New Mexico senior Teton Saltes takes a long hiatus when asked about the driving force behind his suicide prevention advocacy.
It's a tough question, but the 6-6, 332-pound senior's answer starts with Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in the South Dakota Badlands before it becomes his personal mission.
"It's amazingly beautiful there," Saltes told Sporting News. "It's home and I love it, but we have a lot of problems there that plague our community and especially our youth."
Then Saltes describes the reality he knows. The suicide rate for Indians rose in 2019 for both men and women.
"The suicide rates are high," he said. "It's impoverished. The unemployment rate there is 80 to 90 percent. The suicide rate among teenagers is five times higher than the national average I come from.
"A lot of people at home feel like we don't have a voice," he said. "When you look at the aborigines today, it's like they lack a connection. Many people feel forgotten in that sense."
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Saltes wants to change this narrative with his voice. He can address that awkward conversation that comes with the firsthand experience of seeing 20+ people in a two-bedroom house with dirty floors. He is trying to bring hope into this conversation through his actions, and that begins with his volunteering on suicide hotlines. That's part of the mission.
"The reason I and my family are in this work is because it is a necessity," he said. "It's a difficult subject. Nobody wants to take it up, and nobody in life wants to deal with it because it's difficult. But ignoring a problem doesn't make it go away."
Saltes spoke to the US conference in 2019 as a student ambassador for the Save the Children Advocacy Network. He urges New Mexico state lawmakers on athletes' mental health issues. For his efforts, Saltes has been named captain of the 2020 Allstate AFCA Good Works Team. The team of 22 is recognized each year for charitable contributions outside of the field.
Saltes inspired former Heisman Trophy winner Tim Tebow through an Instagram conversation in September. Tebow took a rare look at the comment area – and he was amazed at the ramifications.
"What he does and the severity of the situations he works with is what stands out," said Tebow. "To be able to help people in their really darkest hour of need is huge. When it read to children, it performed. When it delivered food, it performed. When it was the suicide line, it performed on."
Saltes appeared within the confines of the COVID-19 pandemic, and that continued into the spring break. He expected to be back in Pine Ridge for a week, but it turned out to be a two-month mission. Despite some challenges, Saltes continued to help those in need with reservations.
"It was different," he said. "We were out helping families. We delivered food. We worked with suicide prevention and mentoring. We transported young people who were trying to commit suicide. All of that work, and we did a lot through Zoom. We were children out of school We wanted to make sure they still got the things they need. "
Saltes was returning to Albuquerque for its senior season in New Mexico, but that took a turn when the team moved to Las Vegas for the final six weeks of the season over COVID-19 concerns. Saltes continued his legal work. It meant talking to elected officials about Zoom during breaks.
"It was harder to help people because I couldn't be there in person, but I could still work through Zoom and other platforms," he said. "I've read to children and spoken to first-grade classes in Albuquerque. In life, you have to be prepared for what's going on."
Saltes found rewards in the field in 2020. The Lobos defeated Fresno State 49-39 on December 12 to end the season with a two-game winning streak. He used this football experience to inspire children and young people in Albuquerque. This platform with the Lobos has helped, and he continues to transform that experience into something that can help Pine Ridge. This charitable work continues there.
"In the reservation at home, football isn't a very big sport there," he said. “They've never had anyone at home to look up to in this sport. Now I'm out there making a little name for myself. You can see that.
"It's so important for me to be a role model," he said. "I hope to inspire and bring some of those hopes into the community. The community has been decimated for years and there isn't much hope."
Saltes has a voice and therefore a reason for hope. This is something that Tebow – one of the most recognizable voices in sport of the past decade – appreciated in a turbulent 2020.
"Teton has an amazing history and this is only the beginning of the impact he will have in his life," he said.
Saltes is honored at the Allstate Sugar Bowl for his work this season. Visit AFCA.com to learn more about the AllState Good Works 2020 team.