By Leslie McCarthy
Senior News Director, Washington University in St. Louis
For a handful of seniors on the Washington University in St. Louis Bears football team, the 2014 season unofficially began with a 2,539-yard drive at 5 a.m. Mountain Time July 26.
That's when head coach Larry Kindbom stood at a trailhead in Manitou Springs, Colo. — 12.6 miles and 7,615 feet from the summit of Pikes Peak — not knowing exactly which team members, if any, would show up.
Twelve of them did. Nearly nine hours later, with rain falling and the players exhausted, cold and hungry, the contingent stood next to the iconic "Summit Pikes Peak" sign, smiling.
"We made it to the top right as a storm hit," said senior defensive back and team captain Ryan Bednar. "We all gave each other a hug, took a photo, went inside and had donuts and Gatorade. Then we got on the train to go back down. Some people on the train were like, 'Where'd you guys come from?'
"We said, 'We walked up here.'"
"We walked" was a bit of an understatement. The nine-hour hike was as much team-building exercise as personal challenge for the 12 young men who face not only a tough upcoming football schedule, but MCATs, LSATs, career decisions and life beyond college and a Division III football program.
The climb has become an annual summer ritual for the Bears and Kindbom, who first tackled the peak with his son a decade or so ago. So Kindbom decided it might be a good optional exercise for his football team, particularly the seniors, who not only will be assuming leadership positions, but also making important life decisions.
So he gives the seniors a time and date – typically the last Saturday in July – then lets it happen on its own.
"Two years ago, nobody showed up, and I was OK with that," Kindbom said. "I hiked it anyway, because what's good for them is also good for me. "
This year, 12 players made the trip, including Bednar and fellow defensive backs Patrick Cantwell, Cody Deterding, Joe Quinlan and Chris Seager; wide receiver Tim Bartholomew; quarterback Alex Hodakowski; linebacker Ryan Rees; offensive linemen Connor Meneough and Will Thompson; tight end Chris Levine, and senior Kevin Kosiewicz, a three-year letterman who will be helping coach this year. Raymond Phillip, a friend of Quinlan's, also joined the group, as did former Bear soccer standout Garrett Gregg.
"It's a difficult hike," Kindbom said, "and there's a point where you just want to quit but have to work your way through it. If you didn't have someone else with you, it would be real easy to turn around and walk back down. So a lot of great learning occurs in an experience like that, and you can't plan what's going to happen. You can't control the weather. You can't control how people are going to react to altitude sickness or cramps or getting tired.
"It's an assemblage of people trying to accomplish something together, and I don't have to sit there and deliver bits and pieces of wisdom or pump them up or calm them down. The mountain takes care of itself."
Along the way, the players and Kindbom talk about their summer internships and future plans – and maybe football creeps into the conversation from time to time.
"When we're on the trail, we can see the top of the mountain," Kindbom said. "But we don't know if we can make it just because we know it's there. That comes back to football.
"A lot of things have to happen to win a championship," he said. "Someone could get hurt, someone could quit, so all you can do is go about things day-to-day. There's a reason why I'm taking these things one step at a time."
It's a lesson the players take to heart.
"On the mountain, everyone knew that the end goal was the summit, but as the climb got increasingly difficult, it became ever more important to focus on each next step rather than the end goal," Thompson said. "This translates to the season because we'll never have the success we want to achieve this year as a team if we don't put all of our focus on our opponent week-to-week."
Kindbom said – and Bednar and Thompson agreed – that the toughest part of the hike was the end, above the tree line, when they were just about a half-mile from the summit and a storm was brewing.
"Guys were aware of the weather," Kindbom said. "But once they're above the tree line and the air is thin, it's really tough. How lifelike is that, though, when you're finally getting near your goal, and you can see it, but you know that's the toughest part?"
"I struggled," Bednar said. "Early in the hike, some of the bigger guys were struggling. But the last half-mile, it was me. I stopped drinking water. We could see a storm coming, the temperature dropped to about 40 degrees, we were starting to get thunder and lightning.
"So we're all walking in the line, and my teammates are pumping me up. We'd walk about 100 yards, take a break, walk another 100 yards, take a break. We knew we were going to make it, but we were just taking one step at a time."
And they made it. Once they got to the top, Kindbom made sure the lessons didn't stop there.
"One thing I've always tried to do with goals is to get people to reflect and say 'OK, I've accomplished my goal. Now what did it take to get me there?" he said. "Here's a perfect example of looking back and seeing what it took. It looks every bit as steep up top as it does from the bottom looking up."
But Kindbom said there's nothing like reaching the top. "The greatest thing is the look the players have as they're peering out over the horizon," he said. "They're not going to roll around on the ground like they just won a football game, because they're exhausted. But they're happy.
"Anybody can drive or take a train up there," he said. "It's when they're looking into their buddies' eyes and without saying a word they're telling each other, 'We made it!' You can't manufacture that.
"But when it's all said and done, it's just a bunch of guys trying to climb a mountain," Kindbom said. "That is what Bears football is all about."