It’s impossible to miss the fondness in the voices of alums who want to keep the Chico State football program’s memory alive. They breathe life into it with their words, guarding its legacy through storytelling and reminiscing.
In the 1940s, the practice field was where current students would find Shasta and Lassen Halls. Former players still recall one player folding his leather helmet in half after practice, sticking it in his back pocket, and walking to class. In time, the field relocated to University Stadium, where some students could even watch games from the high rise of Whitney Hall’s west-facing windows.
The 1996 team had the distinction of paying its own way as University funding dried up— and being the last Wildcat team to tackle, snag interceptions, and score touchdowns before the program’s end the following year.
Filling those decades are countless stories, from campus life and road trips to games and practice. Teammates flirted from the team bus with two women following in a Fiat convertible all the way up the interstate to play Simon Fraser University in Vancouver. Players picked up bouncer jobs at Madison Bear Garden to pay $200-a-month off-campus rent.
It’s been 20 years since the final whistle blew for the Chico State football program. The mission of a growing and increasingly organized group of Wildcat football alumni is simple: to preserve the dignity, history, and—they dare say it—hope for the program.
The Wildcat Football Alumni Association is realistic about Chico State football’s chances of returning. Countless calls to reinstate the program over the years have been fruitless, and it’s overwhelmingly unlikely it will ever return. But its legacy can still advance.
“I would have never gotten the taste for football if it wasn’t for Chico State,” said former running back and 1998 Chico State Hall of Fame inductee Don Carlsen (BS, Accounting, ’69), a well-regarded NFL official for 24 years. “Some of my favorite memories are beating up my very best friends in practice.”
Those memories take the field each year during an annual Chico reunion for players and coaches. Organized chiefly by former outside linebacker Carlos Jacobo (Attended, ’76), with help from former wide receiver Paul Lema (BA, Physical Education, ’76; Credential, ’94), the 2017 alumni reunion saw more than 150 players make the June trip back to Chico—or, for the many who have adopted the City of Trees as their home ever since strapping on pads under cardinal and white uniforms, a quick jaunt down to the Oasis, a south campus watering hole.
Grouping naturally into generational pods, they toured their former locker rooms, posed for photos with the original scoreboard, and toted around the oversized Victory Ax, a commemorative trophy Chico State created to memorialize the tradition of holding the original, even larger piece of hardware after victories over rivals Humboldt State.
Many wore custom-ordered jerseys with their old numbers on them— the easiest way to make sure they fit. Regardless of the era they played in, the familiar thread during eight years of meetups has been a sense of fraternity, the sense of belonging.
More than 20 years after the end of football at Chico State, alumni players still get together every year to keep the program’s history alive.
“It really is a family,” Jacobo said. “We all experienced the two-a-days in 109-degree heat. We all lived the same stories. Most of the guys in this group will tell you that the stories are the No. 1 thing we get from each other.”
The original group was a handful of former Wildcats—six or seven who had met at an informal Chico reunion run by former coach Pete Riehlman. Eventually, additional players connected. When they found Facebook, the group found pay dirt.
“Originally, it was just wanting to get together with our old buddies, getting a cold beer and a Bear burger, and visiting all our old haunts,” said Jacobo. “But as it keeps growing every year, we realize we have the potential to do a lot more than that.”
The group is in the early stages of funding and shaping a scholarship committee to award funds to the children of football alums.
Setting up the scholarship separately from the University’s financial aid system allows for flexibility to support Wildcat family regardless of where members pursue an education.
No athletic scholarships existed for these former players. Most paid their own way, some got help from their families, and others relied on student loans. Now, as many have college-aged children, they recognize the increased difficulty of funding an education and see a scholarship as a perfect way to extend the program’s impact on campus.
“We love the history we have,” Lema said, “but one of the things we can actually do for the future of Chico State football is this scholarship.”
The program would be 93 years old now. Some alumni are nearing that mark themselves. And many ambassadors of the team’s proud history have already passed on, taking their memories and stories with them, Jacobo said, noting that Riehlman, one of the program’s most successful coaches who led the Wildcats from 1968–73, died in 2013.
“That’s a big reason we continue this,” Jacobo said. “I’m 61 now. I’m in that range where, well, things can happen. … We want to continue it like a legacy even after we’re long gone.”
Today, the group has more than 150 members, many of whom say they could not have pointed out Chico on a map before they came to play football. But now—30, 40, 50 years later—they’ve built families, careers, and lives that remain inextricably connected to the community and one another. The starting point for it all? Wildcat football.
“I came here as a 20-year-old kid,” Jacobo said, “and every year when I come back to Chico, it feels like home.”
Anyone interested in connecting with the group or supporting the scholarship should email firstname.lastname@example.org. This story first appeared in Chico Statements.