Mile High Sports

Championship Builder

When you walk into the main entrance of Pueblo East High School – look to the right. There you’ll see a window.

It’s not just any window. That window made all the difference. It looks out on the hopes, dreams and heart of the City and people of Pueblo, Colo. Greatness crawled through that window – literally – countless times. That very window, it might be deducted, was where the 2014 Division II NCAA National Football Championship was born. We’ll get to that later.

While the school itself is locked and secured when class isn’t in session, that window was left unlocked more times than administrators would probably care to know. Nearly every night – say from 1975 to 1980 – just about anyone could have snuck into Pueblo East through that window.

And some did sneak in, but not just anyone. It was Danny DeRose and his teammates. DeRose was no nightshift burglar. No, as his father Eddie, a children’s dentist in Pueblo, likes to say, Danny was a “good kid.” He was a standout athlete at East, too. He wasn’t blessed with size, but he was athletic. More importantly, he was a workhorse. Whether he was swimming or running or catching or throwing, he was dedicated to his craft. If he was going to play, he was going to work.

And he was going to win. Especially when it came to football.

Every night after school, DeRose could be found in the school’s weightroom, lifting and lifting some more. His work in the gym made him one of the most sought-after football players in Colorado, so much so that Chuck Fairbanks offered him a full-ride scholarship to the University of Colorado, where his brother Mark was already playing. In fact, it might have been Mark who showed his younger brother “the trick.”

Since the DeRose boys were almost always the last ones to leave the gym, there were few who ever noticed what they did before calling it a night. They’d slink towards the window and subtly flip open the lock.

The next morning, they’d get up at 5 a.m. and head over to the school. Of course, nobody was there and the doors were all locked. But their window wasn’t. They’d quietly prop it open and crawl in. And then they’d lift – again.

After weights, they’d shower and get ready for school. When class or practice was done for the day they’d do it all over again.

When DeRose arrived at East as a freshman, the school’s football program didn’t have a great tradition. But by the time he was a junior that had changed. The ’78 Eagles made the state playoffs, narrowly losing to Arvada West.

The next year, DeRose and his Eagles headed into the state tournament ranked No. 1 with a perfect 10-0 record. DeRose was regarded as one of the fiercest players in Colorado. Crosstown rival John Wristen, an All-State quarterback, claims that his back still hurts – to this day – from some of DeRose’s bone-jarring hits.

But the undefeated Eagles “got cocky.” Losing their focus, they were unexpectedly bounced from the state playoffs in the first round – a home loss, no less.

While disheartening, the loss didn’t stop DeRose from sneaking into that unlocked window or spending countless hours in the weightroom long after football season. Nor did the loss deter his football career. The following fall, he headed to Boulder, ready to play for Fairbanks’ defense.

Fairbanks had other plans. He made DeRose an offensive guard. DeRose bought in, even if it meant becoming the smallest offensive guard in the history of the Big 8. He embraced the opportunity and was getting quite good in the unlikely role.

But then big brother Mark decided he wanted to leave Boulder. He packed up and returned to Pueblo to play for (then) Southern Colorado. This was not part of the plan for young Dan. He’d gone to CU to play alongside his brother, and that was pretty much it. After pleading with Mark to stay, Dan did what every good brother would do – he left, too.

With both brothers now at Southern Colorado, Dan was moved back to linebacker. He was also reunited with an old foe – Wristen. Anchoring both sides of the ball, Wristen the quarterback and DeRose the middle linebacker had the same mentality. Both hated to lose. Both were going to outwork the next man. Both were going to win.

As juniors in 1982, DeRose and Wristen led Southern Colorado to the school’s first-ever appearance in the national playoffs. They lost to Central Oklahoma, largely because Wristen went down the week before with a knee injury. And as seniors, they gave Dennis Erickson’s Idaho Vandals and future Denver Gold quarterback Ken Hobart everything they could handle, losing narrowly. “Danny was sideline to sideline all day long,” said Wristen.

The connection between Wristen and DeRose did not stop after their senior season. Both players got invited to try out for the Denver Broncos in the summer of ’84. Wristen was cut sooner than DeRose, who made it to the final cut.

He recalls that day like it was yesterday.

“I remember driving home from Greeley and thinking to myself, ‘Hmm. I thought I was going to be a football player. Now what am I going to do?’” DeRose said. “Rick Dennison got cut six times and kept coming back and trying out and trying out. And I thought, ‘I’m not going to do that. I don’t want to do that.’ I want to get on with my life and get going.’”

***

Dan Reeves does not specifically recall cutting Danny DeRose. Now 71, Reeves says, “I don’t remember everything from yesterday, so it’s tough to remember every guy I had to cut when I was coaching. There were a lot of them.”

The head coach of the Broncos (‘81 to ’92) – and then the coach of the Giants (’93-96) and Falcons (’97-’03) – has literally cut thousands of players. But he does offer an answer that’s particularly applicable to DeRose: “I tell them all this: ‘If you give life the same effort you’ve given me, then you’ll be successful.’”

It was a long drive back from Greeley. By the time DeRose reached Pueblo, he’d come to a conclusion. With the undergraduate degree in business management he’d earned in 1984, he decided he should go back to Southern Colorado for a Masters degree in business administration; he also wanted to give coaching a try. Not so ironically, Wristen was right there on the sideline with him. They coached for a year together while DeRose earned his next degree. Wristen made coaching a career. DeRose went into business.

DeRose began working as the business manager for Small Smiles, a Pueblo dental office founded by his grandfather, Bruno DeRose. Dan’s father, Eddie, and his oldest brother, Mike, were the dentists.

Despite a solid acumen within the family business, Dan DeRose, at his very core, was still a football player. So, in 1986, he formed the Pueblo Crusaders, a football team in the Minor League Football System, a league he helped established. As the owner, head coach and starting middle linebacker for the Crusaders, DeRose organized the team, handled its finances, and traveled the country doing what he loved.

It was real football, and the Crusaders went on to win the league championship – a national title. They played for another title and lost in overtime in front of a ravenous hometown crowd. “I knew that Pueblo was a football town and they wanted more than just high school football,” said DeRose.

But that was just it; high school football was all they had in the days before DeRose’s Crusaders. One year after his coaching experience alongside Wristen, the football program at Southern Colorado was disbanded, a decision that Joe Cervi, a Pueblo native and now sports editor of the Pueblo Chieftain newspaper, sternly calls “a mistake.”

Locally, DeRose’s timing was perfect. Not only did Pueblo not have football, but Proposition 48, an 1986 NCAA regulation that stipulated minimum high school grades and standardized test scores in order to participate in college athletics, was changing the landscape of football in general.

Within this perfect storm, he was successfully running a professional football team and league. He negotiated a television deal with the Financial News Network because “they needed weekend programming.” The league graduated players to the CFL, USFL and NFL. DeRose, himself, was “borrowed” by the league in 1987 during the NFLPA strike, playing for Bill Parcells, a young Bill Belichick and alongside future Hall of Famer Lawrence Taylor, who had crossed the picket lines. When the London Monarchs won the inaugural championship of the World League of American Football 1991, six players had played for DeRose’s Crusaders the year before.

***

“Whenever anyone tells you they want to meet you at Denny’s at 2 o’clock in the afternoon, that’s because they don’t want anyone to see.”

That was DeRose’s intuition sometime in 1990 when then-Southern Colorado president Robert Shirley requested a meeting… at Denny’s… at 2 p.m.

“I figured he was up to something,” said DeRose.

He was. Shirley offered DeRose the job as the school’s athletic director. DeRose, who had already enjoyed part-time stints as a business teacher and student advisor at the school, accepted. At 28-years-old, he’d just become the youngest athletic director in the NCAA.

He quickly learned, however, that the school had no money. Like those late nights and early mornings in the Pueblo East weightroom, Dan rolled up his sleeves and went to work. He was aggressive and innovative with his fundraising efforts, “corporate sponsorship stuff” that worked “really, really well.”

Along with football, Southern Colorado’s baseball program was also cut in 1984. DeRose the athletic director reinstated it 10 years later, raising enough funding to build a new baseball stadium complex in 1994. After five years in the role, and with Southern Colorado boasting a newfound financial stability, DeRose was honored by the NACDA as college athletic director Fundraiser of the Year.

Then it was time to move on. While serving as athletic director, he maintained ownership in a printing franchise and a health club he’d built (for the Crusaders, actually, as the team needed a place to lift; propping open the window open after hours wasn’t necessary in a gym DeRose owned). With other business interests churning, and a moneymaking model that worked well for Southern Colorado, DeRose decided his methods should be applied elsewhere. He also had a business partner in mind.

When Mike Roumph, a basketball transfer from Northeaster Junior College, walked onto the Pueblo campus in the spring of 1988, DeRose was his advisor and one of the first people he met. Roumph played two years of hoops before graduating from Southern Colorado in 1990. After graduating, he began work as a fundraiser for Pueblo’s School District 60. Athletic participation fees were outpacing too many Pueblo families, and Roumph set out to reduce – or eliminate – those costs.

DeRose had kept in touch with Roumph and upon vacating the job of athletic director, the two went into business together. “DD Marketing” was formed – Dan was the president, Mike the V.P.

DD Marketing negotiated exclusive soft drink contracts with school districts all over the country. The company also marketed “Zap Me,” a program that placed computers in schools. Through tough negotiating and sponsorship sales, DD Marketing was making schools and school districts a lot of money. And it was making the company money, too.

“He’s an amazingly hard worker,” said Roumph of DeRose. “I guess when you find something that works, you just go like crazy and replicate it over and over.”

Simultaneously, Small Smiles Dental Centers were beginning to pop up all over the West. By May of 2004, the family dental practice born in Pueblo had a financial stake in 21 dental clinics in eight states.

As if DeRose didn’t have his hands full enough, he began yet another endeavor. Always the football player, DeRose slowly began to formulate the Friends of Football, a group that would one-day bring the football program back to Southern Colorado, now “Colorado State University-Pueblo.”

Friends of Football was made up of the DeRose Family and various Pueblo business leaders, people of influence who wanted to see the sport return to the school. In 2002, DeRose had quietly attempted to re-launch the football program. For a multitude of reasons – the school president, a reluctant school board and funding concerns – his efforts were never allowed to take flight.

But in 2005, Friends of Football floated another trial balloon – the Colorado Classic football game. DeRose coaxed RMAC rivals Western State and Adams State into playing their annual tilt at a neutral field, Dutch Clark Stadium in Pueblo. Of course, as Cervi says, “Dan made it worth their while.” In its two years, it was a success for everyone involved. Strategically, it was a ploy to convince those governing CSU-Pueblo that football needed to be a part of the landscape.

In 2006, the DeRose Family sold its dentistry business. The sale price was reportedly $435 million. Collectively, they agreed they wanted to do something for Pueblo.

“Because that’s where we made our money,” Eddie explained.

It was the University that ultimately became the primary benefactor. And the best way to help the school, they thought, was through football.

Finally, the money was there. As Cervi wrote in one Chieftain article, “Friends of Football members wrote checks. Big checks. Some were six figures. A couple were seven.” Of equal importance was the fact that the school board was warming up to the idea and key administrators were on board.

Joe Garcia, now the Lieutenant Governor of Colorado, then the president of CSU-Pueblo, says that the school president who preceded him warned him of DeRose and his intentions. But DeRose’s persistence was reason to listen.

Joe Folda, now in his 11th year as the CSU-Pueblo athletic director, says the situation suddenly became advantageous. “This time around, there was a better relationship with the board of governors. We were in a little bit better of a financial situation,” Folda says. “And (the Friends of Football) financial backing and plan just all fit together.”

With declining enrollment and one-third of its dormitories empty, the school needed a boost. Perhaps folks had come around to the notion that football was the answer after all.

There was a big rally, a celebration that accompanied the anticipation that the board of governors was going to rubber stamp the plan as outlined by the Friends of Football. But according to Cervi that’s not what happened: “The entire community was in the ballroom, waiting for this announcement, and the board of governors came back and said, ‘Uh, no. We have questions that you have to answer before we proceed with this.’”

It was like a lead balloon.

The board wanted reassurances on such matters as exit strategy, perpetual funding for coaches and assistants and equipment. They wanted to make sure that money and planning looked beyond just one or two seasons.

Behind DeRose, the Friends of Football reconvened to adequately address the board’s concerns, checks in hand. In July of 2007, quietly this time, the board of governors met with Folda, Garcia and Dan and Mark DeRose. Cervi, who covered the pivotal meeting, was also in attendance.

Twenty-three years after Southern Colorado Football had died, the board gave the approval. Cervi recalls a concise message.

“Here you go. Now don’t screw it up.”

***

“Let’s not wait around.”

That was the directive from DeRose. He wasn’t interested in a cautious transition from club football to the real thing. He wanted to make a splash while the town was still bubbling with excitement. He wanted to kick things off with the 2008 college football season.

With just a little over a year to field a team, set a schedule, and gather all the necessary things required of a college football team – including a field on which to play – the notion seemed crazy. But as John Wristen, who was officially hired literally minutes after the board’s approval, says, “I don’t think anything is crazy to Dan DeRose.”

And then there was the money. DeRose was charged with the monumental task of raising more than $13 million in just over 12 months. He put in large chunks of his own money, of course, but he and Friends of Football successfully hit the number.

“I’ve been around Danny long enough to know,” Roumph, who is a member of Friends of Football, said, “that when he puts his mind to something, it usually comes to fruition.”

Meanwhile, Wristen had to assemble a roster. The first tryout saw kids in jeans. Some were given uniforms and equipment borrowed from area high schools.

“It was a circus, a made for TV movie,” said Garcia.

And about that field. The DeRose Family wanted football at CSU-Pueblo to be more than just an NCAA sanctioned Saturday afternoon. This entire venture was for the school as a whole and the community at large – the kids, the faculty and the people in Pueblo who’d awaited college football’s return. Dutch Clark Stadium was a fine venue, but DeRose had bigger plans. He wanted an on-campus stadium where students could walk and the town would gather.

The family owned a piece of land adjacent to campus and immediately planned the construction of the stadium. They then drew up a contract, allowing the school to use the land for the whopping fee of $100 per year. And so construction began. In a year’s time, the Neta and Eddie DeRose ThunderBowl was ready. Almost.

The week before the ThunderWolves’ home opener, a large retaining wall inside the stadium still needed to be built. DeRose rounded up 40 men – “Not many people tell Dan, ‘NO,’” said Roumph – and together they put up the wall, by hand, with time to spare. And on Friday night before the first game, DeRose personally assembled the final pieces of fence that surrounded the stadium.

And then it happened.

On Sept. 6, 2008, in front of 10,000 grinning fans, the ball was teed up and kicked off – almost as if the program hadn’t skipped a beat. And when the final gun sounded on that glorious afternoon the scoreboard read CSU-Pueblo 24, Oklahoma Panhandle State 13.

***

Dan DeRose’s head is big. Not in a literal sense – “Dan is as regular of a guy as there is,” Cervi said – but in a physical sense.

“I’ve got a big, big head,” DeRose has always admitted. “Physically – and it’s good for hitting things with. And that worked out really well.”

“Dan still lifts weights because he’s got to maintain a certain amount of body mass,” said Roumph, “just to avoid tipping over because of that head.”

Nearly every morning, the 53-year old DeRose and his legendary head can be found in “The Office,” the gym he built as the centerpiece of his office complex, lifting weights just like the days when he used to crawl through the window at Pueblo East.

For the past 15 or so Christmas Eve mornings, the eyes in Dan’s magnificent head can be found staring up at the bench press bar. Surrounding him is a handful of lifelong friends – teammates, family and business partners.

The smell of sweat and toaster waffles fills the gym air. In simple terms, this gathering of friends is a “lift-off” – a contest to see who can put up 185 the most times. DeRose almost always wins. Still.

“It’s another one of his crazy traditions,” said Roumph, who participates every year. “When you’re around Dan, you always have a good time, no matter what the situation is. He’s got a lot of great qualities, but that’s probably his greatest.”

This past Christmas’ lifting session was particularly fun. Besides that hint of Eggos, there was new odor that filled the air: The sweet smell of victory.

Just 26 days before, Dan DeRose stood on the sideline at Dutch Clark Stadium, watching the game clock tick down. For the first time, he and his high school were state football champs. As the defensive coordinator, he watched his Eagles defense hold Rifle to just 14 points. Even sweeter was the fact that his 80-year old father, also a Pueblo East Eagle, was there to see it.

Better yet, his son-in-law, Lee Meisner, a product of CSU-Pueblo football –the new program’s first All-American, a Summa Cum Laude with a Masters degree in Business Administration, and a linebacker – was a part of East’s coaching staff. Meisner, who got a tryout with the Atlanta Falcons after CSU-Pueblo, ultimately married Dan’s daughter, Anna.

Best yet, however, was that fact that young Bruno DeRose, Dan’s son, was a junior, two-way starter for the Eagles. He could claim something that no other DeRose could.

If that all wasn’t sweet enough, just four days before the annual lift-off, Dan DeRose claimed yet another elusive title, as his ThunderWolves hoisted the trophy as NCAA Division II national champs. In Kansas City, in front of more than 3,000 fans who made their way from Pueblo, they blanked previously unbeaten Minnesota State 13-0, a defensive masterpiece.

The man who had the had the guts to bring football back to Pueblo also had the audacity – from Day 1 – to suggest that the goal of the program was to win a national title. Damned if they didn’t do it – in just seven seasons.

And it wasn’t just the championship. The school with declining enrollment eventually had to rent out hotels to accommodate its rapidly growing student body. Within two years of football’s relaunch, freshman enrollment was up 40 percent. The boosters, who were giving somewhere in the neighborhood of $40,000 annually before football, are now stuffing the deposit box to the tune of $250,000. And the people of Pueblo have their football.

Real. Championship. Football.

“This wouldn’t have existed without Dan DeRose,” says Garcia. “It would not have reached this level of excellence. Dan’s mindset is that there’s nothing too lofty.”

“I’ve been in every meeting that’s ever been (in),” says Roumph, “and there’s no doubt, he’s the guy.”

“He’s definitely the guy who stirs the drink,” Wristen says of DeRose.

“He has the gift, you know, to get it done,” says Dr. Eddie DeRose of his youngest son. “I tear up now just thinking about it.”

Yet, Dan DeRose is far from done. He’d like another title, probably more. He says the day he retires is the day he dies. Despite reaching the goal, he is driven – still – just like the kid who crawled through that unlocked window.