Jon Maletz: The Hammer
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
I am digging like a Bobcat, but the venerable head football coach does not flinch.
I inquire about his new quarterback, and Mike Sirko instinctively changes the subject, launching into a conversation about Aspen’s unproven offensive line, revamped backfield and the challenges of replacing a large, talented senior class.
Sirko is careful not to heap undue levels of pressure on his young signal caller. He wants to make sure his player’s head does not outgrow his helmet.
He is dodging me like a politician and compounding my effort to craft a compelling story, but I listen politely. I can appreciate the sensitive nature of the situation. While Tucker Beirne has gained his fair share of attention and accolades – he has been to countless camps, played in prestigious all-star games across the country and is one of just 50 athletes selected to take part in next month’s U.S. National Team Development Program – he has never taken a high school snap.
And he’s only 14.
“I’m kind of glad Tucker’s out of town [and won’t be reading this],” the coach jokes.
In truth, I know very little about Tucker Beirne. I’ve seen him just once – during halftime of a spring lacrosse game, when I stood and gawked as he pelted a defenseless goal post with tight spirals from about 30 yards out.
Last night, I came across footage of an Aspen-Glenwood Springs eighth-grade game on YouTube. My initial impression: I’ve been told by countless people that Beirne is a budding star but, at 6-foot-2 and 210 pounds with size-14 feet, he’s more like a mature redwood.
He was bigger than his tailback and fullback combined – not to mention most of the coaches. In a middle school huddle, he looks like Yao Ming at the kids’ table.
After four minutes spent watching Beirne swat away defenders like pesky mosquitoes and repeatedly undress the defense for big yards, I came away both impressed and intrigued.
With all due respect to Public Enemy, I do believe this hype.
I’m thankful Sirko did not institute a staff gag order. Ask new quarterbacks coach Lawrence Altman about his precocious pupil, and the superlatives come as fast and as furious as a cornerback blitz.
“Tucker Beirne is a boy in a man’s body. I mean, he’s going to be spectacular,” Altman gushes. “His football athletic ability is, well, I don’t have to teach the kid to throw. He probably knows defenses better than I do.
“Come to practice and watch this kid make an out or throw a hook or a fly. He makes passes most kids his age can’t, that most high school quarterbacks can’t. … His ability is beyond anyone’s understanding.”
While he has worked with the incoming freshman for just two weeks, Altman raves about the quarterback’s maturity, his poise, his likable demeanor and his uncanny ability to see the field well and quickly.
Perhaps most telling about their confidence in Beirne – and their stable of athletic skill players – is the fact that the Skiers will institute a new-look offense in the fall.
“Sirko has had teams that played in the spread and threw the ball 40 times,” Altman says. “Our offense will actually be similar to what we used to have, but we’re in different formations and in motion. It’s all about putting Tucker in a position to succeed to a greater extent.
“[Sirko] believed in Anderson Cole and Rex [Christensen], but I don’t know if he ever believed in the combination of receiver and quarterback. I think with some of the receivers we have this year, the new offense and Tucker’s talent, Sirko is not worried about the ball getting to where it’s supposed to be.”
The new wrinkles were on display a few weeks back, when Aspen scrimmaged Roaring Fork and 3A state runner-up Glenwood Springs. The initial returns were overwhelmingly positive, Altman says, and Beirne’s performance turned heads.
The Basalt coaches, curious bystanders following the action from the bleachers, likely were reaching for their Tums.
“This kid is bred to be a quarterback,” says Altman, who boldly asserts Beirne might already be better than Seth Lobato, a University of Colorado backup from Eaton High who, in a 2007 2A state playoff game, torched Aspen for three first-half touchdown passes in a 30-7 rout. “Since I’ve been here, I have not seen a quarterback who makes throws like that. … He’s going to play D-I football, unless I’m a complete idiot.”
He continues: “I don’t think Sirko has ever been this happy. It’s hard not to be when you get the chance to see this kid for four years.”
I ask Sirko if, after nearly four decades on the sidelines, he really could be as happy as ever, especially considering he’ll be starting a freshman signal caller for the first time.
After his customary gravelly, 10-second chuckle, Sirko briefly lets down his guard.
“The biggest thing for all young people in their first year, it takes a little time to get used to the speed. … He handled himself well in that scrimmage. Bottom line, I didn’t see that big of a transition,” the coach says.
“I’m sure there are going to be days when I’m elated and days when I want to pull my hair out. That’s why I keep it short – there’s not much left out there. But I’ll tell you what, I don’t want to freak Tucker out … but man, he has all the tools to do a lot of great things. Wait ’til you take a look at him.”
I’m looking forward to it.
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