Steamboat Springs At some point, the season had to run out.
There had to be a last game played somewhere, a last time they'd all be on the field together.
And when Steamboat Springs High School football coach Mark Drake walked into the locker room at Buena Vista High School on a sunny but cold 1979 day - fresh off his team picking up Steamboat's lone football state championship - Drake realized that this season, maybe more than any other he'd coached, meant something far greater.
"I got to the locker room, and the kids were all sitting there," Drake recalled last week. "I figured they'd all be really happy. But all the kids were crying. I said, 'What's the matter? You just won a state title.'
"They said, 'We won't ever get to play together again.'"
That was the thing. As storied a season as it was and remains, that season wasn't necessarily about wins and losses. Sure, Steamboat finished on top - something the football team hasn't done since - but when players talk about that game and season, it's the tears of never getting to line up next to one another that outweighed the jubilation of hosting a golden ball.
"That's just the way they are," line coach Bob Harris would say after the Buena Vista game. "That's why they're winners."
Beginning a tradition
Before 1979, Steamboat had never made the playoffs. The team won a county championship in 1929, but those '79 Sailors brought something to Steamboat football that hasn't left.
For the past 30 years, Steamboat football has been a staple in the postseason.
"I wouldn't want to slight any other kids," Drake said, "but the 1979 kids set the tone for the football family."
That season, Steamboat started the year 2-2 with losses to Holy Family and 1978 state champion Glenwood Springs.
At 2-2, Steamboat was able to pick up easy wins against Roaring Fork and Aspen. With a trip to Gunnison - a team many thought would win the state title that year - Steamboat found its turning point.
Tom Southall rushed for more than 200 yards against Gunnison, giving him more than 1,000 for the year.
But Southall said that was the win that got the Sailors believing the season was about more than just making the playoffs.
"We had gotten things going," he said. "We figured that might be a forbearer of good things to come."
Steamboat would beat Meeker and then clinch a playoff spot against Rifle in the final game of the season.
The team had to go back to Gunnison for the first round of the playoffs. A Mitche Graf 37-yard interception return for a touchdown was the difference in a 14-6 Steamboat win.
Steamboat beat Salida, 38-6, in the quarterfinals and Sheridan, 52-15, in the semifinals, a game where Southall set a then-playoff record with 412 yards rushing.
That set up a game at Buena Vista, a small team that would be the most physical team Steamboat had seen all year.
One game, one chance
Steve Nicks' raspy voice still can describe what a physical contest the state championship game became. The 30-year-old wounds and scars still are fresh in Nicks' mind.
As an offensive and defensive tackle for Buena Vista, Nicks felt it was his team's destiny to be state champions.
Buena Vista had beaten rival Salida that year for the first time in 12 years. The team, Nicks said, was primed to be the state champion.
"We were a real small team," Nicks said Thursday from his Buena Vista home. "Other teams would laugh at us, and we'd beat them hard. But with Steamboat, we'd hit them and hit them and hit them and it didn't seem to matter."
The game was so big locally that extra bleachers from the prison south of town were moved in. In an admittedly hostile environment, the two teams played to a scoreless first-half tie.
But the first half wasn't without controversy.
Late in the second quarter, Southall had fielded a punt. It glanced off him, and Southall tried to pick it up but knocked the ball into the end zone. Buena Vista recovered and thought it was on its way to a 7-0 lead.
But the refs convened and called it a muffed punt. At that time, a muffed punt became a dead ball when it reached the end zone.
"Luckily, the ref knew the rules," Southall said. "I was cussing and trying to fight for the ball, thinking I was mad for letting the other team score a touchdown. Fortunately, the ref knew what the rule was. I thought I had messed up, but it was a tie ball game. That was a real big momentum shift."
Steamboat would score touchdowns on its first two possessions in the second half, to take a 12-0 lead.
It was a lead the team would never relinquish.
"We got to be a pretty close-knit team. It was a fun time," quarterback Kent Williams said. "That's what we wanted to do. We were bound and determined to win."
Those in Steamboat who didn't make the trip met the team at the top of Rabbit Ears Pass.
As the convoy reached Steamboat, that once-in-a-lifetime team was treated like royalty.
"That's one of the top moments," said Joe Ramunno, who played offensive and defensive line on that 1979 team and is now the head football coach at Mesa State College. "I always tell our players about that. What a special group. The love you have and all the people surrounding that. That was, probably when I look at it, just a special, special group. It's one of the all-time great groups."
That group is drawing comparisons to the 2009 Steamboat Springs High School football team. This year's Sailors are 9-0 and are regarded by many as a team that could seriously contend for a 2009 state championship.
But the similarities and odd coincidences are eerie. In 1978, Glenwood won a state title before Steamboat won the next year.
Last season, Glenwood won a state title.
Fred Latimer, who played fullback on the 1979 state championship team, started his freshman year at Colorado State University as a tailback.
The center on that CSU team?
Current Steamboat football coach Aaron Finch. Coincidentally, Steamboat also beat Buena Vista, 58-13, on Friday night.
Many of the players from the 1979 state championship team met this year for a reunion. As part of the celebration, the team went to watch this year's team beat Rifle for homecoming.
Stories were shared, players hugged and of course there were a few tears.
But the one thing that team always has realized was the impact the game had not just on them but also on the community.
"It's not like Cherry Creek and Mullen. Here, state championships are special," Southall said. "They don't come around very often. You realize how special a group it really was when you finally do get that gold football."