Even before the delay due to COVID, Roaring Fork High School Rams Football players made team-building their #1 goal.
Nothing screams small-town America more than Friday night lights. When Roaring Fork High School’s Ram football program couldn’t field a varsity team two years ago, the lights stopped shining. But the spark stayed lit because deep in its heart, Carbondale is a football town.
CARBONDALE’S FOOTBALL HEYDAY
When I was a kid, we went to every game. We looked up to the players. Everyone showed up in support of the team, and the Rams dominated Colorado’s Western Slope football for years. When I tell my kids about Carbondale’s football heyday, they look at me like, ‘nice story, Grandpa.’ Then, in the thick of COVID shutdown, I started hearing from players about the fall season. I knew they got the message – we can rebuild our program if we work at it and hold the vision of winning again.
A COMEBACK STORY IN THE MAKING
This year’s seniors were freshmen the last year the Rams fielded a varsity team. That year, they had a 0-9 season, losing games by an average of 53 points. These kids were mentally and physically beaten up by their experience. Bigger and more experienced players ran them over. They put their hearts out on the field with mostly empty stands, watching people leaving at half-time. The following year, we didn’t field a varsity team.
“I’m one of the seniors who started playing in high school and what has helped me keep going is just being part of the team and trying to get better as a team to bring back football at Roaring Fork,” said Israel Medina.
This year’s freshmen and sophomores played for me as the coach of Carbondale Middle School’s team. All along, we worked with the goal of rebuilding the high school program from the ground up.
“I played with coach Eric when I was in middle school. He helped us a lot and put in a lot of time,” said Oscar Barraza. “My family also supported me by going to every game.”
Coming up behind these athletes are kids who played on the Mountain West Youth Football pee-wee team (grades 3-6). I represented this program for the town of Carbondale last year. Unfortunately, the pee-wee season has been canceled due to COVID. But I hope that getting to see the high school team play will keep these kids enthusiastic about the sport.
A VISION FOR THE FUTURE
I want to return the program to the level it was for decades. And I want to create a system for sustaining that level of play over the long haul. I want to see the community come together to support these kids on a Friday night as if there was nothing more important for them to do but come to a high school football game.
These kids can experience being part of something like that and being supported by the community they live in. I want the kids to have pride in what they accomplished as a high school football player. I want the kids to feel like absolute rock stars! They can look back in 30 years and honestly say that high school football one of their best memories. The lessons they can learn in high school football will help prepare them for life beyond high school. I simply want to know that I’ve made a difference.
“Returning to varsity football means a ton not only to me, but the team, the coaches, and our town. We can bring back the traditions and maybe win some games too. It’s going to be exciting and a huge step to bringing the program back,” said sophomore Brady Samuelson.
PRACTICING FOR THE LONG HAUL
We started summer practice on June 29, after the Colorado High School Athletic Association (CHSAA) released its three-phase guidelines for COVID safety protocols. Right from the start, we had an average of 18 kids showing up for two-hour practices in mid-summer heat. I don’t know if it was because they are committed athletes, which they are, or if it was because football practice gave them a sense of getting back to normal life. Either way, nothing could make me feel better entering my first year as RFHS’s head football coach than the enthusiasm of these kids.
You might think that there’s no way to practice football without contact, but where there’s a will, there’s a way. We screen for COVID symptoms and take temperatures at the start of every practice. Players wear face masks when together. They remove masks for vigorous aerobic exercise. Everything takes place on the field with zones marked on the ground to keep players apart. Everything happens outside. Players cannot enter the locker rooms, and the days of the big, team Gatorade thermos are probably gone forever. Otherwise, we’re following CHSAA’s phased guidelines.
No more than 10 kids in a group; no field equipment, no throwing, no hand-off, no line formation. The focus is on teaching kids to move as athletes and working on strength and conditioning. My degree in Exercise Science and my career as a strength and conditioning coach has been all about teaching athletes how to move. I teach how to gain strength and mobility so they can reach their peak performance safely. So our practices during this phase are all about creating a foundation for the season.
Less restrictive. But no contact is allowed, which means no hand-offs, no working with field equipment, no interior lineups. Players can throw and catch the ball, which we sanitize every ten minutes. So QBs and receivers can run routes, learn plays. The offensive and defensive lines do drills and other exercises. Special teams practice kicking, with each player using their own ball.
All of the above, plus weight training outside, with spotters standing at each end of the bar. Field equipment is used and sanitized frequently during practice.
Throughout these phases, I’ve thought a lot about teaching these athletes about being competitive. I think about challenging yourself, playing to win, but not at the expense of having fun. I think they will look back and remember this as a great experience. “I’ve really seen improvement within the guys. And unreal focus,” said junior, Blake Thomas.
CHSAA announced on August 4 that they decided to postpone football, boys soccer, and girls volleyball until Spring. Official practice begins February 22, and the season runs through May 8. We will get seven games instead of nine and a modified playoff. At first, this felt like a blow after all of our work this summer. Then I heard from some of the players. They wanted to borrow footballs so they could practice on their own. They weren’t giving up. This is what I’ve been building toward, a sense that what we’re doing now matters in the long haul.
“Ever since I was in elementary school I would see the high school students play under the Friday night lights. I have always thought and dreamed about being there someday,” said sophomore José Muños. “Now I am going to have the chance to play underneath the lights.”
I visualize it every day – the stadium lights, the field, and the bleachers filled with parents and fans. If you space small family groups six-feet apart, and seat every-other row, 300 people can fit in our stadium. That’s far from the standing-room-only crowds of our championship years, but it’s a great start.
Photography: Sue Rollyson
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