Becoming friends was not a requirement for the young men who made up the Colorado football team in 1990.

Separately, they were brought to Boulder because of their talent, plucked from diverse high school programs all over the country. Their talent was exceptional. So was the coaching they received from Bill McCartney and his staff.

What pushed the 1990 Buffaloes to greatness, however, were the friendships they formed and the lifelong bond that was cultivated on and off the field during their time at CU.

"When we first went to Colorado we were just young guys looking to find our way," safety Tim James said. "When we left, we were more established, so we kind of grew up together. We relied on each other on and off the field and it carried on into our adult lives."

Jay Leeuwenburg, left, and Joe Garten, offensive linemen on the 1990 Colorado team, talk before a CU game in 2010.
Jay Leeuwenburg, left, and Joe Garten, offensive linemen on the 1990 Colorado team, talk before a CU game in 2010. (Cliff Grassmick/ Staff Photographer)

What the Buffs did on the field in 1990 won't ever be forgotten by those players and the die-hard CU fans. The 25 years since then have become just as special for many of those Buffs.

"Guys who were on that team, they were groomsmen in my wedding, they were there when my kids were born," linebacker Chad Brown said. "It's not just something that we talk about. It's something that's actually real and profound and lifelong."

Although many of the players don't see each other often, there is no question they are connected.

"When you see them, it's like you haven't even walked off the field yet," defensive lineman Garry Howe said. "The guys rallied behind Tom Rouen when his wife got injured. Those things still come up and they still come together. The guys still support each other. I wouldn't doubt if something happened to me that the guys wouldn't get together and do something for my family."


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It would be easy to guess that this lifelong bond developed because the Buffs won a national championship together. In actuality, it was the bond that led to the championship.

"You had a team that would fight for each other; you had a team that cared about each other; you had a team that would play for each other; and you had a team that was unselfish," receiver Mike Pritchard said. "That's special. You don't often find that much talent and that many great players being unselfish.

"Once that bond was formed, we were able to mold that talent — or the coaches were, that's for sure — for us to be able to go out there and execute and win that national championship."

For some, the bond began to take shape upon their arrival as true freshmen in 1986 or 1987. They may have come to Boulder from difference walks of life, but they quickly learned the value of becoming friends.

"People always say blood, sweat and tears," quarterback Darian Hagan said. "That has a lot to do with it, but I think genuinely we had the same heart, the same mental makeup and we all were forging ahead for the same goals."

What sealed this team together may have been the 1989 season, though. It was during 1989 — a season in which CU went 11-0 before losing the Orange Bowl to Notre Dame — that quarterback Sal Aunese was diagnosed with stomach cancer. He died on Sept. 23, 1989.

"You have all these young men that are having to deal with mortality and just things that are so much bigger than football," center Jay Leeuwenburg said. "That really brought us together as men."

Quarterback Charles Johnson said the camaraderie that the 1990 team has is unique.

A quarter century after winning the national football championship, the 1990 Buffs share a special bond. "We relied on each other on and off the field
A quarter century after winning the national football championship, the 1990 Buffs share a special bond. "We relied on each other on and off the field and it carried on into our adult lives," CU safety Tim James said. (Cliff Grassmick / Staff Photographer)

"It is special," Johnson said, "and perhaps it's because of the national championship. But, I have to tell you, I appreciate how special it is as time passes, because I talk to guys we played against, guys who were in school and played high-level college football during our same era, and they have nothing close to what we have in terms of the brotherhood, the camaraderie, the fellowship."

Whether those players were fifth-year seniors or redshirt freshmen, to this day they simply view each as Buffs, and as friends.

"There's something special about that team, and there's definitely some special friendships that still continue to this day," tight end Sean Embree said.

Brian Howell: howellb@dailycamera.com, on Twitter: @BrianHowell33.