The Flatirons gloriously stood behind Folsom Field, spotlighted by the late summer sun.
There was barely a cloud in the sky and the grass was a pristine green.
Saturday was an ideal day for Colorado Buffaloes football, yet rather than hosting the Fresno State Bulldogs in what should have been the home opener of the 2020 season, Folsom Field sat behind locked gates, empty and alone.
Every once in a while, a passerby would stop at the gates and look through to the field. A pedestrian or two walked in front of the stadium or down the sidewalk that divides Folsom and the indoor practice facility – areas that are bustling with energy on game days.
Unfortunately, there are no game days, or even practices, on the horizon.
“There’s nothing on the schedule I’ve seen through Thanksgiving,” said Ryan Newman, the director of athletic grounds for the Buffaloes. “But, I’ve got to stay prepared for whatever they request.”
The coronavirus pandemic has caused many aspects of life to be canceled this year and Pac-12 football is one of them. Unless the conference reverses course because of better testing, there is no football competition planned until at least January.
For the players and coaches, the game has left a major void, but they aren’t alone. Newman and countless others work behind the scenes to help make the games special.
This would have been Newman’s 19th season preparing the Folsom turf. Much of that work hasn’t stopped, as his crew still keeps facilities maintained for practices, but there is no need to paint logos or yard lines on the Folsom Field grass and no long Saturdays.
“Game day, it’s probably the longest day of a game week in terms of hours but it’s the easiest and the most rewarding,” said Newman, who added his crew is often exhausted after putting in 60 hours of work before Saturday.
On game days, Newman’s eyes, he said, often focus below the knees of players.
“I want to see how the field plays, how the athletes are able to make their make their cuts, all that kind of stuff,” he said. “I’m looking for the player safety.”
Jamie Dawson has a different view of game day. He has worked on the chain crew since 1998, holding the down marker while staying in near constant communication with officials.
“What I really miss is the adrenaline high of doing that job,” said Dawson, 51, a Fairview High School and CU graduate. “It takes me till 1 in the morning to settle down. I’m at 20-plus years doing this and I’m still nervous every game because, especially in my job, I know something’s going to come up, something I’ve got to be on my toes for.
“It’s not like I have the hardest job in the world … but, I have to be on every play. I kind of miss that intensity.”
So does Ellie Himyak, a senior and member of the CU dance team. A graduate of Legacy High School, she joined the dance team at CU as a sophomore because she missed that game day energy from high school.
“I remember freshman year of college being in the stands and watching the dance team, and just thinking, ‘I would so much rather be down on the field dancing than up in the stands,’” she said.
Himyak and her teammates help generate energy at the Pearl Street Stampede the night before games and she can’t wait for the pre-game marches through Balch Fieldhouse with the band, cheerleaders and a full crowd of fans.
“It’s super loud with the band and everybody’s there and that’s really cool,” said Himyak, a team captain.
Himyak and the dance team are also responsible for holding the giant flag during the national anthem and then, of course, performing for the crowd during the game.
“Being a part of the dance team and being a part of game day here at CU, I can’t imagine my college experience without it, because it is just such an amazing experience,” she said. “Every time I run out on the field, it’s always an adrenaline rush to be in front of all those people in this huge stadium. I always get goose bumps when Ralphie runs and the team runs out.”
Helping to provide those goose bumps is Hunter Rief, a senior Ralphie handler. Rief’s father is a CU alum and Rief grew up on a bison farm in New Hampshire. Getting a chance to work with the Ralphie program has been like nothing else he’s done.
“It’s really one of the most exhilarating things ever,” he said of game day at Folsom. “Huge adrenaline rush. I can’t really compare it to anything else.”
Often running on the outside of Ralphie’s left shoulder, Rief said there is a major shot of adrenaline just before the team runs.
“When you first take off, when you first come out of the pen, right then and there, you get a few moments to take in the crowd and the emotions and the cheering,” he said. “Most of the time, they’re chanting, ‘Ralphie!’ You get a few moments to take that in and then before you enter the turn, we’re talking the whole time, all the guys and girls on the buffalo, when to turn. That’s when our mindset shifts to we’re getting the buffalo to where she needs to go in a safe and timely manner.”
When Ralphie enters her trailer after a successful run, it’s celebrated as a win.
“We train so hard for it and game days are in front of such a big audience that when you do a successful run, we make it a point that everything we do is perfect,” Rief said.
“Growing up working with bison and having the ability to keep working with them, they’re such amazing animals,” he said. “It’s been hands down the best experience I’ve had here. I’m hoping I can get one more run in, but we’ll see. I’m not really sure what that entails.”
Nobody is sure at this point, but Dawson, Himyak, Newman and Rief are all taking it in stride. Each one has different game day experiences they miss, but they all said they understand the health and safety of the community is important. And, frankly, CU game day is far from the only aspect of life that’s been altered.
“To be honest, I think enough of life has been turned upside down that I didn’t really even acknowledge (missing the game on Saturday),” Dawson said. “I was a little bit bummed earlier in the week, but it’s not just football; it’s kind of everything that we’re missing right now, at least personally.”
Newman admitted that his crew is too busy to worry about what’s lost.
“I’m already making plans for spring football or whenever they say go,” he said. “To be honest with you, that’s kind of where I’ve moved on and I’ve already made peace with not playing this fall.”
So have Himyak and Rief. They both want at least one more chance to enjoy their game day experiences, but they’re also seniors who are grateful for the opportunities they’ve had.
For all of them, and for the thousands who would have played, coached, worked or cheered at Folsom Field this fall, there is more to life than CU football games.
Yet, make no mistake: Folsom Field felt lonely on Saturday.
Built in 1924, Folsom Field has hosted 506 CU football games, with men such as Hatfield Chilson, Kayo Lam, Byron White, Bobby and Dick Anderson, Joe Romig, Darian Hagan, Eric Bieniemy, Rashaan Salaam and Phillip Lindsay becoming legends in that venue.
Saturday was supposed to be the opener of Folsom’s 97th season, but the sounds, smells and sights of game day were replaced by silence.
“Walking in to the energy of Folsom is something else,” said Dawson, who grew up in Boulder and began working CU games in 1980 when he sold Coke and hot dogs to fans. “Walking through the gate, walking down the ramp … you could just feel it; you could feel the pulse of everything, whether it’s players warming up or media guys on the sidelines or some old familiar faces.
“It was sort of that that fall energy that we all craved as the seasons change. I’m missing that. It’s not really something you can replace, though, so it’s sort of a loss.”