New Mexico senior Teton Saltes takes a long pause when asked about the driving force behind his advocacy work in suicide prevention.
It's a tough question, but the 6-6, 332-pound senior tackle's answer starts with the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in the South Dakota Badlands before it winds into his personal mission.
"It's incredibly beautiful there," Saltes told Sporting News. "It's home, and I love it, but we have a lot of issues there that plague our community and our youth in particular."
Then Saltes describes the reality he knows. The suicide rate for Native Americans increased in 2019 for both men and women.
"Suicide rates are high," he said. "It's impoverished. Unemployment rates are 80-90 percent there. Teen suicide rates are five times higher than the national average where I'm from.
"A lot of people back home feel like we don't have a voice," he said. "When they look at Native people today, it's kind of like they are missing a connection. A lot of people feel forgotten in that sense."
Saltes wants to change that narrative with his voice. He can address that uncomfortable conversation, one that comes with the first-hand experience of seeing 20-plus people in a two-bedroom house with dirt floors. He is trying to bring hope to that conversation through his actions, and that starts with volunteering his time on suicide hotlines. That's part of the mission.
"The reason why me and my family are in that work is because it's a necessity," he said. "It’s a hard topic. Nobody wants to take it on, and nobody in life wants to deal with that because it’s hard. But ignoring a problem doesn’t make it go away."
Saltes spoke with the U.S. Conference in 2019 as a student ambassador for the Save the Children Advocacy Network. He is pushing the New Mexico state legislature about mental health issues for student-athletes. For his efforts, Saltes was named the captain of the 2020 Allstate AFCA Good Works team. The 22-member team is recognized every year for charitable contributions off the field.
Saltes inspired former Heisman Trophy winner Tim Tebow through an Instagram conversation in September. Tebow took a rare look at the comments section — and he was amazed at the impact.
"What he’s doing and the gravity of the situations he’s working with is what stands out," Tebow said. "Being able to help people in truly sometimes their darkest hour of need is huge. If it was reading to children, he stepped up. If it was delivering food, he stepped up. If it was the suicide hotline, he stepped up."
Saltes stepped up within the confines of the COVID-19 pandemic, and that continued on spring break. He expected to be back at Pine Ridge for a week, but it turned into a two-month mission. Despite some challenges, Saltes continued to help those in need on the reservation.
"It was different," he said. "We were out helping families. We were delivering food. We were working with suicide prevention and mentorship. Transporting young people who tried to kill themselves. All that work, and we did a lot of it through Zoom. Children weren’t in school. We wanted to make sure they were still getting the things they need."
Saltes returned to Albuquerque for his senior season at New Mexico, but that took a turn when the team moved to Las Vegas for the final six weeks of the season because of COVID-19 concerns. Saltes continued his advocacy work. It meant talking to elected officials on Zoom during breaks.
"It was more difficult to help people because I couldn’t be there in person, but I was still able to work through Zoom and other platforms," he said. "I was reading to kids, talking to first-grade classes in Albuquerque. In life, you have to adjust to what is going on."
Saltes found rewards on the field in 2020. The Lobos beat Fresno State 49-39 on Dec. 12 to end the season on a two-game winning streak. He used that football experiences to inspire children and adolescents in Albuquerque. That platform with the Lobos helped, and he continues to turn those experiences into something that can help back at Pine Ridge. That is where that charitable work will continue.
"On the reservation back home, football is not a very big sport there," he said. "They’ve never really had someone to look up to in that sport back home. Now, I’m kind of out there and making a little bit of a name for myself. They’re able to see that.
"It’s so important for me to be a role model," he said. "I hope to inspire and instill some of that hope into the community. The community has been decimated for years, and there is not a lot of hope."
Saltes has a voice, and with that is a reason for hope. That is something Tebow — one of the more recognizable voices in the sport for the past decade — appreciated in a turbulent 2020.
"Teton has an amazing story, and this is just the beginning of the impact he’s going to have during his life," he said.
Saltes will be honored at the Allstate Sugar Bowl for his work this season. Visit AFCA.com for more on the 2020 AllState Good Works Team.