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  • Writer's picturePat Melgares

It's a Wonderful Life...with a touch of Vigil

I can’t pretend to fully know the struggles Joe I. Vigil faced growing up. I don’t really know how much, as a young boy, he may have viewed his life as challenging.

I think I know this: The odds were against him and other kids growing up on the south side of Alamosa, Colorado.

His mother, Melinda, moved Joe – just months old – and his two older brothers from nearby Antonito to Alamosa shortly after their father’s death. Melinda, who had finalized a divorce with her children’s father just months earlier, moved into a small house and worked long hours just to pay rent and keep food on the table. The family had little else.

The family’s story of perseverance and ultimately healing is detailed in the book, Chasing Excellence: The Remarkable Life and Inspiring Vigilosophy of Coach Joe I. Vigil, now available from Soulstice Publishing (

We’ll spare you the spoiler here.

The question I have is what if Joe I. Vigil had not overcome his under-privileged beginnings in life?

“Reading about Joe’s challenges early in life,” writes 1964 10,000 meter Olympic gold medalist Billy Mills in the book’s Foreword, “you will wonder how he avoided the roads that can become misleading, where it’s easy to lose sight, direction and hope.”

What if…?

If Vigil had not risen above the hardships he faced as a young boy, if he did not have supportive family, teachers, friends and other adults around him, what would have happened?

Cue the music for “It’s a Wonderful Life.” No need for Jimmy Stewart to enter the stage – Joe I. Vigil is the hero of this story.

Who would have been there to console Larry Fujimoto moments after he tripped on the last hurdle and failed to finish in the 1958 state finals of the 180-yard hurdles – ultimately leading to his team missing out on the state championship by one-half point?

Would Larry Jeffryes been invited to have a chicken dinner with Vigil and the president of the Medics Club, a young girl who would eventually become his wife of 50-plus years?

What would have happened to Charley ‘Pablo’ Vigil, a talented young man handcuffed by extreme poverty who carved his own rags-to-riches story as one of the world’s greatest mountain runners ever?

Would we even be talking about Adams State University cross country and track and field today? Would the east and west entrances to Alamosa be adorned with signs proudly proclaiming its standing as City of Champions?

Gosh….how would my own life be different?

Some tell me that I was a good candidate to write Coach Vigil’s life story. I had my own experiences on Alamosa’s south side, most of them good, some of them bad, and others that led me to a crossroads in life. For instance, as a middle school student in the late 1970s, I once walked to school with a classmate who pulled a joint out of his pocket and smoked it…as we walked along the railroad tracks to school.

“You want some?” my friend asked me.

Drugs, alcohol and other life-changing influences were easily accessible on Alamosa’s south side. Probably not so much during Vigil’s boyhood, but the similarities are clear: life was a little more challenging growing up in a part of town where economic growth was stunted in favor of the city’s expansion to the north and west.

Like Vigil, I had an incredibly supportive family. My parents loved me unconditionally. I never knew growing up how hard they worked to provide for me; I never knew what they were sacrificing to provide me with security during my formative years.

But as I grew from boyhood to adulthood, it was Coach Vigil – a man who very easily could have run to riches anywhere else in the world – who remained close to his roots, to guide me and many others to lives of service, faith, commitment and hope.

And this is what’s mind-boggling to me: I’m one person. Coach Vigil has directly touched thousands, tens of thousands…hundreds of thousands, maybe?... people the same way he inspired me.

“He’s my holy spirit,” Fujimoto told me about Vigil. The young man whose heart was broken as an 18-year-old became a doctor of oriental medicine later in his life, and saved many lives during his career. Yes, saved lives…literally brought individuals who were flat-lining back to life.

“Think about this,” Vigil told the Spring 2019 Adams State graduating class. “The average American will encounter 10,000 people in their lives. As you go out and start meeting people, you will encounter 10,000 people. If every one of you changes the life of 10 people, and those 10 will change the life of 10 others, well in five generations – 125 years – you will have influenced the lives of 825 million people, which is more than twice the population we have in the United States today.”

“It’s our responsibility to make this world a better place…”

What if Joe I. Vigil had not risen above the hardships of his youth?

Fortunately, we will never know.

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