RIFLE (7/16/14) – Every senior high school athlete has heard “the speech.” Before the final game of the season, the coach will say something like, “This is the last time you’ll get to wear the uniform… You’ll never be with these guys again…”
For several Rifle grads, preparing to play in the Alumni Football Game against Palisade Friday, July 25, at Bears stadium, that speech was part of the motivation for trying to get back into game shape.
“Coaches tell every senior, ‘You’ll never put on pads again and wear ‘Rifle’ on your chest,” 2009 Rifle graduate Christian Batson said. For Batson and several other former Bears, there is another compelling reason for the game: fifty percent of the advance sales will benefit his sister Amelia Batson’s battle with bone cancer. “That (benefit for his sister, a senior volleyball player at Rifle) wasn’t planned coming in. Brock (Hedberg, the RHS Alumni quarterback) brought it up at practice, and didn’t even know she was my little sister.” Also sharing in the pre-game proceeds will be the family of Larry Shaffer, long-time Rifle football chain crew chief, who died in a helicopter crash last January.
Hedberg, 1998, who played small-college ball at Utah’s Dixie College before graduating from Utah State, saw flyers for high school alumni football games at a local crossfit gym. “I thought it was fake, but did some research and found it was legit.” Bob Cazet, of Alumni Football USA.com, began organizing these games because he wanted to “put the pads on” one more time – now he organizes 200-300 high school alumni games a year. It cost $100 to play, which covers insurance, paying the referees, the use of the field/lights, and equipment. Cazet buys approximately 300 new helmets and pads every year. He has like 45 employees who run games for him all over the country.
The Rifle players, led by small college All-American Bob Antonelli (RHS ’97) and Hedberg are hoping to avenge a 4-year losing streak to the Bulldogs, who won four state titles during Hedberg’s high school career and three during Antonelli’s. The Bears wanted to play rival Glenwood in the game, but the Demons were unable to secure enough players by the deadline, so turned to Palisade as an opponent.
“It’s our chance to beat these guys (Palisade), Hedberg said, while hoping that the game will spark interest in establishing an annual game with Glenwood, which would get to host the game next year.
The players have gathered for practice twice a week (“We’ve got a playbook,” Hedberg said), but won’t get their pads (provided by Cazet and the Alumni Football USA organization) until the day of the game, because, as Cazet says, “We don’t want parts falling off.” They used to provide equipment a week ahead and “ten or twelve guys would be hurt by the day of the game.”
The Bears have suffered one key injury in practice. Ty Lenard, 2010, who just graduated from The University of Redlands (Calif.) after playing four years at running back for the Bulldogs. “I hurt my knee in the league championship game last fall, and tore the ACL after a few practices.” Lenard, who will be the team’s defensive coordinator for the game, saw the irony in his injury. “We were all joking about the old guys getting hurt, and I’m fresh out of college ball and the first to go down.”
Hedberg said the loss of Lenard has affected their offensive plans. “All we would’ve had to do is hand the ball off to Ty, but the organizer (Cazet) says he’s been to some Palisade practices, and they’re in about the same shape as we are. He says we’re evenly matched.”
Some rules have been altered for safety (no linebacker blitzes, crackback blocks, etc.), but one rule has been eliminated: players can celebrate on the field, though Hedberg warned, “players over 40 should watch out” for the chance of injury in excess celebrating. However, one Rifle player, Taylor Webb (2012), has been practicing end zone back flips in case he scores a touchdown. “My brother (Austin Knight) is going into his senior year (at Rifle) and twin brothers (Jacob and Bailey Webb) are sophomores and said they wanted to see me play again. It’s awesome being with everyone who’s graduated,” Webb said, and promptly demonstrated a flawless back flip.
At first, the Rifle alumni had some trouble filling out the offensive line. “We had 25 running backs and one lineman, but guys who graduated in 92-93 are rounder than they used to be, so now we have a full line of old running backs,” Hedberg said, but as word spread, several former Bear lineman have filled out the 30-man roster.
Perhaps the most unique teammates are Tony Copeland, who graduated in 1982, suiting up with his sons, Jordan and Alex. The latter, a linebacker with the Bears undefeated regular-season team in 2011, said, “I never, ever thought I’d play full contact football with my dad.” Brother Jordan, 2010, pointed out that football was really the tie that binds in their family. “It’s all we’ve done from fourth grade on, at all these levels, and now we get to play together. That’s really cool.” Then he added another reason for playing, echoed by several other Bears, “To put on the pads and hit someone again without getting in trouble, wear Rifle on my chest,” Copeland said smiling.
Antonelli also gets to play alongside his younger brother Ryan who graduated seven years after Bob, and extended an invitation to their dad, who “politely declined.”
“We’re coming together the way a team does. Though we never played together, we’ll always be a Rifle Bear, spread generations apart,” Antonelli said.
“Who gets a chance to play one more game?” Ben Dickson, 1997, said. “I’m not as pumped up for the physicality as much as to run onto the field again – after being a slacker for so many years, and be able to still do it.”
Hedberg says he’s excited about how many tickets have already been sold. They are $10 apiece and available at HyWay Feed in Silt, and City Markets in Rifle and Glenwood Springs, as well as from any of the players. “I’ve read about some of these younger players,” Hedberg said, “and now I get to play with them. We’re building friendships: they’re Rifle football and so am I. I just hope no one gets hurt. We’ve got to get up and go to work the next day.”