Colorado College Bulletin

Strictly Old-School Football

By Clay Latimer
Excerpted by permission of the Denver Post/Rocky Mountain News

Photo by Todd HeislerPictured right:  Teammates Tony Rosendo, left, Matt Johnson, Jackson Latka, and Craig Wirt head across campus to football practice after classes.  They are roommates at an off-campus home.

One linebacker stands only 5-foot-8 and weighs 195, another measures 5-10 and 180. One captain traveled to Italy to study European culture, another studied African culture in Zimbabwe. One assistant coach is the college’s registrar, another is a special education teacher at a local school.

The 103-year-old stadium is the oldest football venue west of the Mississippi River, but it looks more like a high school facility. A typical game draws a couple hundred laid-back fans, including clusters of students who gather on a grassy hill, but many drift back to the main campus or nearby fraternity houses on a whim.

There are no television timeouts, no jumbo screens, no parking hassles, no marching band, no cheerleaders, no agents putting out big-money vibes, no scholarships. Players don’t buy exams on the black market and students don’t paint their bodies in black and gold, CC’s colors. Many couldn’t even name the quarterback or the team’s next opponent at Washburn Field, where anyone can sit on the 50-yard-line and marvel at Pikes Peak.

It’s old-time football, for amateurs, with no attitude. “We don’t play for the girls,” senior linebacker Jackson Latka said. “We play for the love of the game. Why else would we be out here?” When Latka applied to CC, the then-Pueblo Centennial High School player assumed his football career was over. “I said, ‘Coach, do they have a football team?’”

Being a diligent student, Latka quickly discovered that CC’s football history stretched back to 1882, to a team whose marquee player was born during the Civil War, and that Washburn Field opened during President McKinley’s administration. Being a diligent student is necessary at CC, where 30 percent of the students graduated in the top 5 percent of their high school classes and 50 percent in the top 10 percent. Sixty-five percent of CC alumni begin postgraduate studies within five years.

Football players are no exception. Five years ago, Ryan Egeland ’97 became the fourth CC athlete to win a Rhodes scholarship. A chemistry major with a 3.9 grade-point average, the Division III Academic All-America offensive tackle impressed judges with his independent research on the effects of de-icing on freshwater lakes. Chris Witt ’01, quarterback of the 2000 team, was one of 16 players named as a National Football Foundation Scholarship All-American. He carried a 3.92 GPA in American political economics.

Linebacker Latka carries a 3.8 GPA in economics and also is a record-setting member of the track team. Offensive lineman Matt Johnston took the 2000 season off to work as a campaign manager in the Iowa caucus. Defensive lineman Jonathan McGee, holder of the team record with a 455-pound bench press, was a White House intern last summer.

“In the (training room), you’ll see guys studying as they ride the stationary bikes,” said Greg Polnasek, in his fifth season as coach. Finding recruits who can handle the CC grind is no small chore for Polnasek. Without scholarships, all 213 Division III head coaches (in the U.S.) face an uphill struggle. 

Recruiting became a renewed priority at CC in 1995 when the team finished with fewer than 50 healthy players.  And Polnasek faced an added burden: CC is an independent, geographically isolated from other Division III schools, so the Tigers have trouble finding opponents. This year, the team played only nine games. Moreover, the nationally ranked hockey and women’s soccer teams push football to the margins, beneath the notice of many of the 1,950 students, 25 percent of whom play a varsity sport.  Polnasek scored a coup when he landed Menelek Lumumba, a 6-foot-5, 325-pound defensive lineman from Machebeuf (Denver) High School who impressed several Division I schools with his NFL-like size and raw potential. “Division I was an option,” Lumumba says. Instead, he opted for a school where football is an afterthought.

“I was looking for intellectual stimulation,” he said. “When I was being recruited at CC, one of the first things they talked about was the many opportunities I had to study abroad. That’s when my eyes got big. As far back as I can remember, I wanted to go to Africa.” Lumumba’s dream materialized when he studied politics, economics, and local languages in Zimbabwe last spring.

“The block plan really helps,” he said. “I remember in my freshman year we had to read Ralph Ellison’s ‘The Invisible Man,’ which is close to 300 pages. (The instructor) assigned the first half of the book for the first day and that book isn’t the easiest read. But in the block plan, you have three hours to sit down and analyze every aspect of a novel or whatever. I can get a jump on my studies, take a nap if need be. Then I go to practice, run around for a couple hours and it keeps me sane. Some of my buddies said I was making a mistake by not playing Division I, but the opportunity to play on Saturday afternoons was enough for me.”

In 1960, CC president Dr. Louis Benezet said small-college football was a dying game. He pointed to consistent financial losses at the school after Colorado and Colorado State pulled out of the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference in 1937 and to the rising popularity of televised college football. In 1963, CC pulled out of the RMAC, became an independent, eventually eliminated scholarships and even downsized Washburn Field.

But (former coach) Jerry Carle wouldn’t let football fade away. “There will always be a place for Division III,” he said. “It lets kids prolong a dream.” During a 33-year tenure, Carle put together a record of 137-150-5, easily the winningest record of any CC football coach. Using an antiquated single-wing offense, the Tigers posted a 46-7-2 record from 1971-76 and advanced to the 1975 Division III national championship game. 

They received some help from the unofficial school band, known as the Razzy Dazzy Spasm Band and later the Super Fan Band, a dozen musicians who often dressed in shorts and sandals. A favorite routine was the “Pencil Formation” – another name for a straight line.

Carle retired in 1990. But some scenes never change. Spectators still can see Carle at CC games, in his favorite bleacher seat, next to longtime assistant Frank Flood. Students still set off a miniature cannon in the south end zone after every score. Kids lob footballs on a grassy hill. 

Parents sweat through goal-line stands. And players revel in the idealism of a game that’s so retro it’s virtually radical.

 “This summer, on the first day of practice, we were all out there at 6 in the morning, before the sun came up,” Latka said. “There was so much fire and intensity. I said, ‘Wow, this is really something special. I’m playing football with my best friends in the world.’ It was an amazing feeling.”

Click here to read "Sabol put CC on the Football Map."

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