Sal Aunese film portrays ups and downs of former CU Buffs QB’s career

  • Cliff Grasmick / Camera file

    Colorado quarterback Sal Aunese runs away from a Washington State defender in September 1987.

  • Brian Howell /

    Jeff Campbell and J.J. Flannigan at Saturday's screening of "Born to Lead: The Sal Aunese Story."



There were moments of laughter. Moments that brought cheers.

There also moments that sent tears down cheeks and filled the theater with a chorus of sniffles.

On Saturday night, several Colorado football greats and supporters were on hand at the CU South Denver campus to watch a special screening of “Born to Lead: The Sal Aunese Story.”

“I saw the first run of it in San Diego in December,” former CU receiver Jeff Campbell said. “Seeing it again today, they really did a nice job of helping the viewer see why Sal was born to lead. It was a fantastic film.”

Aunese is a former CU quarterback who passed away on Sept. 23, 1989, in Boulder after a fight with inoperable stomach cancer.

The film, which has been years in the making, portrayed the life of a young man who grew up in Oceanside, Calif., destined for greatness on the field. Raised in a tight-knit Samoan family, Aunese was a star player in his youth and in high school.

The film captures footage from throughout Aunese’s career and also features interviews with several members of his family, past teammates and coaches in high school and college and his close friends from Boulder.

Born to Lead takes the viewer through Aunese’s journey and doesn’t hide his faults. Aunese had to overcome academic struggles that made him a Proposition 48 player, causing him to sit out his true freshman season at CU. He had off-the-field troubles, too, including a run-in with the law and fathering a son with head coach Bill McCartney’s daughter, Kristy.

Aunese quarterbacked the Buffs in 1987 and 1988 and was one of the most dynamic players CU had seen to that point. Shortly after the 1988 season, he was diagnosed with cancer. While he never played again, he provided inspiration for his teammates, who went 11-1 in 1989 and won a national champion in 1990. Through it all, those teammates leaned on lessons learned from Aunese.

“Sal allowed this group to come together,” said J.J. Flannigan, a close friend of Aunese’s and a star on the 1989 team. “No one ever knows their purpose in life. We didn’t know when we got there in 1986 what was going to happen in 1989, but I truly believe Sal’s purpose was to make us come together and to make us play better, to make us stop being so selfish and to move forward. The film is a great testament to that.”

Campbell and Flannigan were two of many players interviewed in the film. Flannigan and former CU quarterback Darian Hagan are credited as co-producers. While Hagan, who is the running backs coach for the current Buffs, wasn’t on hand for the screening, Campbell and Flannigan were both pleased with how the film came together.

“It portrayed everything that went on and the struggles that we went through and the fight for his life that he went through,” said Campbell, a standout for the Buffs from 1986-89. “When you’re 19, 18 years old and you’re going through that with one of your best friends, that’s a very difficult place to be. I think they portrayed that in a way that was a true testament to who he really was as a person.”

Among those in attendance on Saturday were Bill McCartney and Aunese’s position coach, Gary Barnett (who later was head coach of the Buffs). Former CU greats such as Campbell, Flannigan, Dave Logan, Daniel Graham, Joel Klatt, Mark Hatcher and Justin Bannan were on hand, as well.

Also in attendance was Aunese’s son, T.C. McCartney and nephew Erik Aunese, who is an intern on the Buffs’ football staff. Erik said the Aunese family saw the film over the winter and was thrilled with how it turned out.

“It’s a really nice film, and it’s a big blessing to see how my uncle got honored and why Colorado meant so much to him – not even just his teammates, but the community of Boulder and the whole state,” Erik said. “To see his life and how it affected so many people in a positive light is so surreal. I’m overwhelmed.”

CU still has a spot in its locker room honoring Sal Aunese, and Erik said it serves as inspiration to him often.

“When I need a pick-me-up, I always go down and look at Uncle Sal’s locker,” Erik said.

Producer George Antonopoulos and director Lara Slife believe the film can be an inspiration to anyone who watches it – whether they are a part of the CU community or not.

Antonopoulos and Slife are currently in the process of trying to get the film released to a wide audience. The hope, Antonopoulos said, is to go through a progression of getting it into film festivals, theaters, on television and then digital.

“It’s on the verge of being released,” Antonopoulos said. “By Dec. 31, you’ll know how to either purchase it online or which regional theater you’ll see it in, or on television.”

Contact staff writer Brian Howell at or