Steamboat Springs Mention the name Tom Southall around former high school basketball coach Kelly Meek and his eyes light up and his memories of the top-level former high school athlete he mentored will start pouring out.
“He was extraordinarily special,” Meek said. “But he was more than that. The way he impacted our community and brought people together was truly amazing.”
It’s a similar response from former football coach Mark Drake and we can all assume the late Carl Ramunno, the legendary Steamboat Springs High School wrestling coach who died in 1999 at age 69, would not hesitate to share his stories of one of the most notable Steamboat Springs athletes with anyone who was willing to listen.
Maybe that’s why Meek, Drake and the family of Ramunno were so honored when they learned that the coaches were the first to receive an award named in honor of Southall at the Colorado High School Coaches Hall of Fame banquet, which was held in Denver on March 29.
“I was the first winner, and since it was my award, I wanted to give it to my coaches,” Southall said. “This is the first year for the award and it recognizes coaches for their work with students that have special needs and special circumstances.”
Southall said the efforts the three Steamboat Springs coaches made 30 years ago were ahead of their time and helped him develop into a top-level athlete. They also gave him an opportunity to land in the spotlight where Southall took the opportunity to not only inspire athletes with disabilities, but motivate all athletes to make the most of what they were born with.
“It was amazing just to watch him,” Meek said. “I can still feel the electricity he brought to the court and to the field.”
Southall, who moved to Steamboat Springs in seventh grade, never let the fact that he was born without a right arm from the elbow down stop him from pursuing an athletic career. In high school, he earned 12 letters in four sports and became a topic of conversation at football stadiums, basketball courts and tracks across the state.
“Our football stands were always packed, and a lot of the people who were watching were not from Steamboat,” Mark Drake recalls. “People wanted to come see the kid with one arm play football, so they would travel to Steamboat from around the state just to watch him play.”
Southall did more than just fill a place on the field, however. He did more than just play the game. Southall stood out, and not just because he was missing a part of his arm. In fact, most of the men who coached Southall in the late '70s and early '80s said it was easy at times to forget that the Southall only had part of his right arm.
“The players on the other teams always set out to stop Tom, but they just couldn’t do it,” Meek said. “He was so fast, so quick. A player would go to steal the ball and he would flip the ball around his back with his left hand and he was gone.”
On the basketball court, Southall regularly led the team in steals and assists and there was no question he was one of the fastest track athletes, helping Steamboat Springs High School win state titles in 1979 and 1980.
But it was on the football field where Southall truly shined.
He rushed for 412 yards in a single game in the state playoffs and for 2,180 his junior year helping the Steamboat Springs Sailors win the state title. He was named all-conference in football, basketball and track and was named the BSF High School Athlete of the Year in 1981 and won the 1981 Steinmark Award, which also goes to the top high school athlete in the state of Colorado each year.
After high school, Southall went to Colorado College where he continued to play Division 3 football and continued to impress his coaches and roll over his opponents. He became a certified public accountant and spent several years working behind a desk before he realized it just wasn’t for him. He returned to school, got a teaching degree, and he has been working as a teacher and coach ever since.
He taught and a coached at Eaglecrest High School for several years and recently completed his 22nd year at Cherokee Trails High School in Aurora. In his own time, Southall remains dedicated to coaching and especially working with athletes with physical and mental challenges.
“I’m grateful and fortunate to have grown up in Steamboat Springs with all the excellent coaches they had there in the 1970s and '80s," Southall said. “They worked with me, and pushed me every day and for that I’m thankful. I look forward to giving this award out every year and recognizing coaches who are making a difference working with athletes that face a number of different challenges. It’s important to honor them for what they are trying to do, and for what they do.”
To reach John F. Russell, call 970-871-4209, email jrussell@SteamboatToday.com or follow him on Twitter @Framp1966