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Performing Well Under Pressure : Vista’s Sal Aunese Has Worked to Put Mistakes Behind at Colorado

Times Staff Writer

Under a high blue sky on a perfect fall day last week, with the front range of the Rocky Mountains at his back and the bustle of noontime in front of the University of Colorado’s Norlin Library passing before his eyes, Sal Aunese sat on a concrete bench and talked about freedom.

Not the freedom politicians talk of on the campaign trail. Not an abstract notion that sprung from the head of philosophers. His was a concept of freedom in its rawest form.

“There is nothing better than the freedom to go out and do what you want when you want,” said Aunese, the former Vista High School and current Colorado quarterback. “You don’t have anyone telling you when to go to sleep, when to get up. You can just do whatever you want.”

This might not qualify as a textbook definition. But the words have an authenticity that only Aunese truly comprehends. His perspective comes from the 2 weeks he spent in Boulder County Jail.

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This was not a field trip or part of some school project. Aunese was a prisoner. He was not free to come and go. To him, freedom was not just another word for nothing else to lose.

“I counted the days; I counted the hours,” Aunese said. “All you do is count how long you have been in there.”

Aunese was sentenced to 2 weeks in jail after pleading guilty to misdemeanor menacing in connection with a dormitory scuffle in March. He also received two deferred 2-year suspended sentences after pleading guilty to misdemeanors as part of a plea agreement.

The incident took place March 20. Aunese and some friends were walking outside a Colorado dormitory when one of the residents shouted obscenities at Aunese, accounts of the event said. Aunese responded by entering the dorm, damaging some contents in the student’s room and shoving a third student.

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Aunese was arrested by campus police in the dorm and spent 2 weekend nights in jail before he was released on personal recognizance bond.

“I thought those 2 days were punishment enough,” Aunese said. “They were the longest 2 days of my life. I didn’t eat. I just drank water.”

He served his remaining time after the spring semester in May. This fall, he is back on the football field, helping lead the Buffaloes to only their second 5-2 start in 10 seasons. A victory over Iowa State Saturday would give them their best start since 1978.

Aunese is a major part of the Buffaloes’ resurgence. Since he took over as the starter in the fourth game last season, Colorado is 10-5. He led the team in rushing last season with 612 yards on 122 carries in the Buffaloes’ wishbone offense. A switch this season to a power-I formation that has retained some wishbone plays has reduced Aunese’s rushing (82 carries for 232 yards), but earlier this season he did set a school record for consecutive attempts without an interception with 92 over two seasons. Passing this year, he is 33 of 74 for 786 yards, 2 touchdowns and 2 interceptions.

Three times this season--in consecutive victories over Iowa, Oregon State and Colorado State--Aunese has led the Buffaloes to a late, clinching touchdown.

“Under those circumstances, whenever the clock is a factor, he has really performed at a high level,” Colorado Coach Bill McCartney said. “Whenever the pressure is on, it seems like he is at his best.”

Aunese had the chance to lead the Buffaloes to another such victory last Saturday, but a late drive against Oklahoma failed, and the Sooners left with a 17-14 victory. The loss, combined with a 41-21 loss to Oklahoma State two weeks earlier, effectively took the the Buffaloes out of the Big Eight Conference race and a trip to the Orange Bowl. But with a strong finish, and a game remaining at Nebraska, there still is hope for a third bowl berth in the past four seasons.

That is short of the goals Aunese has set for himself and the team but a long way from McCartney’s first three seasons at Colorado, when the Buffaloes were 7-25-1. The turnaround began with the installation of the wishbone, a resulting 7-5 record in 1985 and a trip to the Freedom Bowl.

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That coincided with Aunese’s senior year at Vista, when he led the Panthers to an undefeated season and was named The Times’ All-San Diego Section quarterback. The success made it easier for him to select Colorado over Nebraska.

“I wanted to come out here and be part of building Colorado into the top-20 echelon of teams,” Aunese said. “Besides, I liked the overall surroundings. I didn’t see anything in Lincoln as pretty as these mountains.”

Once he made his decision, Aunese faced another hurdle. His was the first freshman class to come under new NCAA eligibility rules. Aunese said he had the necessary grade-point average to play as a freshman, but he failed to obtain the minimum Scholastic Attitude Test score. The result was the loss of his freshman season and exclusion from practice and other team activities during his first year on campus.

“When the score came in the mail, I must have added it four or five times to be sure it was right,” Aunese said. “I was like numb after that, knowing I couldn’t play. But it really didn’t hit me until the season started.”

Aunese spent many an afternoon forlornly peeking through the gates of Folsom Field, watching his teammates practice below. His only consolation was that he was not alone. Two other Colorado freshmen, including defensive tackle Okland Salavea of Oceanside, were caught in the penalties of the new rule. Their shared plight and common Samoan background helped Aunese and Salavea form a friendship that eased them through a difficult freshman year.

“If Sal had to come in here on his own or Okland on his own, I don’t know how well they would have handled it,” McCartney said.

Still, there were many times when Aunese thought about exchanging the snowy winters of Colorado to return to Vista.

“I wasn’t playing football, so it was just go to class, study and then to my room to hang out,” Aunese said. “I wanted to go home all the time.”

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But Aunese stuck it out despite missing his summer at home when he had to remain in Boulder to make up a physical education course he failed. When Aunese finally reported for practice in August 1987, it had been nearly 2 years since he had played in a football game. His development was quick. After rushing for 185 yards in relief of injured senior quarterback Mark Hatcher in a 26-17 victory over Washington State, he took over as the starter the next week against Colorado State. He passed for 139 and rushed for 83 yards in a 29-16 victory and has been the starter ever since.

His starting spot relatively secure, Aunese was looking forward to learning the new offense in the spring. That was until McCartney suspended him for the entire spring practice after his arrest. It was not until he had a strong preseason camp that Aunese was assured of his old job.

“He really could have lost his job,” McCartney said. “It was a case of Sal coming from behind, which is something he has had to do repeatedly here.”

The fallout from his troubled spring appears behind him now. He has served his time, but the lessons he learned during those 2 weeks about himself and others remain.

“I went in to do my own time, not worrying about other people,” Aunese said. “But I started to sympathize with the other people in there. Some want to come out and change their life style. Others want to stay. They say jail is the best place for them. They don’t have to work, and they get free meals every day. As for me, I wanted to get out of there from the minute I got in.”

Aunese said his time in jail influenced him to plan a major in sociology, with an emphasis in criminology.

“I’d like to help people so that they don’t get into the trouble I did, which was really stupid,” Aunese said.

The experience also emphasized to him the value of earning a college degree. The youngest of seven brothers and sisters, Aunese said he does not want to repeat the mistake of his brother, Joe Faraima, a former Kansas State running back who left school without completing his degree.

“I am fully aware of what it is like not to have a degree and the mistake of not getting one when you have the opportunity to get one,” Aunese said.

His time on this scenic campus mixing with students of more affluent backgrounds, Aunese said, has awakened him to the larger world. It has made the lure of a professional football career not so important.

“A lot us come up here with the idea of just playing ball,” Aunese said. “But the more you go through it, a lot of us realize, and I realized, that we’re getting our education paid for. You’re stupid if you don’t take advantage of it.”

The change in Aunese is not lost on those around him.

“We like to think that we learn from our mistakes,” McCartney said. “And this is truly a case where a kid did. He is humble, remorseful, genuinely embarrassed, humiliated and determined not to make a mistake like that again.”


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