There is a large anti-alcohol billboard just outside Raton, N.M. For years, the sign has upheld a traditional message of the threats of drinking and driving, with the kind of scare tactic messages that are common across the country. For the first time, the sign featured a prominent athlete with his own anti-drinking message in September. Yet that athlete isn't Broncos stars Kyle Orton or Tim Tebow (Denver is the nearest NFL city to Raton), nor is it an unnamed athlete from the University of New Mexico or New Mexico State.
Instead, the athlete on the billboard is Raton High School quarterback Dustin Walton, who may be as close to a Hollywood star as Raton has to offer. The senior is one of the state's most decorated athletes -- routinely passing for five and six touchdowns a game -- and committed to play at the University of New Mexico in late September, just before he suddenly burst onto the billboard on Sept. 29.
"We do a billboard on an annual basis, and typically we do something with drinking and driving," Mary Gansz, the Colfax County DWI Coordinator, told Prep Rally. "But because of [a new anti-drinking campaign called] "Life of an Athlete" we wanted to do something with underage drinking and athletics. Dustin's on our underage drinking task force, and he's a D-I prospect. At that point we thought he'd be a wonderful choice."
Given his local celebrity, perhaps it should come as no surprise that Walton is the face of the Colfax County (New Mexico) DWI program, even if he is the first high school athlete in the state -- and likely the nation -- to be used in an anti-alcohol campaign. Nonetheless, looking at a teenager who is more than three years away from the legal drinking age on an anti-drinking billboard is pretty startling.
"One week of drinking can erase as much as two weeks of athletic training. I MAKE BETTER CHOICES," the billboard near Raton reads, with a picture of Walton searching for an open receiver just to the left of the message.
In fact, Walton might be just the person to deliver the message that Gansz's task force is desperate to get across. Raton -- a tiny town of fewer than 8,000 just minutes from the Colorado border -- has one of the nation's worst rates of early onset drinking, ranking as New Mexico's top problem city for the ominous statistic. According to Gansz, the average age when a Raton child takes his or her first drink is 12 ... and that's a full drink, not a sip.
Given Raton's limited options for entertainment, it's not a shock that alcoholism starts so young. The town has one movie theater, an Amtrak station and a spot along the Santa Fe Trail. In other words, it's quiet enough to provide an apt home for the Spanish meaning of Raton: "the mouse."
Those conditions also create a petri dish for willing teenagers to dabble in alcohol and drugs. Enter Walton. The nephew of Raton coach Brock Walton, Dustin Walton racked up the kind of passing statistics that get a player in a town like Raton noticed. Scheduled to graduate in December, the senior will enroll at New Mexico in January and work on getting a leg up at the collegiate level.
And how does Walton feel about being the face of an anti-drinking campaign himself?
"I can't speak for the feedback he's gotten personally since it went up, but I know he was very willing and excited to do the billboard," Gansz said. "We've had a lot of positive feedback. A lot of parents have commented how it's so nice to see him standing up for something so positive, and show he can do it without consuming alcohol."
Perhaps Walton will even start a trend. If you see a high school athlete on a billboard near you sometime soon, you can feel fairly certain that it started in a little town in the shadows of the Rocky Mountains.