The start to Woodland Park’s football season got off to an unusual start on Aug. 29 when a game official died during halftime of the team’s contest against Rampart at District 20 Stadium.
According to the Woodland Park coach Joe Roskam, the referee who passed away was John Whitten, 61, a 15-year veteran of the Colorado Springs Football Officials Association and graduate of Cheyenne Mountain High School.
“He was a good man,” Roskam said. “He’s been refereeing my games for 15 years.”
Roskam added that the decision to suspend the game “was a no-brainer.” Woodland Park was trailing 28-0 at the time.
“The officials are all buddies and we knew that they couldn’t continue,” Roskam said. “We were going to finish the game, that’s why we decided to come back (Aug. 30).”
The Woodland Park players gathered in the locker room after learning the game would not be resumed that night.
“We prayed on (Whitten) and we knew we were going to finish the game either way,” said Woodland Park senior running back/linebacker Dylan Schaller-Ward.
The game was resumed the next morning (Aug. 30) at 10 a.m. The two teams paid their respects with a moment of silence before beginning the third quarter.
Woodland Park, a Class 3A team, eventually lost by a 40-7 score to the 4A Rams. Schaller-Ward scored the Panthers’ loan touchdown on a 60-yard touchdown dash around right end midway through the fourth quarter.
“When (a death) like this happens it is what it is,” said Panthers’ senior center Hunter Wilson. “A good man died, but you still have to play football. It’s a bad thing to happen, but life goes on.”
Added Woodland Park senior lineman Joel Woolley: “It’s a horrible thing to happen. There’s nothing you can do when something like that happens. You have to take it for what it is.”
Woodland Park High School has been forced to endure the deaths of a half dozen of its own students in over last 26 months – four via automobile accidents and two suicides. But even
though this tragedy does not appear to directly affect any of the school personnel or students, the death of the official had a profound impact on at least one Woodland Park coach.
“It’s one of those things where initially you feel really bad,” said Panthers’ line coach Brett Nelson. “And then it’s one of those things where the kids are kind of looking at you and saying ‘What?’ And that’s kind of how I looked at it. How can this happen? These things don’t normally happen.”
Nelson went on to say that while he has never experienced a player die on the field during a game, he has had former players die after graduation from car accidents and other events.
“(Friday night) we didn’t tell the kids too much; we didn’t even tell them that (Whitten) had passed,” Nelson said “We said a prayer for (Whitten) and told the kids he’s not good. We kept it simple.
“These kids are resilient because we’ve had to deal with this kind of stuff at our own school. I don’t want to say these (football players) are cold to it, but it’s more of a ‘Here we go again.’ But they have to process it in their own ways.”
Woodland Park coaches first learned of Whitten’s “possible” death when Panthers’ scorekeeper Joel Herman went to the team’s locker room during halftime of the game on the 29th. Herman informed the coaches of what he had occurred and that there was a chance the game might be suspended.
Crew chief George Demetriou told Rampart athletic director Andy Parks that Whitten got up from the chair he had been sitting in the officials’ room during halftime and then collapsed. Word quickly spread through the press box.
Whitten was later confirmed dead at Penrose-St. Francis Hospital.
As for the game itself, Woodland Park players and coaches agreed that breakdowns on both sides of the ball played a huge role in Rampart’s lopsided victory.
“We had key offensive mistakes and missed defensive assignments,” said Woodland Park junior quarterback Cecil Cox. “We trailed only 7-0 at the end of the first quarter.”
Added Schaller-Ward: “When we did our assignments we were toe-to-toe with them the whole way.”
A different officiating crew worked the continuation of the game on Aug. 30.
Roskam was pleased with the way his team came back and played strong in the second half.
“We were down 12-7 in the second half to a 4A school with 1,700 kids in it,” he said. “They’ll be 5A in two years. “I thought we did well today.
“A couple of little things and we beat them in the second half. I hate losses, and there’s no such thing as a good loss, but these guys feel good about the way we played today. We’re okay. We know who we are.”
Woodland Park hosts Manitou Springs Sept. 5. Manitou Springs is a 2A team that started last season 12-0 before losing in the semifinals of the playoffs.
The Mustangs’ new coach is Monte Gutowksi. Gutowski scouted Woodland Park’s game with Rampart on the 30th.
“From what I understand Woodland Park and Manitou Springs have been trying to get a game with each other for a while,” said Gutowski, who is the former head coach of Palmer Ridge and a long-time Lewis-Palmer assistant. “I think this will be fun for both communities.”