Before 1949, Fort Lewis had never sent a football team to postseason play. That year’s squad didn’t look like it would turn those fortunes around, either.
The Fort Lewis A&M Aggies, as the team was then known, lost two close games early that season. Then the team gelled, and the Aggies won six of their next seven contests. They claimed the school’s first conference championship and earned a berth in the Junior College Rose Bowl in Tyler, Texas—the school’s first-ever bowl bid.
“The forty-nine team was an unbelievable team,” says Ed Rifilato, the head coach of the current-day Skyhawks.
That legendary season’s success lasted just one autumn. Yet these teammates still share pride in their footballing feats—and their longevity is even more amazing than their on-field triumphs. The team has reunited nearly every year since 1959 to reminisce about their glory days in college.
Instead of donning jerseys and leather helmets, the remaining members of the ’49 Aggies now huddle over Italian food at Dino’s Restaurant in Lakewood, Colorado. This past June, seven teammates made it for their reunion lunch. “This is it,” Aggies’ left half Bill Gillin says. “Right here. We lost three this year.”
And what part of their biggest game do they recall most vividly?
“It rained,” Aggies fullback Glenn Clayton says.
“Like crazy,” left half Bill Gillin chimes in. “Billy [quarterback Bill Mullane] couldn’t find any of the receivers out there.”
In the end, Tyler College swamped the Aggies 40-0. But that score cannot drown the special place the team holds in FLC’s athletic history. It certainly hasn’t stopped these Aggies from carrying the game into overtime for nearly seven decades.
These fellows recognize, with bottomless good humor, that their time together is limited. So this year, they brought their scrapbooks and their stories to share their memories of Four Corners college life from 67 years ago.
At that time, FLC had not yet moved to Durango. The campus was still at the old Fort Lewis military site in Hesperus, and the country living was a bit of a shock for the “Denver Boys,” as many of these Front Range recruits were known. But the campus still charmed them.
“It was beautiful out there at Hesperus,” Gillin says.
“Look out your window from the classroom and there’d be sheep coming up the road,” recalls John Mullane, who played offensive and defensive end.
But these footballers didn’t want to spend all their time at the rural A&M campus, of course. Durango, then a smaller town than it is today, was still the nearest center of activity, and the young men were drawn to it like moths to stadium lights.
On Friday nights, they played their games in town. The bulk of the team’s fans lived in Durango, and the Aggies played at the La Plata County Fairgrounds. But when they didn’t have home games scheduled, and when they weren’t traveling, the team still wanted to go down the hill every weekend.
They had just one major roadblock to recreation: Durango was 16 miles away, and very few of the players owned cars.
“We’d hitchhike,” center Fred “Mighty Mite” Sabell says. “All the guys in cars up in the mountains knew we were on the football team at Fort Lewis, and they’d take us into Durango. We’d go to movies. And—” he says, grinning a young man’s grin “—and try to hustle a gal.”
Dusty Saunders, who played basketball and served as the football team’s waterboy, remembers warm welcomes from the city dwellers. “They really liked the Fort Lewis guys,” he says. “Now the high school guys didn’t particularly like us. But the townspeople of Durango really enjoyed us.”
Getting down the hill and into Durango on a Friday evening was a feat in and of itself. But getting home was a different story altogether. Some of these Aggies’ fondest memories stem from those weekend adventures when they were stranded in town.
Saunders recalls sleeping on the couches in the Strater Hotel lobby downtown. The ever-vague “somebody with a car” was always instructed to swing by the Strater in the morning, he says, “To make sure there were not any leftovers.”
Some of the guys clearly weren’t satisfied with a night on the town; they wanted the whole weekend. Sabell and his backup at center, John Palmieri, found a creative way to earn their room and board.
“There was a gal named Shoemaker,” Sabell says. “She had a cleaning shop. She loved football. She had an upstairs with three beds. She let all the Fort Lewis football team go up there and sleep if they wanted to on weekends.”
But Palmieri remembers the catch that came with that lodging. “She made us go to church in the morning,” he recounts. “She says, you gotta get up at such-and-such a time and go to mass. After mass, you come back and I’ll feed you.”
Despite the non-academic nature of many of their tales, it is clear that football afforded the members of the ’49 team a college education and launched them into adulthood. And it’s equally clear that the stories of in-town shenanigans, the football triumphs, and even their soggy Junior College Rose Bowl drubbing bonded these teammates for the rest of their lives.
Simply put, “We didn’t have very much, and we were always together,” Palmieri says.
“It was one of the most memorable years of my life,” Saunders says. “Seriously.”