Pope: Celebrate all of Colorado State’s seniors Saturday

Keegan Pope

 Keegan Pope
Keegan Pope

You likely wouldn’t recognize Jose Cerriteno if you saw him on Colorado State’s campus. He’s a big man, but built more like a linebacker than a defensive end. Hell, I didn’t even know what he looked like before talking to him after Colorado State’s practice Tuesday afternoon.

He offered me a smile and a strong handshake, and even complimented me on how cool it was that I worked at the student newspaper. I know, right?

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Two weeks ago, a player wearing Cerriteno’s No. 97 made a tackle for loss in the Rams’ blowout defeat at the hands of San Diego State. Over the stadium PA and in the press box, the tackle was given to Cerriteno. It would have been his first career tackle at Colorado State in nearly two seasons on the team.

When I asked him about what his emotions were like after making the tackles, Cerriteno sheepishly smiled and apologized in advance for what he was about to tell me, worrying that he was about to ruin my story. When in fact, what he said next made it.

Somewhat embarrassed, Cerriteno went on to tell me that he couldn’t take credit for that tackle, because fellow senior defensive lineman Terry Jackson had also been wearing No. 97 that day, and it was he who had been in the game and stopped an Aztecs’ ball carrier in the backfield.

Cerriteno admitted that people he knew who were watching the game congratulated him on the tackle, and he had to break the news to them after the game that it wasn’t actually him.

He could’ve taken the credit, but he didn’t. And he wouldn’t.

Behind the scenes 

To most, they are faceless, and even nameless. There are thousands of them on college football teams all across America. They’re looked upon by outsiders as tackling dummies, punching bags and space-fillers. Just another uniform on the sideline.

They don’t receive a scholarship, or a monthly stipend, and more often than not, they don’t get to travel along with the rest of the team for road games. They don’t play because someone asked them to, they play because they wanted to. To be a part of a team. To hold onto their final days as an athlete before the real world sets in. To just keep playing.

They won’t play Sundays. Most of them don’t even get to see the field on a Saturday. Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday are their game days. They often don different-colored jerseys, and instead of spending their time learning their team’s playbook, most of their time is spent pretending to be someone else. One week, that might be Minnesota quarterback Mitch Leidner. Another, they are San Diego State running back Donnel Pumphrey. They’ll even spend time trying to be Air Force triple-option quarterback Karsen Roberts. They’re “actors” as CSU starting tackle Sam Carlson says. And, their performance is a crucial part to their team’s game plan each week. Without them, what you see on Saturday wouldn’t be possible.

They’re the walk-ons, the scout-teamers, the guys who came out of high school hoping to make a name for themselves, just like everyone else. You probably don’t know their names, or their faces, but their teammates and coaches know exactly who they are.

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“They play a huge part in our preparation for each team,” Carlson said. “They’re the guys who have to play and be a certain actor every week. This week, guys on defense have to be UNLV’s giant nose guard. Somebody has to play a different person each week. They are guys who aren’t going to show up on the stat sheet, but they come out and they work their butts off every day. We couldn’t be more thankful to have those guys on the team – guys that genuinely care about the welfare of CSU football.”

Teammates again

Growing up in Wellington, Colorado, Carlson and Jesse Haas were teammates at Wellington Middle School, before moving on together to Poudre High School. While Carlson played on the varsity team from the start of his sophomore season, Haas had to wait two more years to get a starting role on Poudre’s varsity team as a kick returner and wide receiver. Carlson signed on scholarship with CSU out of high school in 2011, while Haas didn’t join the team until spring practice in 2014.

These two friends took two completely different paths to the Colorado State football team. For Haas, there were other opportunities. He could’ve tried to play at the Division II, Division III or NAIA levels, and likely would have seen significant playing time. But, his dream ever since he was a kid, was to don the green and gold and stand on the sideline at Hughes Stadium. And, he would be damned if he didn’t make that dream come true.

“This is my hometown team,” Haas said. “I grew up here and I’ve lived here my whole life. I’ve been going to games at Hughes since I was 4-years-old and after watching all those guys before me play, when I had the chance, I said yes. No matter what I had to do, I was going to play here. Coming out of high school, I wanted to play football really bad, but once I got here, even if I wasn’t going to play a single snap, I wanted to be at CSU.”

This is my home

Across the City of Fort Collins, Craig Leonard Jr. was shredding defenses in Fossil Ridge High School’s potent passing offense in 2010. But, after leading the state in passing during his senior year, all Colorado State had to offer him was a preferred walk-on spot. A kind gesture, but not what Leonard was looking for. So, he picked up and moved across the country to Monroe, North Carolina, where he starred at Jireh Prep School. In December 2011, then-CSU head coach Steve Fairchild offered Leonard a scholarship, and he signed with CSU that fall. A dream come true.

His time at CSU wasn’t exactly what he envisioned, though. After redshirting during his freshman season in 2012, Leonard took a grand total of two snaps during the next two years while he sat behind one of the greatest passers in CSU history, Garrett Grayson. Like Haas, Leonard could’ve left CSU and found a new home. But, there was only one home, and that was Fort Collins.

“I’ve been around here my whole life, and I watched my first game when I was 8-years-old,” Leonard said. “Bradlee Van Pelt gave me a Nike sweatband when I was young, and I still have that to this day. There’s no other place for me. This is where I wanted to be. This place was either going to sink or swim, and I think we’ve been swimming pretty well the past couple years. It’s been an awesome ride and it didn’t matter if I played a down here, this is where I was going to start and end.”

A bittersweet end 

Haas and Leonard, along with Cerriteno and a handful of others, will be honored alongside their teammates during Saturday’s Senior Day festivities at Hughes Stadium. Most will have their names called over the loudspeakers for the first time in their career, while others will leave to an applause they’ve heard every time their name has been called over the past four-to-six years.

Cerriteno will stand side-by-side with his roommate and one of his best friends, tight end Steven Walker. Both are in their second year with the CSU program after transferring from separate junior colleges, and like Carlson and Haas, they’ve had much different careers at CSU. Despite their differences on the stat sheet, both Walker and Cerriteno are proud to leave the Colorado State program together, as brothers.

“It’s unfortunate that these guys don’t get the recognition we do, and I wish there was an opportunity for those guys to get more playing time,” Walker said. “Jose is one of my best friends, and he hasn’t gotten a chance to play and show his ability. But, he makes me better at practice every single day. One of the biggest effort guys you will ever meet. Anywhere they put him, he’s going to give the maximum effort he has. There’s a ton of guys that make our wins possible that put in the work in practice to help us prepare each week. If I could give some of what I have to these guys, I would do it in a second, because these are my brothers, and they deserve it as much as anybody. I have the ultimate respect for them. They don’t get the glory; they don’t get a scholarship. They just love football and they love this team.”

Collegian Senior Sports Reporter Keegan Pope can be reached at kpope@collegian.com and on Twitter @ByKeeganPope.