WHEN TRAGEDY HITS : Death of Aunese Gives Colorado New Perspective

Times Staff Writer

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.

Both Hagan, a 5-foot-10, 185-pound sophomore from Locke High School in Los Angeles, and Bieniemy, a 5-6, 195-pound junior from Bishop Amat High in La Puente, were close to Aunese and say his influence has helped them play better. They speak emotionally about Aunese's impact on the team. Before his death, Aunese attended the Buffaloes' first three home games and many practices.

Aunese, buried Monday in a private service in Oceanside attended by some Buffalo players, still lives inside their minds.

"I feel him throughout my body," Bieniemy said. "You're tired and you want to give up and you think, 'Sal wouldn't have given up.' He's with us still. Even when he was laid up in the hospital bed, he still fought. So, we have to fight.

"To me, it really didn't hit me until that morning that he had stomach cancer and was going to die. I mean, I'd seen Sal and it seemed like he was getting better and better and that he'd be all right. Then, it hit me and hurt me. I had been denying it. I've shed a lot of tears. The whole team has. It was a hard experience.

"But Sal would've wanted us to go on. He didn't lose the battle; he actually won it. He lived through a struggle and now he doesn't have to worry about his life ever again."

Although it is not unusual for a team to deal with tragedy by transposing it into life-affirming goals such as a conference championship, Colorado players seem fervent in their quest and are not likely to forget their motives as time passes.

Hagan keeps photographs of Aunese, whom he considered a big-brother figure, attached to his locker and on a wall at his dormitory room. It preserves Aunese in Hagan's memory.

"I do it just to keep thinking about him," Hagan said. "In practice, I'll find myself lagging and bitching and stuff and I think about him. He was just fighting to live. I'm just fighting to get practice over with.

"If I forget him, it'll be a knock to me because he helped me. I didn't know the offense at all, and he tutored me and monitored me, and I'm grateful for that."

Hagan, perhaps more than any other Buffalo, feels pressure in carrying on after Aunese's death.

Last season, as a freshman, Hagan was Aunese's backup. He played fewer than 100 downs for the Buffaloes, who finished 8-4. But by the time of Colorado's season-ending appearance in the Freedom Bowl, Hagan was challenging Aunese for the starting spot.

The Freedom Bowl was not memorable for either Hagan or Aunese. When Aunese proved ineffective, McCartney brought in Hagan, hoping to jump-start the offense. Instead, it stalled for good. Hagan gained 10 yards in six carries and was intercepted, which set up Brigham Young's game-winning field goal.

Over spring break, Aunese still was first string in the mind and depth charts of Colorado's coaching staff. But Hagan, despite his failure in the Freedom Bowl, figured to compete with Aunese for the starting spot. So distraught was Hagan over his bowl performance, however, that he told coaches he wanted to switch to wingback or tailback and let Aunese handle quarterback for good.

"I cost us that game," Hagan said, shrugging. "The offense wasn't moving the ball, so they brought me in to try to bring the team back. I tried to do things I shouldn't. I had a lot of friends there (in Anaheim).

"After the game, I talked to coach (Gary) Barnett (the quarterback coach) about it. I told him, 'I don't want to play quarterback no more. I can't read defenses.' He told me to go home in spring and think about it. So, I go home, and then I get the call."

That phone call was from Barnett, informing Hagan of Aunese's cancer. Sal, obviously, would not be able to play. Sal, in fact, would have to fight for his life.

Barnett remembers that, during that phone conversation, Hagan reacted first with silence, followed by disbelief and then a sense of purpose.

"Somebody's got to step up, and it's gonna be me," Hagan told Barnett before hanging up.

Hagan had known Aunese only for a year, but he said they were close. Hagan said he felt responsibility to at least try to become the leader Aunese had been.

"I just kind of was handed this position," Hagan said. "I mean, this is his position. So, I have to handle it the way he did. He was first string and his backup was up and coming. Some quarterbacks wouldn't even help (a backup). It would be like, 'Let him find out for himself.' But Sal wasn't like that. He was a total team person, and he wanted to do what was best for the team."

Barnett, however, recently told the Boulder Daily Camera: "The only thing I'm asking of (Hagan) is that he doesn't try to be Sal."

A few weeks ago, in a rout of Colorado State, Hagan pitched the ball to Bieniemy over the head of an onrushing defender. Bieniemy ran 44 yards for a touchdown. Hagan said he had gotten the idea from Aunese.

"I'd seen Sal do it last year against Oregon State, and I always wanted to do it," Hagan said. "I just practiced and practiced it. I just made it happen. I didn't even have to pitch like that. I always wanted to do it."

Hagan has been touched by death before. It happened twice while he was at Locke, in South-Central Los Angeles. As a junior, Hagan's grandfather died of lung cancer. Also, Tushan Wilson, a friend, was beaten to death near Locke in an incident believed to be gang-related.

When Hagan had to write a paper on deviant behavior for a Colorado sociology class as a freshman, he simply recounted that incident. He said the paper received an A grade.

"The gangs killed him, but he wasn't in a gang," Hagan said of his friend. "I was supposed to meet him, but he found a girl before he found me. He was walking with the girl, and they jumped on him. And he lost his life.

"My grandfather died my junior year of high school. That was hard at the time. But when I thought about Sal, his (death) is worse. My grandfather was about 60 and had lived a long time. Sal was starting out. Sal hadn't lived half his life yet."

Back in Los Angeles over the summer, Hagan said he often thought about why things had unfolded the way they did. But he embarked on a training regimen in which he lost 13 pounds, improving his agility, and worked on his then-deficient passing with friends.

Hagan said he also wanted to spend time with his son and the child's mother, Pier Johnson, and receive support from his own mother and aunt and uncle before returning to Boulder for his sophomore year.

He returned, by most accounts, more mature and confident. Mostly, Hagan has coped well with his role as on-field leader. Not that it has been easy. Before the Illinois game as few weeks ago, Hagan was so nervous he had to lie on the locker-room floor and take medicine to calm his stomach.

"I was just a little too anxious and dizzy that game," Hagan said. "There was no problem once the game started."

Said Bieniemy: "Darian has to go out there and perform as well as Sal did. He has to get the leadership role. Whenever Sal came into the huddle, you knew it was time to get the job done. He was like a general leading a platoon out here. Darian is developing that, too. They are different people, and I don't like to compare them. They have different qualities. Sal actually taught Darian the ropes, how to do things."

Bieniemy shared the same backfield with Aunese. Both players also experienced problems with the law, the result of what Bieniemy and other black players at Colorado believe is a racist atmosphere in Boulder.

Aunese, of Samoan descent, was jailed in 1988 for breaking into a dormitory room while trying to find a student who yelled a racial slur from a third-story dorm window. As a freshman, Bieniemy had been involved in a fight in a local bar after a white student called him a name.

Bieniemy said he was so ostracized by many on campus during his freshman and sophomore years that he considered transferring.

Instead, Bieniemy's parents moved to nearby Aurora to be closer to their son. Bieniemy said his parents left West Covina and found jobs on their own in the Denver area so they could watch their son play. Maybe, too, they wanted to keep an eye on him.

"It was basically my fault, my immaturity," Bieniemy says of the incident. "I could have easily walked away from it. I was called a racial slur. But I could've just walked away from it. I had more to lose than him. I've learned from experience. It's happened a few times since then, but I've walked away.

"I felt like I was in a world of my own. Coming from a big city, you know, West Covina, the L.A. area, you have every (ethnic and racial group represented). But here, it's predominantly a white world. It basically was a culture shock. You don't know how to react to it. I reacted the wrong way. Instead of looking at all the positives I had to achieve (in football and school), I looked at all the negatives."

Bieniemy and Hagan said they still encounter prejudice on campus.

Hagan said he views the arrests of Aunese and Bieniemy and a few other former and current Buffalo players as racially motivated.

"Where I lived, (people) were 99% black," Hagan said. "In California, you are used to being called nigger. But you are used to being called a nigger by a black person who is joking around. But when you bump into somebody here, they say, ' . . . you, nigger.' I guess because they are the majority, they have the right to say that."

Yet, Bieniemy has chosen to stay at Colorado, mainly because of football. As a sophomore last season, Bieniemy was the first Buffalo in 11 seasons to rush for more than 1,000 yards.

Because of his short, stocky build, Bieniemy has been compared to former Oklahoma State tailback Barry Sanders, who won the Heisman Trophy last season. Bieniemy said he prefers to run over defenders, using his strength, rather than run around them. Though Bieniemy can do that, too.

"I love running from tackle to tackle," Bieniemy said. "A lot of guys like sweeps, but I like challenging guys. I like getting up in there and messing with the boys. That's where the game is won. If you can show the big boys you are for real and out there to play with them, that wears them down in the third and fourth quarter."

Bieniemy tied a school record last season by rushing for more than 100 yards seven times. This season, the Buffaloes have a more balanced running attack, with Hagan and Flannigan sharing the workload.

Talk around Colorado is that Bieniemy will have Heisman potential next season, as a senior.

But Bieniemy said: "Everything is happening right now. I can't look ahead to next year."

Besides, a lot can happen in a year. This time last season, Sal Aunese was Colorado's starting quarterback and the team's criminal records had yet to overshadow its Big Eight record.

By the same token, things can change for the better, too. They are trying to prove that now in Boulder.

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