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WHEN TRAGEDY HITS : Death of Aunese Gives Colorado New Perspective

October 03, 1989|SAM McMANIS | Times Staff Writer

BOULDER, Colo. — A swell of crowd noise, loud enough to blot out thought and envelop the senses, was periodically piped into the football stadium at the University of Colorado on an otherwise quiet afternoon last week.

Strangely, however, this intrusion into the Buffaloes' practice did not have the desired effect. Although sound reverberated off empty seats and could be heard a block away, students on foot or bikes seemed not to notice. No one running plays on the field seemed too bothered, either.

Colorado coaches had ordered the canned crowd noise to simulate conditions the team would encounter against Washington at high-decibel Husky Stadium, the Buffaloes' first game since last season's quarterback Sal Aunese died from stomach cancer.

But this team, ranked fifth nationally last week, is not easily distracted. Led by sophomore quarterback Darian Hagan and junior running back Eric Bieniemy, both Southern Californians, the Buffaloes concluded a week of dealing with loss with a 45-28 victory over Washington in Seattle last Saturday.

The week began with an emotional memorial service for Aunese, 21, of Oceanside, during which Coach Bill McCartney publicly acknowledged for the first time that Aunese had fathered the son of McCartney's 19-year-old daughter, Kristin.

In front of 2,000 people in a campus auditorium, McCartney proudly told his daughter: "You could have had an abortion. You could have gone away to have the child and avoid the shame. But you stayed, and you're going to raise that little guy."

It continued with the subdued Buffaloes returning to practice, preparing for the game but speaking with reporters almost exclusively about Aunese and the team's vow to dedicate the season to him. To a player, they talked about what "Sal would've wanted" and what "Sal always said."

And the week ended with Colorado's impressive silencing of the Huskies, a victory that McCartney said exceeded his hopes.

"This speaks a lot about the intensity and resolve of our players," he said.

Equal parts resolve and talent have resulted in a 4-0 record and a No. 3 ranking for Colorado. With Oklahoma on probation, the Buffaloes figure to challenge Nebraska for the Big Eight championship. Given Colorado's dominance so far, a possible Orange Bowl matchup against Notre Dame for the national championship is not implausible.

Should that happen, Buffalo players no doubt will give credit to Aunese. The starting quarterback the previous two seasons, Aunese obviously was an influence on the field. But throughout Aunese's six-month illness and now, after his death, players say they consider him the team's inspiration and conscience.

Some believe Aunese's ordeal has hastened the development of much-needed maturity of a team that had been fraught with problems not long ago.

Between February, 1986, and February, 1989, at least two dozen past and present Buffalo players had been arrested on charges ranging from assault and disorderly conduct to rape. Aunese, himself, had spent 12 nights in jail in 1988 after pleading guilty to misdemeanor assault. Bieniemy, from West Covina, pleaded no contest to disorderly conduct as a result of a bar fight two years ago and was sentenced to perform community service.

Shortly after Colorado's problems were detailed in Sports Illustrated last spring--the magazine quoted a detective as saying all university police officers had victims scan photographs in a game program in lieu of mug-shot books--Aunese was diagnosed as having inoperable stomach cancer.

Colorado players have had negligible trouble with the law since school resumed in the fall. At least, there have been no reported incidents. Now, the focus has been on football, not the police blotter. Some players credit the courageous manner Aunese handled his terminal illness as a positive model of behavior for his teammates.

"That was a big (reason)," said Hagan, Aunese's replacement at quarterback. "We're more (serious) now. We don't even go out on the town no more. The only time we're seen out or go socializing is during school hours, during practice and after games. That's the only time."

Hagan and Bieniemy probably will be seen and heard from more in the coming weeks, if they continue to lead the offense and the Buffaloes continue to dismantle the competition.

In Saturday's victory over Washington, Bieniemy ran for two touchdowns, one for 35 yards, and finished with 82 yards in 11 carries. Hagan, the other main threat in Colorado's wishbone offense, ran for a touchdown and totaled 121 yards running and passing. Bieniemy's backup, J. J. Flannigan of Pomona, had 85 yards rushing.

Through four games, Bieniemy has averaged 99.5 yards a game and 5.9 yards a carry. Hagan has averaged 73.8 yards.

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