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NFL greats trade pigskin for skis

John Colson

If you see former Denver Broncos great Karl Mecklenburg charging down a race course on the Little Nell ski run this Saturday, don’t be surprised.

Mecklenburg, along with a number of other players from the National Football League, will be in town for the fourth annual running of the First Downhill Celebrity Ski Race, a fund-raiser for A Grassroots Aspen Experience.

Well-known names from the gridiron will include Andre Reed, Beasley Reese, Steve Bono, Keena Turner, Ed McCaffrey, Rob Johnson and others, according to organizers.

And, as an added bonus, event organizers say Olympic gymnast Kerri Strug is planning to join one of the ski racing teams.

The nine-year-old Grassroots organization brings disadvantaged youngsters to Aspen from cities, Native American reservations and other locales around the country for a week to 10 days of confidence building two times every year. Anywhere from 80 to 90 kids generally take part in either the winter or summer programs.

The First Downhill unites celebrity athletes with local residents and Grassroots participants into teams that challenge each other for supremacy on the lower slopes of Aspen Mountain.

The event is mainly a good time, since most of the contestants are not accomplished ski racers.

But, as can be confirmed by those who have attended the race in past years, the competitive spirit is as alive and well at this race as at any other. Any time a team pulls ahead in the standings, cheers and high fives erupt from fans and teammates alike.

The three-day event kicks off on March 3 with the “players’ draw” at Eric’s bar and pool hall, in which the players and kids learn whose team they will be on. The teams are “owned” by a list of local supporters of Grassroots, including Lantz Welch, George Shifrin, Les and Ethel Towne, Cheryl and Dona Wiedinmyer, among others.

Grassroots Director Denise Sanchez said this week that the selection of the participants for the teams was something of a challenge.

“Of course, we had to pick kids that can get down the mountain,” she said with a laugh, noting that there are non-skiers among both the youths and the players.

New this year, to provide a little action for the non-skiers, will be computerized games along the lines of PlayStation. Players and youngsters who choose not to race on skis will take turns competing against each other via the computer games, with prizes awarded to the victorious.

The race itself will take place on Saturday, starting at 9 a.m. and finishing around 2 p.m., followed by an awards ceremony and a session of autograph signing by the athletes.

A gala dinner on Saturday night at the St. Regis hotel will feature both a live auction and a silent auction. A concert by singer Marcia Ball, also at the St. Regis, will round out the weekend’s activities. A key fund-raiser Sanchez said this week that the First Downhill is A Aspen Grassroots Experience’s biggest fund-raising event this year, contributing a big chunk of the organization’s roughly $600,000 annual budget.

She added that at least one of the organization’s traditional props – a celebrity golf tournament hosted by musician Glenn Frey – will not be held this year, punching a $250,000 hole in the organization’s finances.

Sanchez, 34, has been with Grassroots since it was founded by former Aspen City Hall staffer John Reid in 1991, when she was working in the administration center of the Children’s Services Department of New York City.

A graduate of the State University of New York system, with a degree in social work and a minor in criminology, she has filled a variety of posts in A Grassroots Aspen Experience before she was selected to succeed Reid after he stepped down in late 1999.

Among her chief goals, she said in an interview this week, is the inauguration of an expanded focus on local teen-agers. Local youths have taken part in the programs in the past, she explained.

“But they’ve been involved, and then that’s it,” she said, explaining that there was no follow-up with local youths – at least not of the kind that kids from other parts of the country received.

Now, she said, she is working on setting up a “Locals’ Youth Forum” to address the needs of troubled youngsters and young adults in the Roaring Fork Valley region.

She said Grassroots has worked with the families of some of the local teens implicated in a crime spree in the upper valley last year, offering workshops to give the families a way to express their frustrations and feelings.

“It was tough for them, and we were really happy to be available,” she said.

In addition, she said, the organization made is summer-camp facilities in Marble available to a forum for local Latino youths last summer, and plans to do so again this year.

She said she also is actively seeking a way to get money for an endowment for A Grassroots Aspen Experience, so the organization is not on such a financial shoestring anymore. She said she is only certain of having money to pay the bills through May, though she is confident the organization’s supporters will come through as they have in the past.

The main reason to set up an endowment, she said, will be to provide the organization with firm financial footing, so it can respond to periodic crises among its young clientele, whether it’s the need for money to visit a dying relative or a bus ticket away from an abusive or violent situation at home.

“Any crisis that comes up, we would like to be able to say, `Hey, it’s not a problem, we can help out,’ ” she said.

But for now, she said, the organization is warmly grateful for the more than 300 volunteers who make it possible to continue doing the work.

“With three people, it’s just not possible to do everything,” she said.

For example, on Tuesday she pointed to volunteer Andre Zausmer, who has taken on the task of sending birthday cards to each and every one of the organization’s more than 3,000 alumni, many of whom had never received a birthday card before.

Another goal, she said, is to begin working more closely with local youth-oriented organizations, such as the Aspen Youth Center and the Garfield Youth Services, to provide less fragmented services and activities to local teens.

“It’s not going to be accomplished by us being separate entities,” she said with hopeful confidence. “We’ve all got to work together.”


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