In Small-Town Colorado, a Team With Brass

These football players can really play—in more ways than one

It’s 7 a.m. in the northern Colorado town of Lyons, population 1,585. The heat has not yet seized the day, and the Lyons Senior High School Football team is holding an “optional” team workout. The familiar funk of teen sweat and the drone of this generation’s soundtrack—guttural, bass-heavy nu-metal—careen sidelong through the weight room.

“Less talk, more reps!” woofs the conditioning coach. He’s teaching explosive strength techniques and quick-twitch drills. The head coach, John Nichols, keeps a sharp eye on his charges amid the clank and clamor. A former Nebraska Cornhusker in the mid 1980s, during the era of the legendary Tom Osborne, Nichols knows a little something about power-back formations, and he’s preparing his team for speed, strength and versatility.

But Nichols also deals with formations Osborne never would have dreamed up. Just before kickoff, he hands his players off to Karen Gregg. Gregg, a swirling symphony of hair and energy, holds her doctorate from another college football powerhouse, Ohio State University.

But there are no X’s and O’s for this instructor; her playbook is filled with E’s, sharp and flat.

“When the announcer says, ‘Please stand and remove your hat,’ these kids run over and throw off their helmets and pick up an instrument and play the national anthem with the rest of the band,” Gregg says. “That’s standard. It doesn’t matter if it’s a playoff game or just a home game, they always play.”

Players join in at halftime as well, though not as often as when Gregg became band director 11 years ago—back then, the band had only 18 members; now it’s caught on so much that there are 60 in a school with only 250 students.

In a school this small, the Lions have to multitask. Almost 90 percent of the students are involved in athletics, choir, drama and/or band. Last year, no one dropped out, class attendance was at 95 percent and students destroyed their peers throughout the district and statewide in educational benchmarks. Out of last year’s 67 graduates, 15 carried 4.0 GPA.s. It’s the upside of a small-school, small-town mentality, athletic director Kathleen Leiding says.

“One of the big things you can do in a small school is you foster participation. Kids don’t fall through the cracks in little schools very much. Somebody knows something about that kid.”

So people would know, for instance, that the kid racking iron in the weight room is not only a potential Division I kicker and last season’s district track athlete of the year but also the trumpeter in the jazz band. Forrest Donnell has spent his summer trying to put on weight and working toward improving on the 42 of 46 extra points he booted last season. He also logs plenty of hours each week on the trumpet, practicing the Frank Mantooth or Miles Davis compositions favored by the ensemble.

The senior is one of many cross-over sports-and-music stars at Lyons. There’s Rachel Hinker, a 16-time state track and field medalist who will run for the University of Northern Colorado this fall and the class of 2011’s grad who ran cross country for the school and recently set a record for cadets at the Air Force Academy in the mile run. And then there’s Andy Forsberg, a Lyons baseball player who now studies film composing at Berklee College of Music.

“For me, in between baseball, tennis, music and drama, it’s almost not wanting to fail Lyons,” Donnell says. “Because it’s such a small community, everyone wants to do well.”

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