“The Survivors” – Part Two

They never had a winning season in a Colorado uniform.

They endured a coaching change, with expectations and hopes of the fan base pointed toward the future, not the present.

They were forced to handle derision, ridicule and scorn; they were fixtures in the “Bottom Ten”.

Yet they still managed to win their final home game at Folsom Field, and go out with a little style and class.

Of course, I am talking about the large CU senior Class …

… of 1983.

This past week, as the focus turned to whether or not the Colorado senior Class of 2011, some 28 players strong, would become leaders of the first team in school history to go an entire season without a home win at Folsom Field, my thoughts turned to the Colorado senior Class of 1983 – my class.

The Colorado senior Class of 1983 had 26 members. Much was expected of the Class went it enrolled in Boulder in the fall of 1980 (there were few red-shirts as the Buffs in the early 1980’s, as was the case this fall, played most of its freshman class without the benefit of a red-shirt season). The 1980 recruiting class was ranked in the top ten by some publications. Four years – and only ten wins – later, however, the Class of 1983 was subject to derision, scorn, and ridicule. Gone was the coach who had recruited them, Chuck Fairbanks, and their history was pocked with memories of losses to Drake, 82-42, and “Colorado sky blue” uniforms worn before home crowds averaging less than 40,000.

Yet the CU Class of 1983 managed to win its final home game, a 38-21 win over Kansas State.  “I’m all choked up. I’ll really miss playing here and the players”, said cornerback Victor Scott, one of only three players from that Class who would go on to play in the NFL, “At half-time (when the Buffs were down 21-7) I decided I wasn’t going to let them beat us”. Another senior, Terry Irvin, was quoted by the Boulder Daily Camera in an article about the “Class of ’80 Survivors”, recalling: “When we came here, Colorado had only had one losing year (1979) and the program was not in bad shape. We thought we could get it back to its prominence.” Instead of ten wins a season, though, the Class of 1980 had managed just ten wins in four campaigns. Said fellow senior Sandy Armstrong, starting outside linebacker for every game in 1983, “There haven’t been a whole lot of good times”.

The “Survivors” of the Senior Class of 1983 have a lot in common with the “Survivors” of the Senior Class of 2011.

The Class of 2011 has failed to post a winning season. The seniors have endured a coaching change, and have endured scorn and ridicule as the losses in the Pac-12 have mounted. Not only were these Buffs failing to win games in their new conference, they were being blown out, with five consecutive conference opponents posted over 500 yards of total offense (when never before had any Colorado team given up over 500 yards in as many as three consecutive games). The first 11 (or 12) loss season in school history appeared imminent, as the Buffs were an 11-point underdog – at home – to a 2-7 team playing with an interim head coach.

Yet the Buffs not only defeated the Arizona Wildcats, they did it with style, winning 48-29.

There were 28 seniors introduced before the game Saturday, and many of them have made significant contributions to the University of Colorado football program over the past four/five years:

Rodney Stewart – What can you say about Speedy, the heart and soul of the Colorado Buffs? Stewart will finish his career as the second-leading rusher in school history, behind only his position coach, Eric Bieniemy. When future Buff fans peruse the Colorado record books in years to come, and see Stewart’s name prominently mentioned, it would be easy to forget that Stewart was a “thrown in” Signing Day bonus in 2008. The headliner that day was the number one running back recruit in the nation, Darrell Scott. With Scott in the fold, along with another top running back recruit coming in, Ray Polk, Stewart, the 5’6″, 175-pound back from Ohio that no one knew much about, was seen as a great addition to the recruiting class – as a potential kick returner.

Four years later, Scott is finishing out his career at South Florida, Ray Polk is finishing out his career as a safety for the Buffs, and Rodney Stewart continues to set records.

Just a few of Stewart’s accomplishments:

– First all-time in career All-Purpose yards;

– First all-time in career Yards from Scrimmage;

– First all-time in receiving yards for a running back (and only needs two receptions to become the all-time leader in that category as well);

– First all-time in career carries, with 16 career 100-yard games (second all-time to Bieniemy’s 22).

Against Arizona, Stewart did what he does best, going for 181 yards on 24 carries, to go with 23 yards on two receptions. Stewart scored three touchdowns, while also throwing for his second career touchdown. After the game, Stewart was given the “Buffalo Heart Award”, given out to an outstanding senior by the “fans in the stands”.

Tyler Hansen – To say that senior quarterback Tyler Hansen has gone through a lot would be to say too little. Hansen, a well thought of quarterback out of high school, was the unfortunate third party in the Dan & Cody Hawkins era at Colorado. Twice slated for a red-shirt season, Hansen was twice thrown into battle mid-season.

Still, if far less than four seasons of play, Hansen will likely finish his career fourth on the all-time passing list. Earlier this season, Hansen put together the second-longest streak without an interception (131 passes, with the record being 139) in school history. Discouting sacks, Hansen has rushed for over 1,000 yards in his CU career, only the eighth quarterback in Colorado history (and recall, in the glory days Colorado featured running quarterbacks) to go over 1,000 yards on the ground.

Against Arizona, in his final home game, Hansen hit on 16-of-26 passes for 213 yards and two touchdowns. Hansen also caught a touchdown pass – the first of his career – and posted 50 yards rushing. “It means a lot, we have gone through thick and thin,” said Hansen of the senior class. “This group (of seniors) has gone through a lot, we have been tested … To go out with a win is special.”

Toney Clemons – The senior wide receiver spent two years at Michigan before transferring to Colorado. After sitting out his transfer year, Clemons had two seasons to prove why he was one of the most highly recruited wideouts in the nation. Clemons was adequate, if not spectacular, in his junior year in Boulder, collecting 43 catches for 482 and three touchdowns. The same held true for the first part of the 2011 season, but the senior has finally stepped it up in the last three games, with sophomore Paul Richardson hampered by injuries. In games against Arizona State, USC, and Arizona, Clemons has caught 18 passes for 324 yards and four touchdowns, including a five-catch, 115-yard, one touchdown performance against Arizona in the home finale.

Travis Sandersfeld – An invited walk-on from Limon, Colorado, there was no guarantee Sandersfeld would see his senior season in uniform. A special teams star (fourth on the all-time list in special teams points), Sandersfeld was being counted on to be a major player in the defensive backfield this fall. Unfortunately, Sandersfeld, like so many in the secondary this fall, was injured, falling in the CSU game. Sandersfeld missed the next six games, but has returned to start the last three. Against Arizona, the senior – and former walk-on – led the team in tackles, with 11. Sandersfeld also had three tackles for loss, a sack, and the third interception of his career.

Jason Espinoza – Like Sandersfeld, Espinoza was an invited walk-on. Another in-state product (Alamosa), Espinoza was a wide receiver for most of his CU career, collecting 14 passes for 149 yards and a touchdown in three seasons. This fall, Espinoza switched to defensive back, earning starts against Washington State and Washington. In his first four games as a defensive back, Espinoza recorded 17 tackles, and posted his first career interception against USC last weekend. How does a senior walk-on follow up on a game with an interception? With a performance including five tackles and a momentum-saving interception in the home finale, that’s how.

There are a number of other senior stories to tell … Defensive end Josh Hartigan recorded a sack against Arizona, moving him into 17th-place on the all-time list … Offensive guard Ryan Miller, a fixture along the offensive line for the past four years, starting his 46th game against Arizona, with teammate and fellow guard Ethan Adkins, starting his 31st game against the Wildcats … Tight end Ryan Deehan contributed two catches for 19 yards against the Wildcats, giving him 20 catches for almost 300 yards on the season … Defensive back Brian Lockridge, who made the move to the secondary this fall, only to kept out by injuries since the Washington State game … Defenisive linemen Curtis Cunningham, Conrad Obi, and Tony Poremba, who have combined for 36 starts along the line … Evan Harrington and Tyler Ahles, who switched from linebacker to fullback so the Buffs could have some muscle in the offensive backfield … Injured seniors, like wide receiver Kyle Cefalo, safety Anthony Perkins, and offensive lineman Shawn Daniels … too many stories, not enough time.

Finally, though, there is the story of senior offensive lineman Blake Behrens. An 11-game starter as a red-shirt freshman in 2008, Behrens was thereafter plagued by injuries the remainder of his career. An All-Big 12 freshman player, Behrens saw action in only five games as a sophomore, and then has battled through injuries his junior and senior years, not playing a single down in 2010 or 2011.

Behrens was on hand for the Arizona game, his last as a senior before the Folsom Field crowd. Unbeknownst to the crowd on hand (with the possible exception of a few friends and family members), Behrens was sent in to block on the last extra point in Colorado’s 48-29 victory, and was also on the line for the final kneel down of the game. It was a class move by a coaching staff which believed in, and cared about, its seniors.

After the game, head coach Jon Embree brought in all 28 seniors to his post-game press conference. “These seniors, they did it,” said Embree. “That is why I brought them in here with me, because it is for them, it is about them. I’m proud of these guys, I love them. Two more games. Now next for us is the road losing streak, and we are going to end it. These guys are going to end it. I couldn’t be prouder of these guys. Everyone up here made contributions, they all had big plays in games, interceptions, touchdowns, big blocks that allowed ‘Speedy’ (Rodney Stewart) to run, good protection, it was a great team effort.”

For the seniors, the win was special as well. “It means a lot, we have gone through thick and thin, this group behind me has gone through a lot, we have been tested,” said Tyler Hansen. “To go out with a win is special.” Added Travis Sandersfeld, “It’s been a rough road and its senior day, our last home game. After the game I was telling everybody it feels so great to get this win. We have had some big highlights in our careers, but this one rates one of the top with all the work we put into it. We could have easily quit, but we still have drive and passion to come out and get this three game winning streak to send the underclassmen off right.”

Unlike the Class of 1983, who ended their careers with a home game, the senior Class of 2011 still has two games to play. Two more chances to break the program free from the last negative legacy from the Dan Hawkins’ era – the road losing streak.

“We were not losing this game, there was no way,” said Tyler Hansen. “We are not going to lose on the road. We are going on the road and we are going to get it done. We are going to send these underclassmen off with a three game winning streak. That is our goal. We are going to fight and we are going to do everything we can to get that done.”

Tough words from a quarterback of a 2-9 team setting off to face two teams still in the running for winning records, the Pac-12 South title, and bowl bids.

But that is what you would expect from a Survivor.


5 Replies to ““The Survivors” – Part Two”

  1. Count me among those who did not know Blake Behrens was on the field at game’s end. Wholly classy move by Coach Embree and the staff. I only make the trip west from NJ every 10 years or so to watch my Alma mater. Saturday I was reminded why I loved the 4 years I spent here and why I have loved the school ever since. The energy pre-game was palpable and as the action on the field tilted into the favor of the home team, those of us in the crowd did all we could to keep them energized.

    There have been some lean years this past decade for the Buffs. Great piece Stuart and thanks for reminding me (and I presume at least one other like me) that it is not just about the name on the front of the uniform. It is about the young men inside of the uniforms too.

    Good luck to the 28 seniors. Whether your first job is in the NFL or someplace altogether different, here’s to hoping that your time in Boulder served you well. You can do just fine with a CU degree. Ask any alum.

  2. Stuart told me in an Email before the season that the Buffs would finish 4-9 in 2011. I was punch drunk from too much of the Embo Kool Aid and was absolutely convinced these kids were gonna upset Oregon at home and finish 6-7. I have a really good feeling about UCLA and Utah, not because I am riding high off the Arizona game but because I think Stu knows best. 4 and 9 sounds really good right now, Go Buffs!

  3. superb piece, Stuart. it resonates with buffs who remember those times and feel the beginning of another upswing.

    on saturday i felt great atmosphere in folsom, the crowd seemed to be feeding off the energy created by those seniors. hats off to them.

  4. The final three game prediction reminds me of last year. I would definitely take two out of three, just like last year!

    Thank you Stewart! Great website!

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