Lloyd Engen: Adams State's Eighth Man
Updated: Jul 19, 2020
Vigilante Nation skipped a heartbeat on July 12.
Lloyd Engen – the ever-present, jolly and loyal former sports information director at Adams State College through much of the 1980s and 1990s – died in Alamosa due to complications from COVID-19.
He was 79 years old.
“He was our Eighth Man,” said Jerry Arguijo, a member of three national championship cross country teams at Adams State in the early to mid-1980s.
In cross country, seven runners make up a team. Arguijo's sentiment was shared by many in the program that Engen was a vital, added component.
Engen was the scribe who captured the rise to glory of Adams State College cross country in the 1980s, a stretch when the program won the NAIA national championship 10 of 11 years.
“Lloyd Engen was a familiar face on campus and in the athletic department at Adams State,” said Andrew Medina, an NAIA cross country All American in 1989. “I think he knew my name before I knew his. He was the kind of man who when you met him once, he was a friend for life.”
In the book about Adams State’s legendary coach Joe I. Vigil – Chasing Excellence: The Remarkable Life and Inspiring Vigilosophy of Coach Joe I. Vigil -- Engen is a central character in many chapters outlining the most successful moments in the program’s history.
He wrote about the historic tie between Adams State and Western State for the 1986 NAIA cross country championship – the first time ever that two teams had shared a national collegiate championship. It’s only been done one other time since then.
The following year, he was back in Kenosha, Wisconsin as Adams State dismantled the field, winning the national title by 150 points. All seven runners on the team earned All American honors, the first time in program history.
Then, in 1992, he captured the most historic race in collegiate cross country history, when Adams State posted a perfect score of 15 to win the NCAA Division II cross country title – in the program’s first year as an NCAA school. It’s the only time ever that a college team has scored 15 at the national championships.
From 1984 through 1997, Engen covered nine men’s and eight women’s national championship seasons. Despite being 5-foot-5, he was an imposing figure in the program – respected for his quick wit, charm and loyalty to Adams State College. Engen was a comforting sight for Adams State’s athletes, almost like everything was right in the world when they saw Lloyd at the national meet.
Engen, in his mid-40s and late 50s during the time he was covering Adams State athletics, wasn’t supposed to be living this life. When he was born in 1941, doctors diagnosed him with Osteogenesis Imperfecta, also called ‘brittle bone disease.’ They said he probably wouldn’t live past age 50.
He not only beat the odds, he became a wise sage who told the story of the most successful collegiate cross country and track and field program in the world. In addition to the national championship teams he covered, he wrote about more than 300 All Americans and nearly 100 individual national champions.
Adams State cross country and track and field athletes were called Vigilantes, a nod to their legendary coach Joe I. Vigil. Engen was widely accepted as one of the most honored and loved of the Vigilantes. He was voted into the Adams State University Athletics Hall of Fame in 2006.
Engen rarely traveled to events in school transportation, instead driving his own car hundreds of miles. In a popular story that has been told many times, he was driving to the 1987 NAIA track and field championships in Russellville, Arkansas from Alamosa when he saw junior sprinter Travis McKinley walking down First Street.
“Travis, what are you doing?” Engen asked as he pulled over.
“I missed the bus,” said McKinley, who one year earlier was the NAIA national champion at 400 meters.
“Well, get on in!” Engen told him.
What a sight…the diminutive Engen and the muscled, 6-foot-4 McKinley in a compact car for 13 hours. Engen, who was blessed with the gift of gab, telling stories to the ultra-quiet McKinley down a long road from Alamosa to Russellville.
As mentioned in Chasing Excellence, that was the trip in which the two had to go through Tulsa, Oklahoma, where they decided to stop and get something to eat. At a roadside restaurant, the owner told Engen he could come in, but that McKinley – an African American – was not welcome.
“I promptly told the restaurant owner he would not be getting any of our business.”
And that was Lloyd Engen. More than his professional skill, he was popular because of his human nature. His smile. His compassion. His authenticity.
Literally hundreds of athletes – in more than a dozen sports – have their own Lloyd Engen story.
Mine goes back to Spring, 1986 at the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference track and field championships in Cedar City, Utah. A little more than a month earlier, I had severely sprained my ankle and was doubtful to run at the championships, but healed enough to get a spot on the team.
I ran the steeplechase, the event where athletes jump four track barriers and one water barrier each time around the seven-lap race. My ankle had healed well enough to handle running on flat ground and over the track barriers, but the water pit was another story.
The impact of launching oneself over a water pit and onto a slanted surface is immense, and the ankle wasn’t strong enough to handle it. Short story: I biffed it in the water jump every single time around the track – seven times!
Lloyd, ever the sympathetic soul, asked me why I didn’t quit, that it was obvious I was injured. I hardly even remember saying this, but he reported that I said: “I run for Adams State; I can’t quit.”
That, too, is classic Lloyd Engen: Take something that was a bad memory and make it something that I could be proud of. I don’t think he did things like that intentionally; it was just his nature to bring a measure of human decency to most situations.
One year, Engen played the part of a grumpy man in a community theatre production. Nobody knew Engen as a grumpy old man…really, nobody! So there was certainly shock value when Engen’s character first entered the stage and was greeted by the lead character, a female, with a friendly, “Hello!”
“Hello Yourself!” barked Engen.
The audience busted out in laughter at the uncharacteristic growl from Engen. And that was not supposed to be a humorous scene.
In Alamosa, Engen was known at various times to play other popular characters. He’d spend time reading to children in his Papa Smurf or Cookie Monster costume. He’d walk the community’s Fourth of July parade route as Uncle Sam, taking pictures of the crowds and of just about anything else that moved. And, of course, at Christmas time, he was the jolliest of Santa Clauses.
After leaving Adams State in 1997, Engen went to work for the hometown Valley Courier where he soon earned the love and respect of high school athletes and sports fans in 14 communities. He was known to work long hours, seven days a week, and made it a point to get to as many events in person as possible each week.
He wrote a weekly column, and – by my own unofficial count – set a world record for using the word “lutefisk” in print. (Lutefisk is dried whitefish, a common dish in Nordic countries, which is where his ancestry came from.)
He also wrote a regular column that he titled, All the Heroes I’ll Ever Need, in which he would talk about simple people doing wonderful things for their communities, schools or others.
Lloyd’s career as a sports writer came to a tragic end in 2009 when he was run over while on the sidelines of a high school football game. Longtime friends Ron and Holly Dea took Lloyd in and cared for him for 10 years at their Fort Collins home. He had only recently returned to live in Alamosa, and was in assisted living care.
His death won’t diminish many folks’ memories of the man. His smile and laugh – oh, that jovial laugh – is ingrained in the hearts of the many people he’s touched. Like Joe I. Vigil, Engen’s life was marked by a commitment to service, an undying dedication to show compassion and finding ways to bring more happiness to this world. A job well done, sir…a job well done.
You’re all the hero that I…make that, all of us…will ever need.
Photos courtesy of Mary Fleagle Connor