Gilpin County football coach Craig Ball comes from a football background and a football family.
Ball grew up in southeast Texas where he played football for Ed Peveto at Orangefield High School. Peveto is in the Southeast Texas Coaches Hall of Fame. In his fourth year as the head coach at Gilpin County, Ball brings a lot of his Texas background to the program.
He likes to say that he’s brought a piece of southeast Texas with him to the mountains of Colorado.
But that isn’t the only thing that he brought. Ball is a family man. Through his time as a high school player in Texas, a college player at Lamar University and a coach at Gilpin County, he has always had his family, specifically his parents, there to support him.
“Once my kids started growing up and getting into school, I started coaching up here,” Ball said. “So (my dad) had been to all of my games as a coach since then.”
His father James loved the games. He was there to watch Craig coach a second grade squad which featured Jack Ball. Jack is James’ grandson and Craig’s son.
This year, Jack and his friends are seniors for the Eagles. Craig calls the plays. Jack executes them. And James watched from the side.
A football family through and through.
That family was struck by tragedy in the third quarter of its 60-50 win over Simla on Sept. 9.
James suffered a heart attack during the game and passed away. He died doing what loved most at the late stage of his life. He was watching his son coach and grandson play.
“(Craig’s) father was a big fan of the team and that’s why he was there,” Gilpin County athletic director Jeff Schuessler said. “He wanted to watch those boys play. That was his thing.”
What played out for Craig was a traumatic series of events. He had gotten word that his mother, Norma, had gotten something stuck in her chest and was choking. Paramedics decided to get her to a hospital so she was transported to St. Anthony’s in Lakewood.
With Norma being James’ primary caregiver, Craig’s wife Dr. Nahanni Freeman assumed the role for the rest of the day. At 87-years-old, the sight of his wife being transported away via an ambulance was scary in its own right for James.
“That part was shocking for my dad,” Craig said.
Craig was informed of the situation, but was not pulled away from the game. Norma was in the hands of medical professionals and the game still needed to be played.
At the beginning of the third quarter, the Eagles had intercepted a Simla pass in the end zone. On the ensuing play, the ball was given to Jack on a jet sweep. He took the ball 80 yards for a touchdown. Momentum was on Gilpin’s side.
But Craig was told then that another emergency was taking place. He was told that his father had fallen.
Craig turned the offense over to former Gilpin quarterback Chase Boulter.
“He probably knew the plays better than anybody so I handed him the clipboard,” Craig said. “He called the rest of the plays for the rest of the game.”
When Craig got to the area where James had been watching the game, he noticed a crowd of about 15 people, including Gilpin superintendent Dr. David Mackenzie and several members of the local sheriff’s office.
“The paramedics had just gotten there,” Craig recalls. “At first, no one knew exactly what it was and they didn’t inform me right then. It ended up being a heart attack and he had just collapsed and was laying there. By the time I got there, the paramedics were getting to work on him, trying to resuscitate him.”
One thing that really stuck out to him in that moment was the help from the opposing side. A woman that he was only introduced to as Jodi was in the area when James collapsed.
She was doing no less than anyone else around that was trying to provide aid.
She was a total stranger who was just there to watch the game as she had rooting interest for the visiting team.
“We had a lady, and I never found out her full name, but I was introduced to her as Jodi and she had a big Simla sweatshirt on,” Craig said. “She was from Simla and she was there when my dad collapsed and she was helping.”
Even in times when life and football can be intertwined, this was a reminder that regardless of stakes, life always takes the upper hand.
During the unfolding event, Schuessler could see from his vantage point that there was yet another emergency situation. He had watched the ambulance leave with Craig’s mother, but had no idea what was going on with this second issue.
“I didn’t know that it was Craig’s dad,” Schuessler said. “I had no idea. I just kept announcing because I didn’t know exactly what was going on, I just knew we had sheriff personnel and medical personnel taking care of the situation.”
By the start of the fourth quarter, James Ball had passed away.
“As a head coach, you certainly have a lot of commitment to your team,” Craig said. “And my dad would understand if I was to still be interested in my game throughout the whole process. It’s very difficult to not hear the cheers one way or another. It ended up being a shootout at the end.”
But this was family.
Craig sent word that Jack needed to come off the field.
“He had rushed for 133 yards and he didn’t play the fourth,” Craig said. “He came down to see his granddad and say goodbye.”
The Ball family made its way down to St. Anthony’s. Norma was still being evaluated and had no knowledge of the events that had taken place when she had left the field.
Word had gotten to Craig’s assistant coaches, and therefore the team, of what had happened. Jack, Nahanni and Craig’s other son Aiden were all on-site.
Now, they had to get to the hospital and break the news to Norma and Olivia, Craig’s daughter.
“It was very emotional,” Craig said. “My mom, at first, didn’t really want to believe it. She had been his caretaker for so long and they had been married for 53 years. The idea that she wouldn’t be there when he died had never been thought of.”
To say it was a shocking day for Craig and his family would be an understatement. The following Monday, he began the process of making funeral arrangements. He took the day off from school, but returned for practice.
He has a built-in support system in the form of 21 kids that he spends time with each and every day.
And in the midst of such tragedy, Craig never lost sight of the fact that James loved those boys just as much.
Austin Boulter is Craig’s Godson. He also knew James his entire life. He ran for an inspired 328 yards in the win over Simla.
Craig got word that when everything happened, it was Manny Gomez who assumed a leadership role on the field and kept the team together.
This wasn’t just Coach Ball who lost someone. The program as a whole lost a member of its family.
“Football gives you some strength in those times,” Craig said. “You don’t have to be blood to be family and that football team is my family.”