CU football coach Jon Embree
CU football coach Jon Embree (CLIFF GRASSMICK)

Long before he was the head coach of the Colorado football program, Jon Embree recognized the lack of a solid support system for former CU athletes who encountered tough times in their lives beyond school.

As a former Buff who played tight end at the school in the 1980s under former coach Bill McCartney, Embree saw some of his former teammates and other athletes at the school face health challenges and personal problems virtually alone. It bothered him.

"I just felt like there are so many great experiences you have here as a player, and for guys to just go away and not really have anything that brings us back. The university does their thing, but I wanted something where we did stuff for ourselves," Embree said. "We can't rely on the university because, A, they can't do everything we need, and, B, it really should be us helping each other from a family standpoint."

In 2005 he began organizing a non-profit organization to address the issue with former teammates James Smith and Charles Johnson. The goal was to bring together former Buffs, not just football players but athletes from all sports and every generation, to provide a place where they could all turn for help any time they needed it.

The Buffs4Life Foundation blossomed in 2006 just after Embree had been passed over as head coach of the program in favor of Dan Hawkins. The organization holds one fundraiser annually, a family-themed weekend gathering for golf, picnics and other outings with the proceeds benefiting a few former CU athletes and their families who are deemed most in need at that time.

The first family to receive help from the organization was that of the late Anthony Weatherspoon, a teammate of Embree's in the mid-1980s, who played fullback and died of cancer in November 2005. The charity raised $9,000 for Weatherspoon's family that first year and has given approximately $200,000 to Buffs in need over its first five years.

"We've had teammates that have died and left behind families and we give them Christmas presents and birthday presents cause we want them to know there are people there who care about them," Embree said. "For me, that is just ... I don't know if it's just how I'm wired or whatever, but I want to help. I want to help people. With kids who are here in the program, I want them to know that when they're done, there is something there that is going to help them."

Buffs4Life also has helped former CU quarterback John Hessler who was nearly killed a decade ago in a hit-and-run accident. Another former Buff fathered triplets and Buffs4Life paid for nannies for six months to help the family adapt to the big change.

"It's amazing how life can give you some (challenges)," Embree said. "To have someone there that can help you, I think, is important. And I think it's important that it's us doing it."

Last year and again this year, the organization is helping with some of the medical costs for Samantha Remington, the daughter of former CU linebacker Barry Remington. She underwent her second heart transplant last spring at 18 and recently graduated from Monarch High School with plans to attend Front Range Community College in the fall.

"Jon has done a phenomenal job putting it together," Barry Remington said. "Even when nobody was saying, 'Hey, we need to do this.' He said, 'Hey, I think this is the right thing to do.'"

Buffs4Life is also helping former women's golfer Brook Gillis (formerly VanWyk) this year. Gillis was recently diagnosed with Leukemia.

This year's event is next weekend in Broomfield and is sold out. Embree said he likes to cap the number of participants at 200 because it allows the organization to make sure the experience is a first-class event for those who participate. Buffs4Life accepts donations from anyone and does not restrict participation in the annual weekend festivities to just former Buffs.

Former UCLA running back Maurice Jones-Drew, who was recruited and coached at that school by Embree and CU offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy, has participated every year, Embree said. Embree said Washington Redskins tight end Chris Cooley, whom he coached last season, is hoping to participate this year.

"A lot of guys show up who don't golf, but they bring their families," Embree said. "It's great just to see all the kids, our kids, playing together."

Embree has a vision for the future of the organization that includes a network that will help find jobs for former Buffs. He said his major goal beyond being able to provide more help to former Buffs every year is encouraging more participation in the Buffs4Life weekend from former female athletes at CU -- a group that has never numbered more than 12 at one event.

"I just hope this continues to grow and we continue to be able to help people," Embree said.