Let's interrupt coverage of Colorado's late-season swoon for a moment. Something far more important than a football game will transpire outside Folsom Field Saturday.
Just the other day, Sean Tufts had a flashback.
The former Colorado linebacker admits he has never dealt well with adulation. Earlier this week, when ESPN published a wonderful, in-depth look at Tufts' work with the Buffs4Life Foundation — volunteer work largely inspired by the suicide of his good friend and former teammate, Drew Wahlroos, 14 months ago — Tufts found himself grateful for the platform, yet uneasy with the attention.
For Tufts and the other volunteers that donate their time and efforts to Buffs4Life, raising money along with awareness of mental health issues for past, current and even future Buffaloes athletes has turned into a calling far more important than any of Tufts' past endeavors on the football field.
"For me, draft night was a real stressful event," said Tufts, a sixth-round selection of Carolina in 2004. "People that are outside of football ask me what it was like to get drafted, when that phone call came in and what the experience was like watching it on TV. Your highlights are playing and there's promises of millions and long careers and everything. Now I'm on a depth chart somewhere. I've got a logo on my back. There's a lot of responsibilities that go into that night.
"I feel the same way today. Any time we get some accolades for Buffs4Life, I have that same 'buckle-up, let's go-do-something' feeling. You're never doing enough on this topic, which is a hard place to be."
Sadly, the Buffs' collision on the field Saturday afternoon with No. 10 Washington State also brings together two programs still hurting from recent suicides of beloved former and current players.
Less than a year before Wahlroos' suicide, the Colorado community was left grief-stricken by the suicide of 1994 Heisman Trophy-winning running back Rashaan Salaam. For Washington State, such wounds remain raw. At the end of last season it was assumed Tyler Hilinski would be under center for the Cougars when they visited Boulder this fall. But Hilinski shockingly committed suicide in January. While the deaths of Salaam and Wahlroos were stunning and incredibly painful, reports of former football players dealing with chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), the degenerative brain disease that has been linked to football, are becoming as inevitably heartbreaking as the next school shooting.
Hilinski (who later was diagnosed with the early stages of CTE) was less than a month removed from starting for the Cougars in the Holiday Bowl. Though none of these deaths — from Salaam to Hilinski to former NFL stars like Junior Seau — are more palatable than others, the loss of anyone who seemingly is in the midst of his or her prime always strikes a different nerve.
Like Tufts and the Buffs4Life Foundation, those closest to Hilinski are doing their best to turn grief into action. The quarterback's family and friends have formed Hilinski's Hope, and members of Hilinski's family are traveling to Boulder this weekend, in part to share ideas with the Buffs4Life contingent.
On Saturday, prior to the game, the weekly Buffs4Life tailgate at Franklin Field will serve a higher purpose. The two organizations will mix traditional tailgate festivities (for instance, the "team" beer challenge between a black ale and crimson lager) with a fundraiser. The goal is to raise at least $8,000, with the funds to be split equally between Buffs4Life and Hilinski's Hope.
Tufts estimates four to six former CU Buffs, from a range of sports, reach out to Buffs4Life per month seeking some form of help. Not all of them are for mental health issues, as the foundation also lends assistance with hurdles like medical bills, or purchasing items such as wheelchairs. In Tufts' experience, $8,000 often is enough to provide a life-altering benefit to someone in need.
"You don't have to be a psychologist or an addiction expert or a financial planner to help. In most cases people just need to talk and have a listener on the other side," Tufts said. "That does more for people than all the foundations and all the fundraisers and all the PHDs in the world, just having someone who'll listen.
"There's a real community in Boulder. Those bonds go way deeper than wins and losses. It's been neat to see people come out of the woodwork and say, 'I want to help. What can I do?' You should see my Facebook messenger this week. It's filled with people reaching out who want to help."