Former New Mexico State baseball player honored during Walk to Defeat ALS
Todd Watkins was a walk-on baseball player at NMSU in 1984. He was diagnosed with ALS in January. On Saturday, he participated in the ALS walk Las Cruces Sun-News
Watkins once played catcher for Farmington High School and participated in Connie Mack World Series
LAS CRUCES - Todd Watkins hasn't been back to the New Mexico State baseball facility since his son, Ryan, played in the North vs. South All Star game 17 years ago as a senior at Cibola High School.
That changed on Saturday, as Watkins, now 57 years old, was recognized by the Aggies during the 2019 Walk to Defeat ALS and during their game against Texas Rio Grande Valley.
"I'm embarrassed that I haven't been a better alumnus to the ball team, but I do follow them and I'm a huge Aggies fan," Watkins said. "(The men's basketball team) should have beaten Auburn in the NCAA Tournament.
"It's humbling. I read up about (baseball head coach Brian Green) and how involved in the community he is and how vital that is to his coaching style."
There are currently between 100-110 New Mexicans diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig's disease, according to ALS Association of New Mexico event coordinator Katie Crouch.
Watkins, 57, was formally diagnosed with the progressive neurodegenerative disease, in January.
"Even though we were expecting it, we were at the Mayo Clinic in Phoenix when our nurse sat us down and said that they were prepared to diagnose," Watkins said. "It's a hard thing to hear."
As an alumni of New Mexico State's industrial engineering program and later an IBM employee who is currently president of his own company, Watkins has approached the disease with the same analytical mind that carried him to success throughout his professional life.
"I'm still leaning and it's early on and I'm eager to learn more," Watkins said.
Baseball was in his blood
Watkins played catcher at Farmington High School. He played in the Connie Mack World Series before moving to Las Cruces to attend New Mexico State to pursue an industrial engineering degree.
Watkins talked himself out of walking on as a freshman and focused on his academics. He was three years into his degree when he saw a sign on campus that walk-ons would be held for coach Curt Cook, who was in his second of a four-year stay.
He wasn't going to let the opportunity pass again, although he tried out as an outfielder to improve his odds of making the club.
"They had a walk-on scrimmage and as luck would have it, I went 4 for 5 in the scrimmage and was offered a position on the team," Watkins said.
The Aggies were 23-33 in 1984 with Watkins making several appearances in the outfield and one game as a catcher.
Following the season, Watkins had to walk away from baseball to focus on graduation to support his family as his girlfriend became pregnant.
After dropping the game of baseball to support his young family, baseball became full circle through the career of his son.
Watkins coached his son, Ryan, throughout his youth baseball career and club ball with the Albuquerque Baseball Academy. Ryan had a successful career at Cibola High School before playing junior college baseball at Midland College and later Incarnate Word.
"It was fun to play baseball but it was so much more fun to watch my son play baseball," Watkins said. "My daughter played soccer and she was very good and won an Arizona state championship as a freshman.
"Watching your kids perform is so much more rewarding than any recollection that you have performing yourself."
'I still have lots of life I plan to live'
Upon graduation, Watkins took a job with IBM in Tucson, Arizona as a manufacturing engineer.
He moved to sales, which moved his family to Albuquerque.
"I'm more of a people person and engineering tends to be more impersonal," Watkins said.
Watkins went out on his own, eventually connecting with Mike Popovich. Watkins and Popovich have been business partners for the past 21 years and run Scientific Technologies Corporation, a health technologies and solutions company based out of Phoenix, Arizona.
"We support each other 100 percent and we operate as a family," Popovich said. "I feel Todd is clearly an assess to the company. He is so smart and contributes daily and I don't see that changing for awhile.
"It's been a good partnership. He has such a good business acmen and that's his strength and my weakness."
Watkins lives in Albuquerque with his wife and daughter, both registered nurses.
The wealth of knowledge in the family did not make the official diagnosis any easier to take, although there were early signs of ALS throughout the past two years.
"I'm curious about it, I want to contribute to it," Watkins said. "I'm on the national ALS registry where I authorized all of my tests, symptoms and reports be shared. And that is not unique to me. The vast majority of ALS patients agree to that."
According to Crouch, approximately 5,000 patients are diagnosed with ALS nationally each year. The typical life expectancy following diagnosis can be between two and five years depending on a patient's progressions.
"It's different for every person and that is one of the hardest things about diagnosing it since it's a neurological disease," Crouch said.
Since his diagnosis in January, Watkins has met numerous patients along the way, including younger patients. All have the same goal — finding the cause of the disease and improving treatment.
"I've seen people at ALS clinics that I go to and the ALS association that this walk is for and I see people 20 or 30 years younger than me in advanced stages of the disease and they are the ones I empathize with and sympathize for," Watkins said.
"I've lived a great life and I still have lots of life I plan to live."
More on Saturday's walk
Saturday was the first year the ALS Association of New Mexico has held a walk in Las Cruces and approximately 200 folks participated.
Watkins said he will attend the walk in Albuquerque in September.
"I'm planning to do the walk in Albuquerque with my whole family and my friends," Watkins said. "That is really when I'm going to come out publicly here in my sphere of influence. It's been a hard thing to know how much to say about it."
There is one ALS Association of New Mexico staff member who is responsible for patients south of Socorro.
"We are just trying to raise awareness and funds to be able to provide resources for everyone in the southern part of the state," Crouch said.
Crouch hopes to continue the walk next year at New Mexico State.
Donations are encouraged at alsanm.org as Crouch said the average cost for care can cost patients up to $250,000 per year.
"We ask so many people from our community and donor base to donate so it's been meaningful to ask for something bigger than athletics," said NM State athletics coordinator for special events Nicole Gomez.
Sports Editor Jason Groves can be reached at 575-541-5459 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @jpgroves.