Column: Forty years later, Aspen High’s football legacy

Dale Strode
The Aspen Times
Dale Strode

Flash back 40 years.

The Aspen High School football team is in the middle of the state playoff chase, once again.

Coach Pete DeGregorio, the patriarch of modern-era football in Aspen, directs the Skiers through the then-Northwestern League with the help of first-year assistant coach Willard Clapper, a recent graduate of Western State College.

Aspen plays in the Class AA Northwestern League with the likes of Glenwood Springs, Rifle, Steamboat Springs, Moffat County, Meeker and Rangely.

Led by three consensus all-state players, the 1974 Aspen High football team surges into the AA postseason playoffs.

A big win over Cedaredge in the first round sets the stage for one of the most dramatic playoff games in Aspen football history.

“We played Monte Vista (in the second round) here in Aspen, and we lost in the fourth quarter,” said lifelong Aspenite Tom Clapper, an all-state center/linebacker on the 1974 AHS football team. “We had that game won.”

The playoff loss still stings 40 years after the fact — made worse when Monte Vista advanced all the way to the 1974 state championship game, where the Pirates eventually lost to Salida.

But state championship dreams were more than alive for Clapper and all-state teammates Rob Gile and David Stutsman — a unique prep threesome in Aspen.

Gile, a wonder as an all-around athlete, was a slotback and wide receiver, Clapper said.

Stutsman played defensive back and running back.

“We played Monte Vista on a Friday afternoon,” Clapper said. “It was out … at Iselin. Everyone was there. It was like Ruggerfest.”

Stores in Aspen closed, posting signs that they would reopen after the high school football game.

A crowd estimated at more than 2,000 people ringed the football field at Iselin Park, which had been reclaimed from the former Aspen landfill only a few years earlier.

With only a tiny semblance of a parking lot at Iselin, cars and trucks were parked along Maroon Creek Road all the way to Aspen Highlands.

Clapper said that one of the most memorable things about the 1974 Aspen team was how the Skiers battled against bigger opponents.

“Our guards were 160 pounds,” said Tom Clapper, who was the big fella at 175 pounds. “All the line … was under 200. Monte Vista, … their line was 230, 250.”

How did the diminutive Skiers compete and succeed in a time when Western Slope football was beginning to flex its muscles on the state scene?

“A lot of that was coaching,” Tom Clapper said, recounting the teaching influence DeGregorio had on Aspen’s football players. “Pete … was amazing.”

A year earlier, DeGregorio and the Skiers prepared for their 1974 breakout with solid games against powers Rifle and Roaring Fork.

Rifle defeated the Skiers by two points on a safety during the regular season, and the Bears went on to win the Class AA state championship (8-7 over Yuma in the title game).

Roaring Fork won the 1973 Class A state championship, beating Limon in the championship game.

Limon, with 16, still owns the most Colorado state high school football championships.

Aspen’s 1973 team was led by another all-stater: quarterback Greg Mullenax.

“Pete … was amazing,” Clapper reiterated. “And he was one of the first rugby players here.”

DeGregorio helped establish the original Gentlemen of Aspen rugby club.

A quotable favorite in the Denver and Grand Junction newspapers back then, DeGregorio revered his role as the coach of an underdog, undersized football team in an awakening resort town. He often underplayed his team’s chances by building up the opponent and falling back on an Aspen resort stereotype.

“We have too many cake-eaters,” DeGregoria said, more than once or twice.

Cake-eaters who created a legacy Aspen football history.