BOULDER – As the party on Folsom Field raged around him, Buffs linebacker Josh Chandler-Semedo plopped his weary butt down in the grass at the five-yard line and soaked in the happy mayhem.
Dancing with joy, CU students belted out the words to “Sweet Caroline.” Athletic director Rick George tried to hug all 10,000 fans who stormed the field. Parents of long-suffering players dabbed away tears of pride and relief.
Smile, Ralphie! The losing streak is over.
Chandler-Semedo had the best seat in the house for the celebration. His CU helmet off, legs outstretched, weight resting on sturdy hands, the 22-year-old linebacker looked across the field and saw the scoreboard bearing good news a long time coming:
CU 20, California 13.
“The monkey is finally off our backs,” a grinning Chandler-Semedo told me Saturday, as he peered up from his seat in the grass.
Colorado didn’t mind working overtime to get the victory, because the Buffs ain’t the only winless major college football team in America anymore.
Storm the field to party with a 1-5 team? Darn skippy. The only way to find your joy is to chase it. When life makes you want to quit, you celebrate every little victory like there’s no tomorrow.
“I’ve had what I would call dreams or whatever. I actually dreamt specifically about the student section rushing the field. And I really believed it. I know it sounds crazy …” said interim CU head coach Mike Sanford, confessing to being startled from sleep last week with visions of the Buffs beating the Bears.
“I’m obviously not saying I’m a prophet, but there were just a lot of visions of guys making plays, and I told the players about that. That wasn’t just a motivational tactic. I saw that.”
Heck, if all it took was a powerful vision for the Buffs to win a dang football game, why didn’t Mr. Sanford give us all two puffs of whatever he’s smoking a lot earlier?
In reality, CU looked nothing like the No. 1 team in the Bottom Ten and beat the Bears for a myriad of football reasons.
Let’s start with a ferocious defense led by Chandler-Semedo, whose nine tackles included a quarterback sack and three gob-smacking hits behind the line of scrimmage.
When Cal got final possession of the football in overtime, trailing by a touchdown, Chandler-Semedo had a vision of his own. The Bears could warm up the team bus and hit the showers, because “the game was over; they weren’t getting in the end zone,” he said.
Since the dismissal of coach Karl Dorrell, the Buffs can boast of being undefeated, in no small measure because they gathered bravely and compassionately at midfield to rally around running back Deion Smith when he went down with a scary-looking injury in the second half.
As ridiculously impossible as the dream might seem, CU is still in the hunt for bowl eligibility because receiver Montana Lemonious-Craig gave the performance of his life, making eight catches for 119 yards.
His best grab was a 25-yard touchdown from J.T. Shrout in overtime so sensational that a disbelieving judge initially ruled it an incomplete pass before all 50,471 fans in the stadium pointed to replays on video boards and shamed the officiating crew into changing the call.
“I knew I was in on the touchdown,” Lemonious-Craig said. “I got up and told the ref: ‘Come on, give it to me, please.’ He didn’t. But we reviewed it and they gave me the touchdown.”
But maybe the secret sauce in this victory has nothing to do with X’s and O’s.
When Sanford was given the unenviable task of replacing Dorrell back on Oct. 2, he made the bold choice to make Job No. 1 pumping up a deflated football team with joy.
“The word joy … probably isn’t the most football-centric term. It doesn’t really equate to hard hits and tackles for losses and passing touchdowns, but we established it on the first day that we met. And we said … our culture is going to be defined as joy,” said Sanford, whose resume includes stops at Stanford and Notre Dame as an assistant.
But he also knows how cruel this game can be. Sanford got bounced as head coach at Western Kentucky in 2018 after compiling a 9-16 record in two seasons.
Losing football can beat down a man, body and soul.
“Joy is something that is completely independent of your circumstances,” Sanford said. “It’s how you wake up every single morning.”
From his seat in the Folsom Field grass, Chandler-Semedo could see the scoreboard shouting: Buffs 20, Bears 13.
But sometimes you’ve got to read between the lines.
“It did get a little gray,” said Chandler-Semedo, acknowledging that doubt crept in during CU’s losing streak.
A loser laments there can be no happiness without victory.
A winner understands that joy in the fight is the mother of victory.