When the lights come on at Sports Authority field on Friday night, plenty of Colorado State players will run through the tunnel wearing the Ram uniform for the first time.
Paul Thurston will be one of them, but he is not like the rest of them.
He’s a little older, looks a little bit wiser, and none of the newcomers sport the facial hair Thurston wears. (Line mate Fred Zerblis might be the only player on the team to challenge him in that).
All of the new players have their own story of how they ended up at CSU, but Thurston took a much longer road to get to CSU than any of them.
In the end, it’s a road that led him straight to the Rocky Mountain Showdown.
A senior graduate transfer from Nebraska, Thurston grew up down the road in Arvada, Colorado as the second brother in a family with four daughters.
Both of his parents, Greg and Janet, are CSU alums graduating in ‘87 and ‘86 respectively. Now, their son has a chance to play for their old school.
“(It’s) obviously incredibly special,” Greg said. “It’s fun to think that he will be playing for CSU, that’s our alma mater. To have him back in this state is really neat.”
Greg spent a year playing college football at the University of Mines before a broken neck ended his football career.
After that, he transferred to CSU, football was out of his system.
Greg, now a pastor, spent his Saturday’s at CSU studying for Seminary instead of at Hughes Stadium, but he knew what kind of lessons football could impart on a young man.
So when Paul was old enough he started playing football, and ended up playing high school ball at Arvada West, where his uncle Guy was on the coaching staff.
Guy, and Paul’s other uncle Brant, both spent time playing football at the University of Colorado. From his family’s football lineage, it seemed like Paul was destined to be a Buff.
But Guy and Brant both played before the glory days of Bill McCartney and National Championships, neither of them had good experiences at the University.
So when it came time for Paul to continue his career in college, he chose the University of Nebraska, CU’s archrival. He went to the school with his family’s blessing, his Uncles did not want a repeat of their experience at CU.
Yet, he was still a Colorado kid headed to play for the hated Huskers.
“I got a lot of flak for that. A lot of friends and stuff like that were like ‘how can you go to Nebraska’,” Thurston said.
As 2016 spring ball finished at Nebraska, Thurston decided to start looking at other options. He had been competing for a starting job at Nebraska, and he had plenty of experience playing at the school, but he wanted something different.
When he opened up his options, CSU was one of the first schools that came calling.
It did not take long for Thurston to answer.
“I really loved what they had to say and I then came out here and took a visit and I loved just being around the guys and the coaches,” Thurston said. “Then the fact of being able to come back home and playing in front of family and all of that. It was like I need to go home, so it just felt right.”
Thurston took fast to the team, especially his linemates and offensive line coach Will Friend.
“I love coach Friend. He’s a great coach,” he said. “He knows what he is talking about. I could see that when I was talking to him that he could help me improve as a player. That made it easy.”
Thurston is not the only one who could not be happier about where he is in his football life.
“Coach Friend is amazing and he’s done, wow he’s done incredible work, and so it’s fun to watch Paul develop under him. Paul is getting coaching that he never had before,” Greg Thurston said.
The transition to CSU was special, for both father and son. Greg remembers a phone call he got from his son early on in his time at the school.
“He said, ‘Dad, I’ve been here three weeks and I’m closer with these lineman than I ever was with the lineman at Nebraska.’ That’s pretty cool. I thought that was really neat,” Greg said.
For Paul, it was a smooth transition. He walked into an offensive line room with a lot of experience, but he had some wisdom to shell out on his own. His line mates appreciated that. They loved how quickly he gelled with them and got to work.
And he picked up the system quickly. Come Friday night, Thurston will be making his Rams debut as a starting offensive lineman.
Growing up in Colorado, with his CU and CSU ties, Thurston had plenty of experience with the Rocky Mountain Showdown.
“This is a game that you have seen on TV all those years growing up,” Thurston said. “It’s a game you have heard about, and to actually be a part of it will be an interesting experience.”
Though nobody in his family was a diehard Buffaloes fan, Thurston said that he “definitely” rooted for the Buffs growing up. That all changed during his time in Lincoln.
“It was funny, when I was out in Nebraska and you know CSU started getting better and started making that rise I found myself kind of cheering for CSU just because all of these years it’s been CU, CU,” Thurston said.
And now Thurston’s back home, he’s back here with a chance to be a part of it all. He’d been to a few CU games growing up, but never to the showdown.
It’s a unique experience. He’s the Colorado kid coming home. The first time he gets any first-hand experience with the showdown, he’s running out on the field, with his family in the stands.
“Here we are as Rams and we have been Rams since we graduated,” Greg Thurston said. “It will be pretty great to go there and watch not just Paul but watch the whole CSU football team battle it out. We are thrilled that we can watch him and be apart of it.”
“Now, to be able to come into this program and have a chance to go play CU, that’s just a huge thing. I’m super excited for it,” Thurston said.
But Thurston tries to not get too far ahead of himself. He knows how big of a game it is, but he is not going to psych himself out, he’s played in plenty of those before.
He is excited, but for now, he’s just grateful for the opportunity.
It’s been a long and wayward journey, but come Friday night, one thing is certain when he runs out into Sports Authority field; he will be home.
Collegian sports reporter Eric Wolf can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @Eric_Wolf5