We love football and money in America, sometimes more than our neighbors, or life itself.
In a year when a virus threatens to cancel the football season, some games are worth saving. The Pac-12 Conference opener for Colorado on the road at Arizona, however, is not one of them. It’s a health risk not worth taking.
You tell me: How does traveling nearly 1,000 miles to play the Wildcats in the middle of a state currently besieged by the coronavirus make any safety sense for the Buffs, while canceling a rivalry game a quick jaunt up the road at Colorado State is necessary to protect the health of student-athletes?
On the same day Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott revealed he tested positive for COVID-19, the Buffs followed him down the same crooked path of false hope and broken promises that beckoned Colorado to join the conference a decade ago. CU chancellor Phil DiStefano, who swallows Dr. Scott’s Amazing Snake Oil as fast as Larry can spoon it up, responded to the decision to cancel September non-conference games in order to play football against the Cougars and Utes well into the cold-and-flu season, by declaring: “We’re pleased.”
Pleased? Color me ticked. Or, if you prefer, let’s stick with the more diplomatic words of CSU athletic director Joe Parker: “We are disappointed.”
Colorado backed out of the Rocky Mountain Showdown in Fort Collins on Sept. 5 because the Buffs care more about cold-hard cash than their next-door neighbors. To suggest any higher purpose behind the decision would smell suspiciously like a stack of Ralphie chips.
Let me get this straight. CU athletic director Rick George doesn’t trust CSU to keep the Buffs safe, but he’s open to the idea of sending student-athletes to play at pandemic hotspots in California and Arizona. Why? Follow the money of the $32 million annual conference payout to Colorado.
Hey, I love football. But this football season is on the brink, and the country’s health is at unnecessary risk, because we foolishly let the coronavirus kick our rear ends for too long without putting up a serious fight. And now we angrily want to blame somebody, anybody except ourselves for this mess.
This every-football-conference-for-itself attitude is the same virulent selfishness reflected in the mirror that reveals national character flaws. If we can’t even agree on wearing masks, then how should anyone expect us to give a hoot if the pandemic has taken roost in somebody else’s house, let alone another state?
But I refuse to give up on the magic found in the teamwork of football. I don’t want the best of football to be lost. I want to believe there are games in 2020 worth saving.
That’s why, on the same day the Buffs dumped Colorado State from this year’s schedule, I phoned Jaron Cohen, football coach at Ponderosa High, in the outskirts of Denver’s sprawling suburbs. Football is his life. He’s worried the virus could wreck this season for a program that serves as a touchstone in the lives of 10 dozen prep athletes and their families.
“I’ve had some anxiety over it, I’ll be honest,” Cohen said.
“It’s hard for me to imagine we’re going to play tackle football on Aug. 28. It’s also hard for me to imagine a year when we don’t have high school sports. I think we’re going to play. I just don’t know when.”
Although COVID-19 cases are again on the rise in Colorado, I’m rooting for the chance we can beat down the pandemic together, allowing Ponderosa to play Legend and Chaparral this fall. It’s the last season of prep football for quarterback Jack Hanenburg and his fellow seniors. The value of prep sports, however, is about more than sentimental journeys.
Ponderosa doesn’t cut players. So there are 120 athletes of varied abilities in a program that serves as a social network and support group. While the Mustangs won eight games in 2019, Cohen takes more pride in the fact 119 of his athletes maintained grades that kept them academically eligible to play and on track to graduate.
There are also two young sons in the Cohen household. Henry is 10 years old; Leo is 7. Those boys love football with the passion only kids do.
What if the pandemic steals an entire year of Friday night lights from Henry and Leo?
“It would be awful,” Cohen said. “I won’t even let that possibility enter my head yet.”
At its best, football is about community, not money. Some games are worth saving. Ponderosa vs. Legend is one of them.