A football program's rise to the top thrills fans and galvanizes a city
As she watched the Colorado State University-Pueblo student section chant “I believe that we will win!” during the ThunderWolves’ football victory over Minnesota State in the 2014 Division II national championship game in Kansas City last December — a game broadcast live on ESPN — Leslie Di Mare couldn’t help but swell with pride over the team’s remarkable journey.
A football program that had been dead for 24 years before restarting in 2007 had reached the pinnacle of success in a stunningly short time.
“The fact that we were able to catapult from a dirt prairie and borrowed uniforms to a national championship in just seven short years is a story from which movies are made,” says Di Mare, president of CSU-Pueblo, crediting the program’s rebirth and growth to “tremendous support and enthusiasm from campus and community members — the DeRose family in particular.”
Shutout on the Scoreboard
As for the championship game, “The tremendous turnout of supporters who made the nine-plus-hour trip, gathered at the pregame tailgate and cheered the entire game bolstered an incredible team effort,” DiMare says.
That team effort, resulting in a 13-0 final score, was led by head coach John Wristen, who helped launch and then guided the football program’s resurgence.
“The victory capped a remarkable rebuilding job” by Wristen, ESPN reported, “who played quarterback for the school when it was known as Southern Colorado in the early 1980s. The program was disbanded along with several others in cost-cutting moves in 1985, and Wristen was brought on board in 2007 to revive it.”
The team won four games in 2008 and kept getting better, going undefeated in 2011, ’12 and ’13 but losing in the playoffs. The ThunderWolves lost to Fort Lewis early in 2014 but eventually finished the season at the top.
Deep Community Impact
Wristen knows that success on the field extends far beyond the game itself.
“For everyone around us and this program and the fans and the city, I think [the championship] has been a uniting force to celebrate something special in Pueblo,” Wristen says. “It has been exciting to be part of it. Right now for us, as players and coaches, we are thrilled about what has happened, but that doesn’t define who we are now. We need to define who we are every day, by what we do.”
Even before the ThunderWolves captured the national title, the team had become a rallying point for Pueblo and a source of pride for its residents within the university and beyond. The title was a fitting capstone.
“It’s difficult to describe all the positive impacts this national recognition brings,” Di Mare says. “The national championship certainly put us on the map.”
Three-plus hours on ESPN, along with pre- and post-game media attention, increased awareness of the school’s athletic, academic and student-life opportunities, allowing CSU-Pueblo “to build additional support and enthusiasm for the university among our community, our staff, and our alumni and donors.”
“Ultimately,” Di Mare says, “we believe it will translate into more involvement with our alumni association, additional donors to our foundation and more students in our classrooms, all of which help to secure the university’s financial future.”