‘Roller’s’ legacy still burns bright
Every small town has its big heroes, but you’d be hard-pressed to find a bigger one smaller than Jeff Rohlwing.Arguably, the greatest player to ever put on the black and gold for the Huskies was a 5-foot-nothing, 100-hundred-something shrimp who wore glasses.The ponytail he grew out in college only made him look more like a water boy or a trainer than a former Colorado high school player of the year.When most people think of Battle Mountain greats, they usually think of Jeff Campbell, the school’s all-time leading rusher who went on to play collegiately at CU and then professionally with the Detroit Lions and the Denver Broncos. If you talk to those who knew both personally, like former Huskies football coach Pat Phelan, you would know that Roller may have been just as good as Campbell, if not better. “I’ve got to be honest with you,” Phelan said. “When Campbell went through Battle Mountain, what are the chances you get another kid like that? But, when Jeff started playing it was apparent that he was another one. I talked to the CU coaches and said, ‘You’re not going to believe this, but we’ve got another one. We swear to you. He’s every bit as fast and he makes some cuts that Campbell couldn’t even make.'”Rohlwing’s career at CU didn’t at all compare to that of Campbell’s, however. He lasted less than a month as a walk-on in the fall of 1993 before he quit the team.It wasn’t that the petite 150-pound Roller wasn’t cut out for DI football. It was that DI football wasn’t exactly cut out for someone like Jeff Rohlwing. In preseason practices as a walk-on, he had the fastest shuttle run on the team – faster than Michael Westbrook and Rae Carruth – but he was disenchanted with the idea of trying to make the roster if it meant giving up a future career in music. The coaches said there was no way he could do both at CU, so he chose the latter and hung up his pads for good.”I quit before the season had started,” Rohlwing said. “It just wasn’t for me. I was fighting home sickness and I just decided not to play football. It really gave me an opportunity to move on with my music career. I had no intention to ever play again.”
Or, so he thought. Somehow, after a year and a half at CU, Rohlwing dropped out and ended up in, off all places, Decorah, Iowa, in the fall of 1995.Someone had convinced him that he should take a look at this small school in Iowa with a nationally-renowned music program, and maybe play a little football too.He checked it out and went, although he wasn’t such an easy sell when it came to getting him back on the gridiron.”It took a little bit of convincing to get him to play,” said Luther assistant coach Roger Jaeger. “He didn’t come with a ball of fire in his belly for football. But, he and (offensive coordinator) Paul Hefty really connected and I think that got him excited about football again.”As a freshman, I met Jeff in the fall of 1999 at Luther.I’d told everyone I was from Colorado, and the veteran players on the football team had mentioned that the best returning player was from Colorado, too. Jeff was supposedly such a great running back that everyone called him, “The Franchise.” They talked about how he had walked on at CU. They talked about how he could make something out of nothing with the football, even when everyone knew to whom the ball was going. A move here, a stutter there and Roller would be gone, they said. When Roller came to shake my hand, however, wearing a ratty tee shirt, cut off jean shorts and sandals with his ponytail tied behind his ears, I couldn’t help but smirk.This was the great Jeff Rohlwing? The Barry Sanders of Division III? The Franchise?I asked him how his summer training had gone, and he said that he had spent the summer traveling around with his guitar playing music.There was no way, I thought, that this guy was really as good as everyone said he was.
Couldn’t be that good. Couldn’t be that shifty, that fast.And, when we got out on the field for two-a-day practices, I learned real quick that Roller wasn’t actually as good as advertised.He was better. I never got to see him in action for more than those two weeks of preseason practice that year. The NCAA turned down his request for another year of eligibility in that fall after a knee surgery cut short his supposed last year in 1998. I didn’t need any more than that, though, to grasp how gifted he was. He was that good.”He was probably the most gifted athlete that I’ve ever been around,” said former Battle Mountain coach Bob Isbell. “He was tough as nails. I only saw him get hit really hard maybe once, but he was physically very tough, and mentally very tough.”The Roller that Isbell remembers from his Battle Mountain days wasn’t just a great football player, either. “You look at his talents and it’s incredible,” said Isbell. “All-state band, all-state choir, most valuable player in 2A football in the state of Colorado. One-hundred, 200-, 400-meter champion in track. The kid could do everything.””This is the honest to God truth,” said Hefty, who is now Luther’s head coach. “On his very first play at Luther, we run a little toss play to him and he goes 76 yards for a touchdown. And we didn’t block anybody. He just came trotting back to the sideline like it was nothing, like ‘Yep, that’s what we do.'”He also shined in hockey and basketball growing up in the valley and starred in plays for the drama department at Battle Mountain.The only thing that Roller couldn’t do and can’t do still to this day is heap praise on himself. He is also incapable of looking back and wondering what could have been.
He might have been a star at CU. He might have been able to play professionally. He might have eclipsed the all-time rushing record at Luther if he had been able to play out his final season. “Might have” has never cut it for Jeff Rohlwing, however.”I just have always felt blessed that God gave me the ability to do the things I loved,” he said. “I’ve always had faith that God had a path for me. Sometimes, I didn’t understand it, like when I didn’t get that last year at Luther, but I knew it was time to move on and do something else with my life.”These days Rohlwing lives in Arizona, but travels the country most of the time to share his music with others. He comes back to the valley two or three times a year to play at his dad’s church in Edwards, and sometimes stops in for a performance at the high school. Other than those teachers who knew him when he was a Husky, Rohlwing’s high school audience would never guess that the guy with the ponytail was quite possibly the greatest athlete to ever play for its school.Surely, Roller wouldn’t tell them himself.Unlike some small town high school heroes, Jeff Rohlwing hasn’t defined his life by dwelling on his past glories. He’s just continued to roll on like he always has – a shining talent with a flame that never seems to go out. Contact Nate Peterson at 949-0555, ext. 608, or via e-mail at email@example.com