Vidakovich: Memories from gridiron, hardwood still ring true |

Vidakovich: Memories from gridiron, hardwood still ring true

Mike Vidakovich
Mike Vidakovich
Staff Photo |

On a late November day in 1974, you would think that an eighth-grade boy living in Glenwood Springs would have several interesting, age-related endeavors to occupy his time rather than driving to Rifle with his brother-in-law to watch a state semifinal football game. But since I am that boy, and I remember that day of 40 years ago, my social calendar must have been clear on that afternoon of my youth, or most likely, I had already morphed into the hopeless sports nut that I am today.

As I thought back in time, my recollections of that fall afternoon were pretty vague. I do recall my brother-in law, Rudy Steele, who had played football for Rifle in the late 1960s, asking me to tag along with him so he wouldn’t have to go to the game alone. I gladly accepted his invitation. The Bears were hosting the Salida Spartans, and a trip to the state championship game was on the line.

Rather than sit in the stands, Rudy and I opted to walk the sidelines with a host of other Bear followers. The weather was in full cooperation for a football game that day, and Rifle seemed ready to defend its home field and reclaim a spot in the Class AA title game, a place they had been the year before in ’73, walking away with a championship and a gold-ball trophy.

Unfortunately, the talk among the Bear faithful that afternoon was not as much about excitement for the game itself, as regrets pertaining to who would not be playing in the game.

This part of the day is where my memory became a bit fuzzy, so I got on the phone to a respected friend in Rifle who I knew could fill me in on every last detail.

When I heard Jack Smith’s voice on the other end of the phone, returning my call, my day immediately became brighter. Smitty had just returned home from the golf course, and he was more than ready to chat about Rifle football lore.

My question to Smitty was in regard to Rifle’s star running back Russ Hiner. I knew that Hiner, an all-state rusher, was hobbled with an injury that day, dampening the Bears’ semifinal hopes. I thought Hiner, who along with quarterback Ray Hall, gave Rifle quite a 1-2 backfield punch, had played that day with some type of knee injury. Smitty set me straight.

“Hiner didn’t get to play at all that day. We suited him up, but he never got into the game,” said Smith, who was an assistant to head football coach Gordon Cooper at the time. “Russ got speared in the back in our quarterfinal game at Las Animas the week before. He cracked a couple of vertebrae, and that was the end of his season.”

Without Hiner, the Bears dropped a 28-12 decision to Salida that day.

When 40 years of days pass through your memory, it’s easy to forget details that help piece together an accurate account of events, especially when looking at things in the nostalgic tint of life’s rear-view mirror.

Thank goodness I had Smitty to help me out.

I was reminded of my fun day with Rudy Steele because of Post Independent Sports Editor Jon Mitchell’s article previewing Rifle’s semifinal game this fall with Fort Morgan. I saw the year 1974, and the Spartans of Salida as the opponent, and bits and pieces of the day slowly came together for me.

Hard to believe 40 years have passed by so quickly.


For you lovers of basketball history, the book “Loose Balls,” written by Terry Pluto, is a must read.

The book is a historical account of the old American Basketball Association. The ABA was the league with the red, white and blue basketball that gave us the 3-point shot, the inaugural slam-dunk contest, and such legendary figures as Julius Erving, Connie Hawkins, Moses Malone, George Gervin and Marvin Barnes. The ABA also served as the birthplace of the Denver Nuggets, Indiana Pacers, San Antonio Spurs and New Jersey Nets.

I was fortunate enough to get to see a few of those ABA games at the old Auditorium-Arena in downtown Denver. The most notable was in the spring of 1975 when once again, Rudy Steele wanted me to jump in his truck with him to go see the Denver Nuggets’ Game 7 playoff against the Indiana Pacers. We didn’t have tickets, but were able to secure two of the last standing-room-only passes that were left at the ticket booth.

The Auditorium-Arena, which seated only about 5,000 people for basketball, was packed to the rafters that afternoon. Everyone was hoping the Nuggets could get by Indiana to set up an ABA showdown with the mighty Kentucky Colonels who were led by Artis Gilmore and Dan Issel. It wasn’t to be though. The Pacers had a young man named George McGinnis who dropped some long-range bombs on the Nuggets that day, dashing the hopes of the hometown faithful.

The book “Loose Balls” chronicles this game and also many of the colorful characters that made the nine-year run of the ABA so memorable.

One of the earliest radio announcers in the ABA was a guy you may have heard of named Bob Costas. He was the play-by-play man for the Spirits of St. Louis on 50,000-watt KMOX radio. In one of the funniest excerpts from the book, Costas tries to explain to his listening audience in St. Louis why the team’s star, Marvin Barnes, had missed yet another team flight, and was not present on the court. Barnes, a former star at Providence College, missed many morning flights, and this particular one — which was to depart Louisville, Kentucky, at 8 a.m. eastern time and arrive in St. Louis at 7:59 a.m. in the central time zone — was no exception.

Why did Barnes miss the flight?

Because, as Barnes explained to Costas the next day, he “didn’t want to get in no time machine.”

Funny, but true.

That’s what the ABA was about: stories, myths and legends. If you’re an older aficionado of the game of basketball, “Loose Balls” will keep you smiling as you turn each and every page.

Merry Christmas.

Mike Vidakovich is a freelance writer from Glenwood Springs. His column appears monthly in the Glenwood Springs Post Independent

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