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Tom Ross: Remember Joe and his plight during next game

A teammate's willingness to sacrifice pinky motivated '79 Sailors football team

Looking back on it now, it appears clear that Joe Ramunno’s left pinky finger was the key to the Steamboat Sailors’ amazing 1979 state football championship run. Ramunno took the notion of sacrificing for the team to a new level.

Any Steamboat Springs resident who didn’t spend the past three weeks in a snow cave knows by now that the 2003 Sailors football team is deep into the Colorado 3A playoffs and will play Florence in the semifinals this week. I couldn’t be more excited for them.

However, many Sailors fans may have forgotten the story of Ramunno’s little finger and the Sailors’ run to greatness 24 years ago. Steamboat was a different place in 1979. The school district was a little more rural, and the high school had a smaller enrollment. Head coach Mark Drake welcomed 33 players to preseason drills in August, but predicted the number of boys out for football would grow to 55 as soon as haying season ended.

Steamboat played in the 2A division in those days. Aspen, Roaring Fork, Meeker and Rangely were all regular opponents. When the Sailors reported for practice that fall, they knew they had team speed — they had won the state track title the preceding spring. However, Buddy Bair, a deep passing threat and exceptional field goal kicker had graduated. Kent Williams would replace him. The heart of the team appeared to be the line, where all conference tackle Dale Coyner, at 6-foot-3 and 230 pounds, was back for another season.

Ramunno, a state championship caliber shot putter at 6-foot-2 and 208 pounds, also would be counted on in the line.

Steamboat’s fall campaign got off to a modest start. The coaching staff had devised a scheme that anticipated four ball carriers would get a chance to rush for more than 500 yards on the season. In addition to tailback Tom Southall and speedy fullback Fred Latimer, the coaches were counting on Williams and slot back Mitche Graf to carry the football. Moffat County High School played in a larger division that year, but the Sailors opened against the Bulldogs and defeated them, 28-6. The second game of the season saw the Sailors on the Front Range playing a Denver school for the first time in their history. Holy Family dumped the Sailors, 28-14.

Steamboat rebounded with a 27-0 win against Rangely in the third week, setting up a showdown at Glenwood with the defending state champion Demons. As if that weren’t enough drama, Ramunno had a little medical emergency in the middle of the week.

Ramunno was taking wood shop that semester and his father, Carl, who had a spotless safety record, was the instructor. Somehow, Ramunno managed to severely lacerate the little finger on his left hand in a band saw. The injury was gruesome, but the finger remained attached to his hand — barely. Doctors at Routt Memorial Hospital reassured the young man that they could save his finger, but he would not be able to play football the rest of the season.

Ramunno’s response to that proposition was something along the lines of “no thanks.” He bid farewell to his pinky, and his teammates were paying attention when Ramunno walked back out onto the practice field with a huge bandage on his left hand.

Five first-half turnovers at Glenwood were the Sailors’ undoing and they lost to the state champs, 27-6. But it was the last game they would lose that season.

After three consecutive blowouts over conference foes, Steamboat faced a stern nonconference test on the road against the Cowboys of Gunnison. They defeated Gunnison 36-20 behind Southall, who rushed for 286 yards and went over the 1,000-yard mark for the season. Steamboat’s 40-20 win over Rifle secured a first round playoff berth, but the Sailors had to make the long trip to Gunnison all over again, and barely survived, 14-6.

Steamboat hosted the state quarterfinals for the first time ever the next week and shut down a flashy passing team from Salida, 38-6. The home field advantage remained with Steamboat for the semifinals, but the weather changed dramatically Nov. 23. The turf was frozen, and the snowdrifts on the side of the field were waist high when Sheridan came to town. The visitors promptly grabbed a 7-0 lead. But this was to be Southall’s day of destiny. He scored on runs of 86, 70, 45, 32, 15 and 2 yards while setting a Colorado single-game rushing record at 412 yards. The Sailors played Buena Vista on its home field in the state championship game and struggled in the first half. Texas transplant Darrell Moore, all 5 feet, 5 inches of him, grabbed three interceptions and Steamboat held on for a 12-0 win.

There was no celebration after the game. Players sobbed at their lockers over the realization that a special part of their lives was gone forever. They cherished the camaraderie they had shared during that magical autumn. The 2003 season already has been one of the best of all time. It would be extra special if these Sailors could experience what Ramunno and his teammates did on a frozen field nearly a quarter of a century ago. Cross your fingers.


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