Players honor Sirko’s passion for football

Dale Strode
The Aspen Times
Aspen High School football coach Mike Sirko shares his passion for football with his players, including NFL standout Lamarr Houston, of the Oakland Raiders.
Leah Moriarty/Special to The Aspen Tims |

A football epiphany overwhelmed Daniel Ryerson the first time he heard his new coach’s simple explanation of teamwork.

“He would say, ‘Look to the left; those are your brothers. Look to the right, those are your brothers,’” Ryerson said, recounting the team-first, one-heartbeat family philosophy of Aspen High School football coach Mike Sirko.

“He … talked about giving it your best shot. Give 100 percent … 48 minutes of hell,” Ryerson said of the powerful words he heard seven years ago when he was a high school student/football player.

“I thought, ‘This guy can teach us how to win,’” said Ryerson, an AHS graduate now attending Grinnell College in Iowa, where he’s also playing college football.

“He was passionate about football … passionate about the team, about the brotherhood,” Ryerson said in a telephone interview with The Aspen Times on Wednesday. “He showed that he would put his entire effort into making us better.”

Sirko this week announced his retirement as the Aspen High School head football coach after seven seasons — seven winning seasons and seven consecutive playoff appearances.

50 aspen wins

The 2013 Skiers closed their season last Saturday in Arvada, falling to Faith Christian in the first round of the state playoffs. Earlier this season, the Skiers collected Sirko’s 50th football victory at Aspen.

“Coach Sirko inspired you to do your best,” said Ryerson, who added that Sirko cultivated his passion for the game after he took over at AHS in 2007.

“He’s the best coach I’ve ever had,” said Nick Ufkes, an Aspen High School all-state running back who’s now playing at Hamilton College in Clinton, N.Y. “He had a knack for inspiring the kids he coached.”

Ufkes, the all-time leading rusher in AHS history, said Sirko broke the preconceived notion that football couldn’t be successful in a resort town like Aspen.

“We didn’t have a history of success in football at Aspen,” Ufkes said. “We were known for our skiing, not football.”

But that didn’t bother Sirko.

“It’s a daunting task to take over a program with all the naysayers. It’s hard to convince a bunch of 17-, 18-year-olds that they had to sacrifice, to work hard for the team,” Ufkes said. “But he made it important (to be part of the team). He showed us things are so much better if you work hard.”

Sirko also showed the Skiers the path to winning seasons and the state playoffs.

And more.

“I have so much respect for that man,” Ufkes said. “He was more than just a football coach for me, for all of us. He set a standard to be successful in life, not just football.”

The lessons learned, Ufkes said, will last a lifetime.

“There is no way I’ll ever forget what he taught me,” the Hamilton College student/athlete said.

Likewise Walker Moriarty.

The former Aspen High School standout is playing football at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pa.

“The greatest thing about him (Sirko) is that you learn it’s not about ‘me.’ It’s about team, teammates,” Moriarty told The Aspen Times. “He made … everyone feel important.”

work ethic

Moriarty said Sirko was there with support when he suffered an ankle injury in his senior year.

“He let me know he was still there for me,” Moriarty said of the Aspen coach, who previously had built programs at Rampart and Doherty high schools in Colorado Springs. “He gave me the work ethic to be successful.”

And Sirko had help, Moriarty said.

“First of all, it was all the coaches who helped us,” Moriarty said of the legion of Sirko assistants, with a special nod to Nick Sirko and Reuben Burbach (Mike Sirko’s son and son-in-law). He said the teamwork and passion the coaches exhibited carried over to the Skiers.

“I am so glad they were a part of Aspen football.”

And a part of Aspen football history.

The Skiers recorded their first winning season since 1974 in Sirko’s first year.

In his second season, the Skiers won their first playoff game in 40 years.

Sirko, in fact, has posted 17 consecutive winning seasons at three different Colorado high school programs — Aspen, Doherty and Rampart. His 1998 team at Rampart went 14-0 and won the state championship — the last Colorado Springs school to win a state football championship.

NFL connection

At Doherty, Sirko coached future NFL defensive end Lamarr Houston, now of the Oakland Raiders.

“Coach Sirko is the reason why I’m here today,” Houston said in a telephone interview from Oakland where he had just finished practice Wednesday afternoon. “I was very blessed to make it to the NFL. I don’t think I would be here without coach Sirko.”

Houston, after a stellar prep career under Sirko, attended the University of Texas before he was drafted into the National Football League.

“He has the passion for the game. I think that is something he developed in me,” said Houston, who talks with Sirko a couple of times each month.

He recalled the first speech Sirko delivered to the Doherty football team during Houston’s sophomore season.

“He gave a very passionate speech,” said Houston, who shares stories with current teammates about his inspiring high school coach.

“He knows what this game is all about,” Houston said. “Work hard, play the game hard. That’s the one way to play the game.”

Lesson learned, Houston said he thanks his former high school coach — regularly.

“He’s one of the most important men in my life.”

He also visits the Sirkos at least once a year.

Houston helped Sirko add to his win total.

The coach — 34 years as a head coach — ranks sixth all-time in Colorado high school football victories with 237.

A native of western Pennsylvania, Sirko grew up in an area rich in football roots — Joe Namath, Dan Marino, Jim Kelly, Ty Law and Darrelle Revis.

Recruited as an offensive/defensive lineman by Western State College in Gunnison, Sirko moved west to play football for the Mountaineers (a 1970s power in small college football).

He coached at Hotchkiss, Montrose and Colorado Springs in addition to coaching at Aspen.

He’s still in Colorado with family in tow.

But his voice can still be heard in faraway places like Oakland, Calif., and Grinnell, Iowa.

“Every single day, no matter what, you could hear his voice resonate at school,” Ryerson said.

“Whether it was the first day of practice, or in the weight room in the middle of winter, you could could hear him say, ‘It’s a great day for football.’”