Here on the Western Slope of the Rockies in Colorado, you can tell the history of a town through the history of its prep sports teams.
In 1902, the town of Paonia was founded by Samuel Wade. Like many of the pioneers who forged a new way of life here in the North Fork Valley, he was a veteran of the Civil War and was a man who was cut out of a different cloth than most of us. Wade fought Indians during the Civil War and was an architect and a fruit grower. He was with the original party, led by Enos Hotchkiss, that went over the Black Mesa and found its way to the North Fork Valley.
Among the first settlers of the Paonia area in the winter of 1881 were Wade, his brothers Ezra and George Wade, the itinerant preacher William Clark, Joe Brown, Sam Angevine, Albert Goodenow and E.W. Quakenbush, who was said to have gone crazy after a winter alone talking with animals and what he called, "All the ghosts in the Valley."
On Nov. 1, 1923, we got the first glimpse of what Paonia could be when coach Dan Lawrence and the Paonia High School football team demolished Delta by a score of 45 to 0.
Lawrence was a science teacher at Paonia High School. If there is anyone who began the lineage of fine football coaches and teams in our history, it is Lawrence.
On Sept. 2, 1926, Lawrence told the Paonian, the local newspaper at the time, that he expected the Eagles to be a good football team for the season. He was proven correct when Paonia defeated Cedaredge 62-0 on October 7 of that year.
1926 turned out to be an unusual, epic year for Paonia football. The Western Slope Conference played out to a three-way tie between Paonia, Delta and Grand Junction. Each team played two full quarters against each of the others, making a complete game for each team, with 15-minute intermissions.
A special train took fans to Grand Junction on Dec. 3, where the tangle was ironed out. Fans bought roundtrip train tickets to Grand Junction from Paonia for $2.50. Tickets to the game were 75 cents.
Paonia fans were not disappointed. In the first game, Grand Junction beat Delta 32-0. The second game resulted in a Paonia 6-0 triumph over Grand Junction. And in the third and final game, Paonia beat Delta 13-0. Paonia was the champion.
The 1926 Paonia championship team was comprised of Paul Hofer, Clayton Cox, Bob Clements, Phil Rule, Bill McMichael, Kenneth Grove, Ray Parks, Don Dickson, Alfred Bennett, Jim Haley, Glen Allison, Kenneth Carnine and Claude Snook.
In 1929, Lawrence took a position as science teacher and assistant coach at Loveland High School. Then after selling insurance for several years in Delta he was appointed in 1942 as director of athletics and football coach at Pueblo Junior College.
On Nov. 12, 1936, the football field was dedicated in his honor. The proper name for the Eagles' home territory is the Dan Lawrence Field at Paonia Town Park.
The next time football becomes a driving force in Paonia occurs in early December 1959. The Eagles won their first state championship after beating Windsor 7-0 to claim the 1A crown.
The celebration caravan began somewhere around Midway, where something like 300 cars were lined up to welcome home the victorious Eagles. Car horns and shouts greeted the players as the team bus was escorted all the way to Grand Avenue and then to the high school.
The Paonian described the game this way:
"After a somewhat shaky first half, Coach Granville King's charges came back on the field with a roar and later in the third period pushed the ball by sheer weight and determination to the Windsor one, from where the staunch Paonia line opened a slight gap thru which fullback Gary Schroeder was able to bull his way to paydirt. Placekick artist Danny Cholas sent the ball right thru the center of the uprights for point number 7."
One of the finest offensive backfields in the state propelled the Eagles to the win. Schroeder, Kinky Stratton and Danny Cholas ran the ball behind the expert signal calling of quarterback Bob Sunich.
The Eagles front line sparkled with the play of Bob Shaeffer, Johnny Mraule, Bob Holt, Harry Taylor, Ray Wardlaw, Dubbie Schroeder, Cliff Davis, Bill Wiening, Bob Wood, Dennis Richards, Albert Rozman and other stalwarts.
One person in Paonia who remembers that team and that time is Kathy Meader, who was in junior high at the time. Kathy is the grandmother of 1A Player of the Year Taylor Walters.
"My family has always been sports minded. My grandsons, my one daughter played a lot of sports. The family has just been very sports minded for a long time," she said. "I was born and raised in Paonia. My family goes back to Sam Wade. He was a great-great-grandfather of mine. So I've been here all the time. My life has been right here."
Kathy remembers how well the team was supported by the community back in 1959. Football gave the boys in town something to do, she recalled, as well as provided a common goal that everyone in the community could rally around.
Kathy said that very early on, the family could tell that Taylor Walters was a unique talent and person.
"There's just been something special about him since he was little. He wants to do things the right way," Kathy said. "He's not the one that says, 'I'm the one that's doing it all.' His whole team is doing it."
Kathy works at the Diner, where the wait staff wears Paonia colors and T-shirts on game day. A longstanding tradition, established before the Eagles went on their three-year championship run, has the boys eating breakfast at the Diner on Friday mornings before home games.
"They've been doing that for a long time," Kathy said. "It's a good way for us and for the town to get to know the boys. It's a special thing we get to be a part of."
Many fans have wondered, why now? Why is this Eagles team the one that stands out among so many others in Paonia's past?
Jeff Walters, Kathy's son and Taylor's dad, offered his own take on that. Standing on Paonia's sideline before the state championship game last Saturday in Buena Vista, he talked about the history of this team.
"I think it's the kids are a really good team and the coach has brought them together as a family, that's the big thing," Jeff said. "And a lot of these kids have played together for a long time, so they kind of know what they're doing."
All great high school teams have their foundation in peewee leagues, and this Eagles team is no different. Taylor Walters and Jeramiah Hillman have been playing together and have been best friends since the second grade. They won back-to-back peewee championships in the fifth and sixth grade.
Jeff Walters helped out as a coach off and on over the years, and little league coach Adam Mendoza played a huge role in the formation of this Eagles team.
"I really think Adam Mendoza had a lot to do with this when they were younger, because Adam taught them a lot. He's a real good technique teacher. Over 20 some years he's been doing it," Jeff said. "He and Chris Solaas coach those teams. They see a lot in these kids and they've done such a good job with them."
Once the foundation was set, the group of kids went to Paonia High School, where coach Brent McRae polished them into the cohesive championship team that put together a 36-3 record over the past three seasons.
"Adam started it and then when they hit the high school, McRae just brought it on out," Jeff said. "They are a great bunch of kids. They brought together a lot of the family feeling, I keep bringing that up. Just a lot of family. That's the cool part."
Family atmosphere and a true community are the foundation of success for the Eagles, along with a once-in-a-generation group of players who are just physically bigger than any of their predecessors.
"Obviously size is something you can't teach," Jeff said. "And it helps that we have a small school. Everybody knows each other and there's a real community there."
Jeff and his family have been a part of Paonia High School athletics for almost as long as the Eagles have had sports teams. He played multiple sports in 1987, 1988 and 1989, getting to the football semifinals two years in a row. His wife, Taylor's mom Nicole Walters, was also a standout volleyball and basketball player at Paonia.
He is in a rare position to analyze the cultural trends in Paonia that swirl around the Eagles and he thinks that the football team especially takes pride in representing its home town.
"Paonia used to have a really rich history in football, and they still do, of course, but it kind of died off there for a little while," Jeff said. "The Eastern Colorado teams for 20, 25, 30 years were just so dominant. I don't know why, but they just were. And now history is coming back, it's bleeding back into us. And these kids are stepping up to the plate and showing that hey, there it is, there's a reason we go here. You know, that's awesome."
Perhaps that's what Bleed Black refers to. Everyone saw the signs around town and the T-shirts that said, "All In! Eagles Bleed Black!" The town of Paonia is all in it together as a family, and history on the football field is bleeding black once again.
The score of last Saturday's championship game was almost secondary to the overall theme. The fact that the Eagles earned a chance to play for the 20th 3-peat in Colorado history was what mattered, and they did it with class.
"It's like I told Taylor today," Jeff said. "Two state championships is awesome. Going to the third one is amazing. Most kids dream of just going to one. You guys have already won two and you're going to a third. That just doesn't happen very often."
After three straight Western Slope Conference championships, back-to-back 1A state titles and 36 wins, it's natural to wonder if this is the high water mark for Paonia football.
Participation in the local peewee league has dropped dramatically. When Taylor Walters was there they'd get 30 or so kids playing; this year there were 14. The closing of mines and layoffs of miners is just one of the factors that has the population at the high school going steadily downward.
If it is the case that the Eagles will never be this good again, we can be thankful that these boys provided so many great memories on the gridiron and represented our town with respect. They made us all proud to be from Paonia.
The 1959 Paonian article concludes with a paragraph that could easily apply to the 2015 Eagles team. It was as true then as it is now.
"We take this means of congratulating the members of the squad and to commend them for the manner in which they conducted themselves. Paonia school patrons and football fans can well be proud of the gentlemen who comprise the Paonia High School football team."
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