Mike McKibbin

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November 28, 2012
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Bears are learning life's lessons

Many of life's lessons are hard earned.

Some happen when you don't even know it, and they don't involve suffering or hard times.

One of those times is now for the Rifle High School football team, says a former junior college and military star athlete, who's attended every Bears football game since he arrived in town in 1971.

"I remember we'd all shut our stores down so we could go to the games," Jon Isham said of the town of perhaps 2,500 people at the time. "It was a big thing and it still is. For a little cow town, Rifle has had some small football players, but they have big hearts."

Isham hopes the Bears players and coaches realize how rare it is that they get to play for the Class 3A state title on Saturday.

"I know what these boys are going through," Isham said on a sunny Tuesday afternoon outside his Rifle home. "Everything they experience now will carry on through their lives."

Now 65, Isham, who opened and has operated Jon's Liquors since he moved to Rifle, won a high school league championship in Garden Grove, Calif., then enjoyed two of four undefeated years at Fullerton Junior College in Fullerton, Calif. from 1966-69, under coach Hal Sherbeck. Like many colleges, they've dropped "junior" from their name now.

Those teams, which featured a quarterback named Jim Fassel, won 31 straight conference games, 36 straight counting the playoffs, Isham said.

Fassel, by the way, was the offensive coordinator at Stanford when John Elway was quarterback, then followed Elway to the Denver Broncos before becoming head coach of the New York Giants for a time.

And yes, Isham has met Elway and shaken his hand.

A copy of a resolution the California General Assembly passed to honor the Fullerton team for their accomplishment hangs on the wall of Isham's bedroom, next to a plethora of awards. Others he keeps in his "man cave" out back.

Following his junior college years, Isham enlisted in the U.S. Navy and was stationed at Mare Island, near San Francisco. There, he ended up playing quarterback on the base's football team and handed the ball off to a running back named Clarence Davis, who would go on to win the Heisman Trophy at the University of Southern California, then play for the Oakland Raiders.

While Isham and Davis played on the Navy team, they won a military league championship.

Isham's grandson, Bailey Hoffmeister, plays for the Bears this year, so Isham has an even more personal interest in the games.

"I'm very proud of my grandson," Isham naturally boasts. "He goes out for all the sports and hangs around with the jocks, who are all super kids. He told me, 'grandpa, I didn't think I'd like football this much.'"

And Isham had high praise for Bears head coach Damon Wells.

"This coach is top notch," he said. "If he stays around, I think they have a really bright future. I haven't agreed with all of his calls, but he's won every game."

Isham also credits Wells and his staff with coaching the techniques needed to play the game so well, especially given many Rifle player's smaller size.

"I visited them on the field and I see all these little kids bumping heads with the big boys," he said. "And they beat the big boys, every time. That's a tribute to coaching and techniques. I guess he has real good communication, because that message has gotten across."

Wells' speeches Isham has heard have been so motivating "I wanted to put the pads and helmet on myself. That guy is a real, true-blue, picker-upper. He reminds me of my old coach."

Isham said Wells could turn out to be one of Rifle's all-time coaches, along with Jack Smith and Gordon Cooper, if he stays.

"I think we should give him free water or free utilities, whatever it takes, to keep him here," Isham added. "We'll have winning teams and we have good junior and sophomore classes coming up after this year."

Isham knows a little about coaching himself, having headed up pee wee football teams in Rifle for ten years. He's seen many of those little running backs, lineman and defensive backs go on to play for the Bears, some even coached for a time: Chris Klein, Billy Moore, Stanley Wales are some of the names he rattled off with ease.

"Rifle's always been a football town," Isham said. "And we have a great stadium to watch it in now. I remember the alumni used to come to the games and stand on the hillside to watch, before they put in the bleachers."

Every once in a while, a buddy from back in the old days stops to visit Isham when they come through Rifle and they reminisce.

"Not one of us turned out to be what you would call a loser," Isham said. "We're all successful in business and with our families. I know my grandson will follow that path, too. It was such a rare thing for us to go through, just like my grandson and his teammates are going through now."

As far as the Bears' chances of bring the state title back to Rifle this year, Isham confidently relayed some questions from parents of other players as they stayed in a Pueblo hotel last Saturday prior to the 56-6 win over Pueblo East that led to the title appearance.

"They asked me, 'Jon, what do you think?'" about having to travel to the Front Range, despite an undefeated record and number one seed in the playoff for the Bears.

"I said 'don't worry. Those boys show up, they always show up.'"

And by showing up, they'll have the chance to learn some things to lead them into adulthood. Things that helped Jon Isham and his teammates become the people they are. Isn't that what's most important in sports?

As Saturday's showdown draws near, I'm sure we all echo what Isham said would be his advice to the Bears.

"Treasure it."

Mike McKibbin is the editor of The Citizen Telegram.

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The Post Independent Updated Nov 28, 2012 06:03PM Published Nov 28, 2012 05:56PM Copyright 2012 The Post Independent. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.