Running with the Buffaloes
August 22, 2008
BOULDER, Colo. ” David Clark and David Goldberg are not delusional, despite what some people think in their hometown.
This fact becomes readily apparent in separate conversations with both Aspenites on a warm August morning in Boulder. In person, each is well-spoken, forthcoming and, by all accounts, well-grounded in reality.
Here’s where the misunderstanding lies: Goldberg and Clark are currently practicing with the University of Colorado Buffaloes as invited walk-ons and both are convinced that they can play Division-I football for the Buffs.
There are plenty of people back in Aspen, as Goldberg assures, who believe they can’t. At least, not in a meaningful game, in front of thousands of fans, under the glare of live TV cameras.
The difference of opinion is easy to understand.
Anyone who attended a local high school football game when both young men were playing here would attest that Aspen was probably the last place in Colorado they would have expected to produce not one, but two Division I-caliber players.
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Both starred for a losing high school program in a small town that, in the last 35 years, has had only one league football championship. There wasn’t even a varsity high school football team in Aspen until seven years ago and, it should be added, the school didn’t even have lights on its field until Clark’s senior season, in 2006. That left Clark and Goldberg to play their home games in front of sparse crowds on Saturday afternoons.
Both were exceptional at Aspen ” which has since experienced a gridiron revival under head coach Mike Sirko ” but the biggest obstacle for Clark and Goldberg in their quest to play at a major college program was simply getting noticed. That, and people criticizing their dreams of Division I glory.
It didn’t matter that Goldberg ” now 6-foot-1 and 240 pounds ” had bloodlines that were football-rich, with a father and an uncle who played Division I ball, and another uncle who played in the NFL after starring at Georgia.
Or that Clark certainly had the frame for the Division I game, sprouting into a road-grading 6-foot-4, 285-pound offensive tackle by the time he entered his senior year at Aspen.
The college recruiting process isn’t an exact science and, as both Clark and Goldberg learned, being from Aspen was disadvantageous.
“The hardest part was exposure,” says Goldberg. “Most coaches have never even heard of Aspen, except as a ski town.”
Adds Clark: “I came from a program where there was only one other kid my size in the entire league.”
So college coaches weren’t tying up the phone lines at the Clark and Goldberg residences following each player’s senior season. The opposite actually was true. Goldberg, who graduated from Aspen in 2006, had his uncle Bill ” the former professional wrestler “Goldberg,” and a Georgia defensive lineman who went on to play for three different NFL teams ” and his father, Michael, a well-connected businessman, to help market the aspiring player to college coaches.
“My dad helped me send out the tapes,” Goldberg says. “My uncle still has plenty of connections with college coaches, so he helped to make sure coaches would watch the tape. … That’s the hardest part. Half the time it’s that these coaches get so many tapes that they just throw them away.”
Goldberg eventually accepted an invitation to walk on at Penn State, after getting similar invitations from a couple of other Division I programs, including Colorado. There were more serious advances from smaller schools, including Valdosta State in Georgia, which at the time was the two-time defending Division II national champion, but Goldberg believed he could work hard enough to make the jump to Division I.
So did Clark, despite being lightly recruited. There were offers to play at smaller division schools, including Division II Mesa State in Grand Junction, but Clark had already made up his mind.
In Clark’s family, there are five generations of CU graduates. There is also a family tie to CU football glory: Clark’s grandfather Elmer Holmes played tackle for the Buffs in the 1930s, blocking for legendary running back Byron “Whizzer” White, who later went on to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Clark represents the prototypical CU walk-on: An in-state product who grew up with strong ties to one team and whose dreams revolved around the thought of putting on the black and gold and running out onto Folsom Field behind CU’s famed mascot, a 450-pound female buffalo named Ralphie V.
“I talked to a couple of smaller schools,” Clark says. “But you can’t beat a Division-I football program. I mean, it’s kind of like being a big fish in a small pond or a small fish in a big pond. There’s a lot more going on in the big pond.”
Goldberg certainly discovered that when he arrived at Penn State. He also discovered, after getting his first taste of top-tier college football, that he might be better off somewhere else after a frustrating freshman year at the Big 10 school. He had three corrective knee surgeries to fix his congenital discoid meniscus ” also known as popping knee syndrome ” in both legs and left school before the spring semester ended. He enrolled at Colorado in fall 2007 and redshirted, allowing him to practice with the team while retaining three years of eligibility entering this season.
Goldberg, who moved from inside linebacker to the defensive line this summer, didn’t grow up a CU fan like Clark. He was born in Miami and spent his boyhood years rooting for the hometown Hurricanes. After leaving Penn State, he retraced his steps with some of the schools that had originally shown interest in him, and says that he couldn’t be happier that he settled on Colorado and coach Dan Hawkins.
“CU was willing to give me the offer again to come play, and thank God, because I’d rather be nowhere else,” he says. “The coaches are great and my teammates are great. I couldn’t ask for anything more.”
The sports writers who cover CU characterize Hawkins as an innovative practice coach, which, in simpler terms, means that his practices are hard.
On a recent Thursday, like any other day in August camp, players take the field with their helmets strapped on, ready to go. They rarely get a moment of downtime during the two hours that they’re on the turf, thanks to a timed, eardrum-rattling blowhorn that reminds them to change drills.
Even the injured players don’t get to stand around on the sidelines; they have to shovel and haul sand in wheelbarrows back and forth between two different pits that are a whole field apart ” a monotonous routine designed to make anyone want to get back on the field as soon as possible.
It’s within this whir of whistles, yelling coaches, popping pads and grunts where Clark and Goldberg are trying to distinguish themselves among the 120 or so others in gold helmets. It can be humbling.
“It has been and still is a pretty rough transition,” Clark says. “Because I was the biggest person in the [high school] program I played in, I did not have to use what you’d call form playing in that conference. That’s definitely hurt me coming here. I’ve basically had to rebuild all my form, all my technique from scratch and I’m still struggling with it.”
With the first- and second-string players sharing the practice field, opportunities to stand out are limited. Goldberg has to make every opportunity count. He’s not currently in the mix for playing time this fall, but Goldberg says it’s not because he’s smaller or weaker than the players from more established high schools. He’s a solid 240 pounds, broad-shouldered and has the same massive arms and legs that seem to come standard on all CU linemen.
The major disadvantage in coming from Aspen is catching up to the speed and intensity of Division I play, he says.
“You go from a small town where you’re not having to work on proper technique and things like that, and all of the sudden here, if you don’t get your hands in the right place, you’re done,” Goldberg says. “You’re going against guys like [starting right tackle] Ryan Miller, who is 6-foot-7, 325 pounds and strong and in shape and can move. There’s nobody who I ever played against in high school like that.”
Clark actually faces the daunting prospect of fighting for playing time against Miller, the behemoth tackle, who is unquestionably the most prized in-state recruit Hawkins has landed at CU. Miller earned All-America honors from six different publications after his senior season at Columbine High School in Littleton, where he led the Rebels to the 5A state title.
As a true freshman last season, Miller cracked the starting lineup early, playing in 10 games and starting seven. Clark, by contrast, redshirted while serving time on CU’s practice squad. At present, he’s third on the depth chart at tackle behind Miller and another redshirt freshman, 6-foot-5, 320-pound Sione Tau.
Clark is well aware of what he’s up against. Still, he remains optimistic and determined.
“Basically, I’m prepared to spend as many as three to four years, if I have to, on the bench, just for the chance to play for one year,” he says. “They told me when I came here that skill-level wise, I was below other people. But, I had the size and the build to go on and potentially play here.”
Goldberg says virtually the same thing. He is well aware that his decision to try to play Division I football ” instead of going to a smaller school ” could mean he never plays.
He’s willing to live with that.
“To me, it’s all or nothing,” he says, after mentioning that he doesn’t even know where he is on defensive depth chart, other than it’s not in the top three. “I’d rather wait four years and play half a season of D-I football than play four years at D-II or Division I-AA. It’s all about the big-time football for me.”
To the benefit of Clark and Goldberg, Hawkins, a former walk-on himself, makes it clear to his team that the best players will be the ones who see playing time. His job as the head coach depends on it. Walk-ons may have to pay for their schooling, their books, their own meal plan, but once everyone is in pads, in camp, there is no distinction between the haves and the have-nots, the coach says.
“We have a lot of guys on our staff who were walk-ons, including me, so my heart always goes out to those guys,” Hawkins says. “My hope is that our program always has a place for guys who are going to work hard and do the right things. You never know what will happen down the road. … A lot of times, people talk about the meat squad theory [that the walk-ons are meat served up to the first-stringers], but everybody has scout teams, so I don’t know how that applies. A lot of those guys are on scholarship too.
“Hey, if they’re wearing the black and gold, we love’ em up, either way.”
Despite what some in Aspen think, it’s not implausible that Clark and Goldberg could go on to play meaningful football in Boulder. CU’s football annals are rife with stories of walk-ons who went on to gridiron glory.
Jeff Campbell, another kid from a small high school in a ski town (Battle Mountain in Vail) earned a scholarship from former CU coach Bill McCartney after his first practice in Boulder.
Campbell, at 5-foot-8 and 160 pounds, went on to play five seasons as a return specialist in the NFL, including his last ” in 1994 ” with the Broncos.
Safety Ryan Sutter walked on at CU in 1993, earned a scholarship for his kamikaze play on special teams, then wound up setting the school’s single-season tackles record in 1997 before being drafted by the Baltimore Ravens. Sutter, of course, is better-known as the firefighter from Vail who won the heart of Trista Rehn on ABC’s “The Bachelorette.”
There’s also the story of Joel Klatt, another in-state product who gave up on a pro baseball career to walk on at CU as a quarterback, where he set 19 school records.
The list goes on, although, as Klatt says, for every walk-on like him who beat the odds and went on to make a name for himself, there are many more who never sniffed the field or simply burned out following their dream.
“The coaches are always going to try to be as honest as they possibly can with you,” says Klatt, now a TV personality with FSN Rocky Mountain. “At the same time, they’ll tell you that you’re going to make it whatever you want to make it. For the guys who want to find their niche and work hard, there’s a spot for them on the field.”
It helps to play with a chip on your shoulder, Klatt says. To remind yourself constantly of the people who don’t believe in you.
Goldberg knows the feeling.
When asked about Miller’s accolades, the Aspenite says he’s happy for someone like his decorated teammate. He’s more motivated by others doubting him, and not someone else’s success.
“The only chip on my shoulder that I have is from people in Aspen saying I can’t do this,” he says. “That’s the only thing I get. I’m happy for Ryan. I mean, my uncle was one of those guys ” every school in the nation was knocking on his door.”
It may be canned coach-speak, but Hawkins, when asked what kind of chances Clark and Goldberg have of ever playing for him, says that there’s no substitute for hard work and dedication. As someone who’s been in their shoes, the coach refuses to give credence to negative thinking. That optimistic outlook has endeared Hawkins to many of his players and CU fans.
“We live in a world where, if you don’t get your computer to boot up in less than 15 seconds, you’re mad,” Hawkins says. “Sometimes it takes a little longer than others. If nothing else, they come out of it with a great experience.”
The coach says this after a rain-soaked night practice ” the 14th in 11 days ” as his players are filing off the field to get to a dry locker room. One offensive lineman stays a few minutes after, however, to work on hitting a solitary blocking pad.
When Hawkins pauses and looks over, he realizes that it’s Clark. The coach can only shake his head, as if what he just said was somehow choreographed with the display.
“Hey, you never know,” the coach says. “Hard work, dedication, commitment ” all those things, if you stay after it, will pay off in the long run.”
Yes, it’s quite possible that Clark and Goldberg may never play a meaningful snap at Colorado. But it certainly won’t be for lack of trying.