The death and resurrection of Aspen football | AspenTimes.com

The death and resurrection of Aspen football

Nate Peterson/The Aspen Times

Paul Conrad/Aspen Times WeeklyAspen High senior Jackson Davis leads his fellow Skiers in a pre-practice warm-up.

Maybe it was the soccer craze sweeping the valley at the time. Or club hockey’s long winter season encroaching on fall sports commitments. Or a string of unsuccessful coaches culminated by the hiring of Tim Harp, whose drill sergeant style didn’t exactly mesh with Aspen.

Perhaps it was all three, plus an assortment of other factors.What’s certain is this: With only 15 players on the roster, the Aspen varsity football team limped to a 2-8 record in the fall of 1994, then subsequently ceased to exist. To flip through Aspen High School yearbooks, it’s as if the team vanished — subject to a printing error that continued for five years.

In 1991, with 26 players out, the Skiers finished 2-7 under then-new head coach Mike Danielle. In 1992, with 29 players on the roster, the Skiers went a forgettable 0-9 in what was Danielle’s final season. In 1993 under Harp, the losing continued as 16 players struggled to an 0-8 mark. Then, the 2-8 record in 1994, capped by a surprise 55-6 thrashing of rival Basalt in the final game of the season. Then … nothing.

The death of the program was marked with little fanfare. The athletic director at the time, Dave Conarroe, sold off the team’s equipment simply because knew it would become obsolete in only a few years. The four holdovers from the 1994 team who still wanted to play football latched onto the Basalt squad — a team whose demise would follow shortly thereafter.

The fall sports calendar included one less schedule. But for some players on that 1994 squad, as well as others in the community who had once played varsity football, some under legendary coach Pete DeGregorio, the passing of the sport wasn’t easily forgotten. Not when Aspen High School had been playing football as far back as 1902, according to records from the Aspen Historical Society. Not when the Skiers had been highly successful at the varsity level in the past, the most recent evidence being an 8-2 record in 1987, when the team just missed the playoffs after being ranked in the Top 10 for most of the season.

Do-everything defensive and offensive lineman Travis Benson was one of the eight seniors on that 1994 team. Benson went on to play at Division II Mesa State in Grand Junction, but even after five years of college football, the extinct program back home was never far from his thoughts. In an Aspen Times’ profile before his final college home game in 1999, Benson, photographed in both his high school jersey and his Mesa State jersey, mentioned his desire to one day come back to Aspen and start a football program. The comments, Benson says now, were just off-hand remarks made in the midst of an interview. While digging through boxes this summer, however, Benson uncovered that old article and was taken aback by its prescience.

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Benson was digging for old playbooks because he was preparing for his first season as head coach of the Aspen High School varsity football team. Even now, after being an assistant to former head coach Tom Goode since Aspen football was reborn as a junior varsity program in 2000, Benson at times finds it hard to believe that he is coaching the game he loves at his old high school. While proud of his years as a player at Aspen, there’s no denying that the death of the program was a tough legacy for the eight seniors on that 1994 team. The legacy he hopes to leave as a coach is one that ensures the staying power of varsity football in Aspen.

Helping in that endeavor is the youth football program in Aspen, which Conarroe helped found the year after the varsity football program folded. An admitted football nut and former player himself, Conarroe, whose oldest son Jeff was the senior quarterback on the 1994 team, believes the main reason football failed at the high school level was because there was no infrastructure in place to support it. Soccer had its feeder programs. Club hockey was continuing to grow with myriad junior programs. But for football back then, the only lower-level play was in the eighth grade, when the middle school team played a slate of four games each fall. Four football games, Conarroe reasoned, didn’t stand a chance against years upon years of soccer and hockey games.

“It was my point that everyone should have a chance to play football,” Conarroe said. “Part of the reason for that was that we wanted to help the high school regenerate football. I believe everyone should have the chance to play high school football. That doesn’t mean everyone is going to play it, I just wanted them to have the chance to play it. It’s in our culture.”

“To give kids an option over soccer was the main reason we started the league,” says Ron Morehead, manager of Aspen Sports who helped Conarroe bring youth football to Aspen. “Soccer is still pretty big, but I think all of us who started it, we all grew up with youth football. I did at least in L.A., and I thought it was important to provide kids with the opportunity to play football.”

Conarroe was so certain a new youth program would bring back high school football that he told the district’s superintendent to earmark the money made from selling the varsity team’s equipment in 1994 for a future football fund. The superintendent balked, divvying up the money elsewhere. Sure enough, though, a group of players’ parents started campaigning for a varsity football program at Aspen as early as 1998. Their sons, after playing in the valleywide Three Rivers Youth League (which Aspen joined in 1995) and at the middle-school level, wanted to play football in high school. They didn’t want to play varsity soccer.And, with Basalt having lost its football program in 1997 under circumstances similar to Aspen’s, only to bring back a successful JV program in 1999, a model, it seemed, was already in place.

The pressure mounted.

After a number of meetings following the 1999 middle-school season, athletic director Carol Sams and the school board gave Aspen High the OK to start a junior varsity program before the 2000 season. A fund-raising effort netted $15,000 to cover startup costs. Sams, who took over for Conarroe in 1999, then plugged Goode, a local businessman who had been helping out as an assistant coach at Basalt, to be the new head coach. Goode assembled his staff, which included Benson as the defensive coordinator.

The first day of practice, Goode remembers, was as an eye-opening experience.

“We had 38 kids and none of the upperclassmen had ever played football,” Goode said. “Most of them had never even watched football. Most of the younger kids knew how to play, though, because they had played as Pee Wees and in middle school.”

Once the team started practicing and playing games, things fell into place. Whatever growing pains the team and the coaches faced while trying to regrow the program was softened by how much fun the players were having.

“Our second year, we started playing some varsity games against some lower-division schools,” Goode said. “We played [1A] Plateau Valley’s and [1A] Grand Valley’s varsity, then we also played JV games on Mondays. That meant at the beginning of the season we played four games in two weeks. That’s a lot, but the kids loved it.”

The program has steadily grown each year, especially since the team made the jump to the varsity level in 2002. While the team has yet to win more than two games in a season, the Skiers were competitive in every game last season except for blowout losses to league powers Roaring Fork, Gunnison and Rifle. This season, after a 38-0 rout of 1A Norwood in its season opener Sept. 3, the team is primed for a tough league schedule and has playoff aspirations. A new offense suited to the team’s strengths, combined with a core group of players who have been playing at the varsity level for four years, has led to such optimism.

And Benson, whom Goode christened as his successor after stepping down last season, has his team believing. At least so far.

Goode quit because he could sense that Benson was itching for his first head coaching job. Instead of the program losing one of its most important pillars, Goode decided to let Benson take over.

“I knew he’d be the future of the program,” says Goode. “He’s been a great student of mine, and I still believe I’m still his mentor.”

Goode plans to continue helping out with the team this season; he expects to take an expanded role next fall. Meanwhile, Benson couldn’t be happier with the opportunities that await his team. He admits that his coaching rise at Aspen almost seems fated — so much so, that it would be hard to replicate his passion for coaching football elsewhere.

“The thing that I feel proud about is that I went to this school and I love this school and I love the community behind it,” Benson says. “I don’t think it would be as special to me if I was somewhere else. I mean, I grew up here, and I know the community. I told my wife, ‘If I ever hear you stop complaining that I’m putting too much time in, I need to give it up because I’ve lost the passion.’ I think that’s what you need as a coach. It’s purely out of a selfish love for the game and a love for these kids that makes you want to go out and do it.”

Still, some of the circumstances that destroyed Aspen football linger. More than anything, Conarroe believes, the losing seasons in the early ’90s were probably the main reason interest in football dried up. Before the 1994 team beat Paonia, 27-6, during the third week of the season, the team had been weighed down by a 25-game losing streak that stretched all the way back to 1991. Benson and Conarroe both agree that while having 40 kids out for football at a small school like Aspen is a success in itself, the objective is not to just field a team. There has to be more.

“I think you have to talk about goals, like making the playoffs or having a .500 season,” Benson says. “In our conference this year, three teams are going to go to state. It becomes more viable making goals like that. I think you have to set that direction with the program and an emphasis on saying, ‘Yeah, we’re gonna have fun and we’re gonna go out and take care of business, but the object of the game is to win.’ That’s why you play game. [Winning] is not the end-all, be-all result. You want to play to have fun. But, it’s not usually fun getting pounded, 35-0. It’s fun when you are winning games.”

Benson also says that the problem of too many kids specializing in one sport still persists. There’s no denying that club hockey, with a season that starts right in the middle of football season, led to the loss of good players the early ’90s. And while the problem isn’t as prevalent now, it’s still an issue. The genesis of a high school hockey team, Benson says, has quelled the desire of some hockey players to stick to club hockey year-round.

“It’s the same type of athlete who would play both of those sports,” Benson says. “The nice part about going to school in a place like Aspen is that, if you’re at a Cherry Creek High School or Mullen, you can go out for football and you’re lucky to make the team and the chances of you playing basketball and baseball are slim to none. What the kids have to realize is the high school experience isn’t about becoming specialized in one sport. I know a lot of kids at Cherry Creek and Mullen would love the opportunity to play all those sports. I think it’s slowly starting to change.”

There’s also the issue of lights and a new field. The team currently plays its home games on Saturday afternoon at the middle-school field — a setting that doesn’t pack the same punch as Friday night lights.

Senior running back Jackson Davis admits he sometimes prefers Friday night away games. The atmosphere under the lights, he says, is electric. Sams says she has been looking into buying retractable lights for the field, but the decision rests with the homeowners’ associations in the surrounding area. As for laying down new play turf, which would fix the problem of the playing surface deteriorating during the course of the season, it’s hopefully been resolved.

“Hopefully, in the next three years,” she says, “we’ll be able to get some lights here and some new turf.”

Without lights, Benson says, it’s hard to attract a big community following, which would probably attract more kids to the program. Morehead agrees, stating that idea of Friday night lights isn’t so much about football, but of a community gathered together around football. Having grown up in Aspen, Benson knows what he is up against. He says the town itself is really two towns – one a small community that embraces its schools like other small communities; the other a world-class resort town where some people quite possibly don’t even know there is a high school in town.

But considering how far Aspen football has come, there’s no reason not to dream big.

“I think the community is becoming more of a vested factor it,” he says. “This is one of the better communities to raise a kid in and the support that the school district receives is amazing. As far as that is concerned, I think the [first] community is behind it, but the problem is to pack a stadium, you’ve got to get the rest of them behind you, too.”