Roaring Fork High’s football field, with its view of Mount Sopris looming majestically to the south, is mostly quiet these days, which has been the status quo since the Rams dropped varsity football after a winless 2017 campaign.
But seeds have been planted in anticipation of “Rams 2.0” and a return of this hallowed program by the fall of 2020. Because most schools, no matter how grim a season their team has, don’t just have a team go away, even after no wins and nine losses.
While there were unique circumstances that conspired to topple the program, including concussion awareness, the pull of other sports and a dearth of feeder programs, a core group of varsity football loyalists, including a coach willing to commute more than four hours round-trip per practice, are working hard on its resurrection.
The ‘long, slow slide'
After going 3-6 and being fairly competitive in 2016, the Rams could have been poised for a return to success. They had a first-year coach come in with solid credentials – Matt Phelan was an all-Pac 12 offensive linemen at UCLA, and the kind of guy high schoolers would salivate to learn from and hang on his every word.
But there weren’t enough varsity Rams around to hear his words of wisdom and see them implemented. On the 2017 roster, Phelan had 14 Rams to play a game that requires 11 on the field. The young athletes on that club, most of whom had to play every down on both sides of the ball, made an effort but simply got worn out and became easy cannon fodder for each opponent.
It wasn’t just 2016 and 2017 that cleared the field of Rams for the next two seasons. It was a long, slow slide, according to Athletic Director and Rams girls’ basketball coach, Jade Bath.
“Those two seasons we had the numbers, barely, but we had the numbers. It was just a season of winning, and then to a season of losing, so there’s successful to unsuccessful, but in my mind it’s been more than those two seasons. You could even go back to almost a decade ago where we’ve started to see kind of a decline in numbers and in town.” Bath said.
The last three Rams teams with records above .500 were even earlier. In 2004, Roaring Fork went 8-3, then a stellar 10-1 in 2005, and 8-2 the next season. Since 2007’s drop to a 3-6 mark, the best year was 5-5 in 2008.
The last big group of football athletes to come into the school, as Bath remembers it, arrived in the fall of her senior year, 2007. It came after players like the quarterback of those previous few seasons, Kade Gianinetti, had graduated that spring.
Gianinetti’s 2005 Rams were so good that they even defeated Glenwood Springs by a score of 25-7 in the season opener. After that, Roaring Fork didn’t score fewer than 32 points and were usually in the 40s on their way to an undefeated regular season, a first-round 21-12 playoff win over Lamar, then that lone loss in the quarterfinals, 20-12 to Faith Christian.
Fork football has slid all the way to rock bottom after glory days like that year, and state championships in 1973, 1977 and 1985, a game fans can relive through its grainy KSPN TV2 video on YouTube.
As far as the decline in player numbers, Bath had several thoughts as to why that’s occurred, one of which is that there’s competition for other fall sports, including soccer.
“I don’t think it’s because our soccer team’s a lot more successful. I just think it’s that we don’t have the feeder programs anymore. We don’t have a pee-wee league. Even our middle school, they’ve had to combine 7th and 8th grade because of low numbers,” Bath said.
“I truly believe that at a young age, whether that’s pee-wee league, or one year of middle school, that’s when you find what sport you want to be involved in. So by the time the kids get here, they’ve already decided soccer over football or vice versa,” she added.
It’s also true that there hasn’t been a football program for the youngest potential football players, 3rd through 6th graders, the last couple seasons. In that age group, interest has lagged too, according to former Ram Eric Bollock, who is now a coach.
Bollock is the Carbondale coach for Mountain West Youth Football, as well as other positions.
“I’ve actually been working with youth football starting back in 1999 up in Aspen. I did five years up there, and a year down in Carbondale, and then I’ve been in Glenwood as well,” he said.
“And then back up here in Carbondale this past year, at the end of this last football season, I decided I would represent the town of Carbondale for Mountain West Youth Football because they hadn’t had a program. I think it’s at least two years, maybe three, that they haven’t even had a pee-wee football program here, 3rd through 6th grade.”
Bollock explained how, “The numbers have just been so low that they just haven’t been able to put a team together, so any kids that were in town here would either go to Basalt, or they would go to Glenwood, which is how I ended up there. My kids played in Glenwood.”
He agreed with Bath that the youth program’s slippage has affected the high school but that the issue isn’t insurmountable: “Well, I think it starts with obviously getting the word out, and encouraging the community to I guess embrace the game of football again.”
That sounds simple enough. But there’s also a health concern many parents have about the game these days that Bath and Bollock agree is cutting into football.
“There’s no doubt that this whole awareness of concussions in football has had an impact on football from the ground up, from 3rd grade all the way through the high school, especially here in Carbondale,” Bollock said. He noted that while concern over concussions is legitimate, it also can be blown out of proportion.
“So I think it starts with just awareness, education about concussions, and then just getting out in the community, to be honest with you.” Bollock allowed that the football program competes for student-athletes against soccer and lacrosse, “both of which are huge in Carbondale now.”
Yet he finds reasons to be optimistic regarding potential future concussions.
“I’m not making light of concussions – both my kids have had them, ironically in lacrosse, not football – it’s nothing to downplay, but I think it’s really being aware of the whole spectrum of studies that are out there, and these are long-term NFL veterans that are showing signs of or have CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy), that have been banging heads for a decade and a half or more,” he said.
“It’s important to note that “our kids are not playing at that level, for one” and that also helmet technology has changed “drastically in 10 years.” That evolution of the helmet includes exterior features like “bump caps” that are proven to reduce impact by 33 percent, he maintained.
He also pointed to a recent study that reported nationwide emergency room visits for concussions from youth athletes. In it, football was number four on that list, behind number one girls soccer, girls basketball and “riding a bike.”
“Now those are obviously concussions and not long-term effects from pounding heads, but that’s something that’s got to be looked at and taken into consideration as well,” Bollock said.
The man tasked with restoring varsity Rams to the field commutes from Buena Vista, which is easily a four-hour round trip this time of year.
Dave Close, a 47-year coaching veteran who spent a decade heading the Rams program from 1987–1996, has mentored a variety of teams around Colorado. Close initially left Roaring Fork for an opportunity in Idaho, and since has coached at Pagosa Springs, Bayfield and Buena Vista, which won the 1A state championship in 2015.
When asked why he decided last year to return to Roaring Fork to resurrect the Rams, Close said he just didn’t want to see them go away.
Close had run into his old friend and assistant, just-retired Rams boys’ basketball coach Larry Williams, who told him the school was just going to drop this program completely.
“I said ‘whaaat?’ That was a couple years ago. So then they had that 2017 season where they went 0 and 9 and scored 18 points, where the opposition scored 480. It was just horrible, so they said, ‘Well, that’s enough, we’re just gonna drop it.’ So I said, ‘Nah, let me come over.,’” Close said.
AD Bath believes if her football program can be saved, Close is the man to save it.
“It’s gonna take a guy like Dave Close, who’s coached here, understands Roaring Fork, understands this valley, to bring it back,” Bath said.
“Just his immediate passion, and wanting to bring it back, there’s no way that I couldn’t hire him. He lives in Buena Vista – last year he taught in the morning, then drove over here to coach at night. I don’t know if he’s going to do that this next season, but just the drive itself shows me his dedication.”
Bollock, who played for Close in his first stint in Carbondale, agreed.
“He doesn’t lack in passion, that’s for sure. Or energy. I think that obviously kind of spills over into his athletes. I think he did a great job this past year, working with what he had, which wasn’t much. Those kids really seemed to come together as a group,” Bollock said. “He believes in them, and I think that goes a long way with those kids.”
Still believing in Coach Close are not only Bollock, but a staff that’ll also include Jeff Carter, Larry Black, Ray Cooney, Cesar Bencomo, Mike Conklin, and Dave Cardiff.
The 2018 version of the Rams that Bollock referred to played the eight-man version of the game at the junior varsity level, due to the numbers situation. Bath said that was the only alternative to just packing it in.
“We didn’t have enough kids come out to field an 11-man JV. So myself and Dave, we started reaching out to other coaches and other AD’s, saying ‘hey, here’s our situation, would you play us in eight-man?’ And I’d say probably nine out of those 10 AD’s that we called, said, ‘Absolutely.’ They know our situation, they wanted to help out, and they didn’t want to see us lose the program. So we did eight-man last year, and in my opinion, it was actually very successful. It was fun to see those kids go out there and be able to compete, and also win.”
In 2019, the plan is to get back to an 11-man JV team. Numbers remain an issue, but Close, Bollock and their whole crew are beating the bushes for young people who want to play. Earlier this spring, Close visited all the other schools around Carbondale that don’t offer football at all, but whose students would be eligible to play for Roaring Fork.
Those included students at Carbondale Middle School, plus the Community School, Ross Montessori, The Waldorf School, Marble Charter School, Bridges and Colorado Rocky Mountain School. From that effort he landed 26 sign-ups and plans to visit again before the end of the school year to drum up more.
Bollock says it’s a challenge, but it’s working.
As to the third job Coach Bullock has, well, he’s going to be busy: “I started last year coaching at the Carbondale Middle School, so I’m the head coach there for the 7th and 8th grade team, and that program has obviously been affected, because of not having a feeder program below them. I’m on a mission to turn that middle school program around. I’m going to treat it just like it’s a varsity program, the kids are just smaller. They just don’t run quite as fast, the skill set isn’t quite there, but that’s the foundation of the varsity program.
“Until people start recognizing that, and supporting that, the varsity program will kind of flounder. It seems like common sense to me. It starts way younger. We’ll just go from there, really getting in there and talking to the kids, and making people aware that Carbondale football was once really strong, and there’s a lot of us who believe that as coaches, we can help get it back there,” he said.
It takes a village
When all this comes together, the 2020 Rams will be shifted down to the 1A Western Slope League and their football rivals won’t be Basalt and Aspen anymore, but Cedaredge, Grand Valley, Gunnison, Hotchkiss, Meeker, Olathe and Paonia. All the other Rams sports will remain in 3A.
Athletic director Bath is excited about the possibilities.
“The football parents we have right now, they’re 100 percent behind us, supporting us – and they’re even helping. Y’know, I had moms making signs this year, for a JV, eight-man football game, with not very many people there. That’s what it takes, it takes a ‘team effort’ to really bring this thing back,” Bath said.
“I mean, there’s nothing I want more for Roaring Fork High School than to have ‘Friday Night Lights’ back on, and have those bleachers packed like they used to be, and for that matter, have the track packed because there’s no more space for people to sit. A lot of people, a lot of schools, a lot of AD’s, truly believe how your football season goes really sets the pace for your school year.”
Once and future head coach Close said, “What I tell the parents is when they ask what can football do for you, you’re giving me your kid for four years. You give him for four years, and all I can promise you is I will teach them some lifelong lessons, some lifelong skills, that will make them a better individual, and will make them a contributing member of society until they die.
“If I can do that for their kids and they become solid citizens, the wins and losses will take care of themselves. I think football is something you can do it in, because there’s ups and downs, and a kid gets knocked down, he’s gotta get up. That’s life. Life is getting knocked down, and getting up. That’s the way it is. That’s why football is unique over all these other sports,” he added.
His one-time player, now assistant coach, middle school head coach and pee-wee coach Eric Bollock described what it’s like to run out on that field, looking up at Sopris and ready to play on a Friday evening.
“Oh, wow… it’s got to be the best setting in the country, I’d think. The feeling is — gee. I don’t know. I get emotional just thinking about it,” Bollock said.
“Without a doubt, it’s about more than the wins and losses, it’s being part of it, it’s indescribable,” he said.
“We all played together. And I think we’re fighting so hard for this because we experienced that feeling, and the pride in that, when we were in school, a strong rich tradition of football in the town of Carbondale, and it’s really, really sad to see this next generation coming up, not having that opportunity, to experience it.
“That’s why you have guys like Coach Close who are driving two hours one way just to coach every night of the week. Because we’re not gonna let it go. We want this next generation to experience that – what we got to experience at one point in time,” Bollock said.