took care of them.” Atkins said.
Atkins is quick to point out the entire season was truly a team effort. “We had 11 starters and 11 equally talented backups, and we just got it done. Every one of the members of that team deserves recognition. Team sports rely on every person that ever makes it to the practice field. Team sports are TEAM sports. It took 11 guys, and it wasn’t always the same 11 guys but they were putting it all out there.”
“We were talked about as a team that could beat anybody that played,” Atkins said when he thought back about that undefeated team. “We had that kind of attitude about it.”
Before heading to the NFL, Atkins played in one more college game. “Me and Bobby got selected to the All-Star Game where the college All-Stars would play the NFL World Champions, and we played out at Soldier Field in Chicago. We had a good time.”
After his collegiate career at NMSU ended, Atkins was off to the NFL and the Los Angeles Rams. He spent three years with the Rams before suiting up as a Washington Redskin and eventually being traded to the Oakland Raiders.
“I got six whole years in it and decided that the following year ought to be my end,” Atkins remembered. “I had gotten married and had children. The NFL wasn’t knocking down million dollar contracts during those years.” Atkins finished his NFL career with nearly 3,300 all-purpose yards and three touchdowns.
As remarkable as his playing career was, Atkins’ career after football was just as impressive. After he hung up his cleats in the NFL, he headed back to Los Angeles and was part of a television sports show. “Me and Dick Bass- we talked to just about every superstar in all of sports. Everybody came by our territory. I met the Mickey Mantles, Bill Russells, guys like that all over the place.”
That sports show opened the door for Atkins. Alden Schwimmer from the Ashley-Famous Talent Agency saw Atkins on television and brought him in for a visit. The Ashley-Famous agency was known for network television series such as Mission: Impossible, Get Smart, The Carol Burnett Show, Star Trek, The Twilight Zone and many others.
“He sent a Rolls-Royce to pick me up. I’m sitting there in the back seat of a carriage Rolls-Royce riding down Sunset Boulevard,” Atkins marveled. Schwimmer met with Atkins for several hours and offered him a job. “We had names that went on forever, big-league names. Burt Lancaster, Shirley MacLaine, that kind of group of folk and all of the sudden I’m in the midst of that! Are they kidding me?”
After working at Ashley-Famous, he went on to become an executive at ABC and later opened Atkins and Associates with his friend Edgar Small.
“New Mexico State was really a fine experience for me, and it offered me so many different open doors.” Atkins said.
Atkins also gives a lot of credit to his long-time college friend Charlie Rogers. “Charlie reached out and became a support for a guy who hadn’t had experiences in places like New Mexico and Las Cruces,” said Atkins. “That period in time was really quite different. Charlie was there with me at the track field helping me work out. Charlie was there for me in changing social attitudes in that area. There was a lot of change that occurred during our time down there.”
Atkins is now in his seventies and is still very much enjoying life. He and his wife have four children and five grandchildren who will be cheering as Atkins is inducted into the Aggie Football Legends Ring of Honor along with Denvis Manns and Walt Williams on the weekend of September 27.
“Life is good. I’ve been given many blessings that I’ll always cherish. I’ve got Las Cruces, New Mexico State University and my teammates to thank for all of this.” Atkins said.
What began as a road trip to Las Cruces as a favor to a friend turned out to be the trip of a lifetime.