FORT COLLINS, Colo. — Jay Norvell’s office decor is a long and eclectic essay, with many pictures inspiring stories of many words when Colorado State’s football coach gets on a roll. There’s a photo of the original “Magnificent Seven” signed by Charles Bronson and others. There’s a shot of Muhammad Ali laughing with Norvell’s parents in the late 1960s. A head-and-shoulders cardboard cutout of his former college coach, Hayden Fry, leans against the north wall.
Above that keepsake hangs a shot of a football team on a hilltop. And above the team is a word emblematic of one of the most interesting groups in college football.
A Netflix documentary introduced Norvell to the term, invoked often by former South African president and Nobel Peace Prize winner Nelson Mandela. It means, essentially, that one cannot be their best without helping someone else be their best. “It’s just a sense of community,” Norvell explains.
On Saturday, Colorado State faces Deion Sanders’ Colorado, the sport’s incandescent disco ball, an in-state rival no one can look away from. The Rams, meanwhile, exist in a different space but push the bounds of creativity in their own fascinating way. A sizable rebuild has inspired an open-minded coaching staff to cast a net for talent that spans the globe, and the result is a kaleidoscope of a roster, built on the benefits of diverse life experience.
An Arnold Amateur Strongman champion, a sumo wrestler, two tribesmen, an openly gay defensive lineman, a 30-something father of three and so much more: Meet college football’s other most interesting team from the Centennial State.
“We have the whole world,” Norvell says, “to find guys that fit what we’re looking for.”
When his father headed to 24 Hour Fitness and loaded 600 pounds onto a bench press bar, Ethen Erickson reacted as many children would: He wanted to do that, too. His dad, a former Navy football player built like a Moai statue, denied the request and sent him to the machines. When Erickson finally got permission to use free weights, he started by bench-pressing just the bar. But genetics are genetics. Soon, there were 225 pounds in Erickson’s hands, and up and down it went.
He was 11 years old.
“When I was 14, I told my Dad I wanted to start deadlifting,” Erickson says. “So I put 500 pounds on and just started repping it out.”
Spend time with the Rams’ junior center, and this is what you hear: Myth comes to life. Log-pressing 300-plus pounds the first time he tried. Deadlifting 800 pounds. Eating 8,000 calories a day. Completing a Fatback Farmer’s Walk — 320 pounds per hand, walk 40 feet, deadlift it four times, walk another 40 feet, deadlift it another four times — in 36 seconds.
— Ethen Erickson (@EricksonEthen) May 5, 2023
A knee injury in his first season of junior college football left him with only time and massive amounts of weights on his hands. Someone spied him benching 400 pounds with no spot during that downtime, suggested he try strongman events, and by last March, Erickson was winning the U120 kilogram division in the Arnold Amateur Strongman World Championships. Coincidentally, Colorado State was combing the country last offseason for powerful offensive linemen to bolster its inside run game. “It’s very rare to hear a kid say his favorite player is Lyle Alzado,” Norvell says.
Photos of me in action at the Arnold Strongman World Championship, The day I became the World's Strongest Man at 265 pounds, I am determined to do big things in college for football. #worldsstrongestman #csufootball #Olineman @BillyBestOL @CSUFootball @DNVR_Rams @JuCoFootballACE pic.twitter.com/inUoTt2xs8
— Ethen Erickson (@EricksonEthen) March 26, 2023
The Rams staff coaxed Erickson to campus in January, and he rang the program’s “commitment bell” so hard he broke his finger. Preseason knee surgery limited his ability to crack the lineup, but Erickson has two goals: Make a run at a pro football career, then win the World’s Strongest Man competition.
Erickson’s favorite feat of strength to date? He takes a moment, his Arnold Strongman T-shirt stretched so thin it looks painted on, before choosing his Ukrainian deadlift performance in March. The most he’d ever trained was 585 pounds. The event weight was 685. Erickson pulled seven reps, the most of the competitors in his division. “You walk out on the platform, 10,000-plus people cheering you on, the adrenaline is going, you get lightheaded, there’s blood flying everywhere,” he says. “I would describe the deadlift as seeing a competitor almost willing to die to get a rep. That’s what it looks like if you watch it.”
The sumo wrestler
Hidetora Hanada’s first in-person exposure to American college football, and all its high-speed collisions and scripted brutalities, was Colorado State’s spring game in April. This was a wide-open avenue into the sport, one that was harder to find in Wakayama, Japan. It made him happy, he says now. It made him excited. He’d have to catch up on language and assignments and techniques, but the physicality prompted no second thoughts.
The people crashing into each other, after all, wore more than a loincloth.
“I think sumo is a very crazy sport,” Hanada says, sitting on the steps of a stadium 6,000 miles from home. “No helmet, no shoulder pads. So I wasn’t surprised seeing football.”
Hanada, a 6-foot-1, 280-pound amateur yokozuna and gold medal heavyweight from the 2022 World Games, began sumo wrestling at 7 but watched NFL football as he grew up – his favorite team was the Los Angeles Rams – and craved a chance at the sport. His first official foray was a tryout for Japan’s X League in the spring of 2022. He earned a spot at a CFL Combine last March, and after seeing Hanada’s performance there, a friend reached out to Colorado State defensive line coach Buddha Williams. As the staff evaluated Hanada’s potential, Norvell thought of his college days at Iowa, and how many teammates from that wrestling-crazed state had backgrounds on the mat, and how sumo skills aligned with play in the trenches: Drop your center of gravity, get under someone, and push.
It also helped that Hanada cut a nearly identical physical profile to 6-1, 300-pound Rams defensive line starter Cam Bariteau. “It’s like trying to block a mini-refrigerator,” Norvell says of Hanada. “You just can’t do it. Can’t get underneath him.”
Hidetora Hanada rose to the highest amateur ranks of sumo wrestling back in Japan. He’s taking his skills to the football field as he learns the ropes of being a run stuffer/pass rusher for the Colorado State Rams. pic.twitter.com/qa802QfVJu
— The Associated Press (@AP) August 26, 2023
There is, of course, a lifetime’s worth of football intricacies to learn. Starting with the fact that sumo matches don’t require effort for 60 minutes. “Football is a long time,” Hanada says. His teammates continue to help him learn English – perhaps having a little too much fun teaching him colloquialisms like “Good sh–!” He laments the language and experience barriers limiting his ability to follow assignments – “I can’t do (my) best performance,” Hanada says – but Norvell has seen a payoff from his staff’s gamble.
“He’s farther along than we probably anticipated,” the Rams coach says. “He doesn’t look out of place at all.”
Hanada didn’t see any action in the season-opener, but he only arrived in Colorado in July. Assimilation into a new culture proceeded quickly, though. He’s a fan of cheeseburgers – and had only ever eaten one from McDonald’s. That changed soon upon arrival, with his first trip to Five Guys.
“It’s real tasty,” Hanada says with a wide smile. “It’s my favorite. Much better, definitely.”
South Sudan is the youngest country in the world, having gained independence in 2011 following a civil war that lasted more than two decades. That extended, bloody conflict prompted many citizens to flee the country entirely. Members of the Nuer tribe, one of its largest ethnic groups, typically migrated in large groups comprising multiple families, which meant Nuer people either ended up in the same places or were linked, in some way, to those settling in a different area.
This is how Buom Jock and Nuer Gatkuoth essentially knew each other before they knew each other. “We’re all connected somehow,” says Jock, a true freshman linebacker from Mankato, Minn. “It’s kind of crazy. Some people, you don’t even meet them, and you just know them.”
“Even if we’re not blood-related,” says Gatkuoth, a redshirt freshman defensive end from Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, “we’re all like a family.”
They’re sitting a couple of feet from each other after a preseason practice, just about finishing each other’s sentences. The duo considers themselves brothers and countrymen, their shared Nuer tribe ancestry trumping international borders. They still speak the language and use customary Nuer greetings with each other. (If it were someone from another tribe, they say, they’d probably speak English.) Years ago, they met via a mentor who helped aspiring South Sudanese athletes get visibility on the recruiting trail, instantly recognizing the deeper connection. “I mean, his name is Nuer,” Jock says with a laugh. When Gatkuoth heard Jock’s full first name – Buomkuoth – a similar recognition set in. Their families emigrated to North America about a decade apart, but Jock and Gatkuoth nevertheless were mostly one and the same, given that South Sudanese players with legitimate Division I football prospects are scarce.
Their football origin stories aren’t as complex. Gatkuoth started playing when he was 8 because his mother needed to give him something to do. “Even today, my mom really doesn’t know what football is,” he says. Jock watched older siblings play and simply followed their leads. The idea that football could lead to a free education prompted their families to become very invested in that path. “When they see you can get all this stuff from it,” Jock says, “it’s pretty cool.”
Gatkuoth didn’t believe Jock would end up at Colorado State – Jock’s final four options included Pittsburgh, Boston College and Princeton – but that underestimated Jock’s appreciation for the symbolism of a commitment to the Rams. “Two people from the same tribe, from the same country, playing on the same team, is a really, really big deal,” Jock says. “If we end up both doing good, it’s going to be big.”
They both made their collegiate debuts in the Rams’ season opener against Washington State, recording one tackle apiece. It’s but a start, with a demanding path between bit roles in the Mountain West and pro aspirations; only just in 2022, former Cal linebacker Kuony Deng became the first South Sudanese player to reach the NFL. Extending that line, and inspiring others, is the endgame. “It would mean the world,” Gatkuoth says.
“You obviously feel some type of way when you’re on the field with your family,” Jock says. “When we’re on the field together, it makes me feel like I made my family proud. I made my country really proud.”
The 30-something dad
On a 90-degree Thursday in September, Jordan Noyes trudges to class after lunch like all the other college kids. On the afternoon’s agenda: Global Systems, a writing seminar and Intro to Theater. Quite the variety, Colorado State’s kicker concedes, but he lost a few credits in a transfer from Utah, which precluded him from filling his schedule with at least a couple of online-only, graduate-level courses.
“A 31-year-old going to class,” Noyes deadpans. “Can you believe it?”
Noyes is merely the second-oldest player in all of the Football Bowl Subdivision, with East Carolina punter Luke Larsen edging him out by about a month and a half. Of course, Noyes may be the only 30-something in college football with a wife and three kids and a house in the suburbs about 17 miles from campus, too, not to mention a relatable excitement when he talks about finding a preschool for his 3-year-old daughter.
“It’s like talking to my neighbor,” Norvell says. “It’s not like talking to a college kid.”
There isn’t really a short version of the circumstances that bring a guy who played soccer, rugby and did gymnastics in Kent, England, to a kicking minicamp in Salt Lake City to a preferred walk-on spot with a Division I program and finally to north central Colorado, his family in tow. Never did Noyes consider American football until the day before his wedding, following a suggestion from the husband of his wife’s cousin. Matt Gay, then with Utah and now booting for the Indianapolis Colts, kicked a ball around with Noyes and noticed they had similar form. He suggested Noyes give football a try. He did. Then he appeared in 30 games for Utah, hitting 8 of 12 field goals while primarily handling kickoff duties (145 in all over three seasons).
His arrival at Colorado State was probably the most typical part of the journey. Norvell told special teams coordinator Tommy Perry to find the best available leg in the portal. That was Noyes. “We needed a guy that can score points when we get inside a 35,” Norvell says, “and he could do that.” Noyes, meanwhile, was enamored with Perry’s singular focus on specialists and an approach that includes regular meditation sessions, which Noyes credits for “massively” improving his mental approach.
“Say you have a nervous moment or you weren’t feeling right, you can just stand there and shut your eyes and focus on your breathing,” he says. “You’re focusing on one thing at a time. The up-and-down feeling of your chest falling. So you’re not thinking about a million different things when you’re trying to kick.”
Noyes certainly would be a candidate for an overly cluttered mind, but he and his wife – also named Jordan – have settled into a rhythm. Kicking for Colorado State is, effectively, Noyes’ 9-to-5 job. He leaves for work in the morning and returns at night when the kids go to bed. “I for sure couldn’t do any of this without my wife,” he says, putting that one through the uprights. As for relating to teenagers and 20-somethings in a locker room? Noyes has a very dad-like perspective on that.
“We’re men,” he says. “Do we really grow up?”
Because he wanted every opportunity to continue playing a sport he’d loved since kindergarten, and because no one could be certain how college coaches would accept the idea of an openly gay player, Kennedy McDowell played a character on his first campus visits. He eschewed bright, fashion-forward clothing. He talked, as he describes it now, a “certain kind of way.” Once he committed and arrived at school? He could bloom. He could be himself.
Then he realized he’d rather not go to college if that’s how he had to live to get there. “Of course there was backlash with that,” McDowell says. “Some colleges really didn’t want a gay football player. And I understand that. … It’s a tough sport. Everybody has to be quote-unquote tough. But I was like, I want to be who I am, and I want to inspire other people to be who they are, too.”
Only a few days earlier, the lithe freshman defensive end from Frisco, Texas, stood before the Colorado State operation and thanked everyone in the room.
I do want to take time out of my day to just appreciate Colorado State. This month means a whole lot to me as a person. Words can’t explain how fortunate I am to be surrounded by such great teammates. Happy pride to all!! Always stay true to who you are!!! https://t.co/NbJwrfqGuo
— Kennedy ”Mayhem” McDowell (@MayhemMcDowell) June 2, 2023
As sure as McDowell was that he chose the right place, he’d still been nervous, wondering if the same acceptance he felt from his high school teammates would travel to Division I. He told his new team he’d hoped to make friends in college. And he wound up with a family. “I think we’re all naive to think that there aren’t gay players on football teams all over America, or in basketball, or any other sport,” Norvell says. “He’s an authentic person. I think he’s a tough guy. “And he’s had to be. But he’s a good football player, and he fit our profile.”
It is, in the end, why McDowell is here. He was a consensus three-star recruit with twitchy pass rush skills and physicality that sold Williams and fellow Colorado State assistant coach Freddie Banks. McDowell has been told to eat everything in sight to hold up on the field – he said he was down to 207 pounds midway through camp – but coaches deployed him for 12 snaps in a season-opening loss to Washington State, during which McDowell recorded one official quarterback hurry.
Given McDowell’s sexuality and a not-always-compassionate football culture he’s navigated since he came out in eighth grade, it adds up that relentlessness is his identifying trait. “Man, I never knew I had so much built-up aggression than when I’m pass-rushing,” McDowell says. “I swear I have anger issues. … But it’s that adrenaline rush I love. I live for it.”
As he walks back through all this in an empty meeting room, McDowell concedes he’s still ambivalent about what he wants to be known for. Should he be a Groundbreaker or simply a Football Player? “They’re both really important to me,” McDowell says. “One of them is speaking to my heart and one of them is speaking to my future. I’ll figure that out in due time.”
Like most siblings of outstanding soccer players, one of Jack Howell’s first talents was killing time, somewhere on the side of a pitch in California or Arizona or Virginia or Hawaii while everyone watched big sis.
When Jaelin Howell received her first power conference Division I scholarship offer, though, little brother understood where all those miles were leading. Especially because Jaelin wasn’t even in high school yet. “That’s when I knew she was the real deal,” Jack Howell says.
The junior safety’s story is for sure a Colorado State football tale … with a critical sidebar involving an older sister who twice was recognized as the nation’s best women’s college soccer player. The Howell patriarch, John, played two seasons for Colorado State and won a Super Bowl with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Jack Howell has followed Dad most directly, growing into a Rams star on his own, making 108 total tackles in 2022 to lead the country’s defensive backs and earn first-team All-Mountain West honors – making Jack and John the first father-son duo to accomplish that in the league.
The ????? Father-Son duo to earn @MountainWest All-Conference honors in league history ?
— Colorado State Football (@CSUFootball) November 30, 2022
For an eclectic group in Fort Collins, Jack Howell provides the essence. “There’s an internal drive and motivation, that he’s been working his whole life to prove that he can be that kind of guy,” Norvell says. “He knows how important it is to play here, to win here, to be an excellent player here.”
The Howell household was about as cutthroat as one would expect. “We would get in fights on the trampoline all the time,” Jaelin Howell says, “until they got big enough to actually, you know, hurt me.” Despite his two sons literally crying about the chore, John Howell regularly drove them to Bear Cave Wrestling Academy in Greeley, Colo., where they learned the hard way. About everything. “I was going up against national champs,” Howell says. “I mean, it was tough. You get drug through it.”
Football won the day because Howell grew up watching an undersized quarterback named Johnny Manziel do some incredible things – “I was obsessed,” Howell says – but it was always a subtle advantage to have a star soccer player in his corner as a sounding board. Jaelin Howell would attend Florida State and become a two-time Hermann Trophy winner in 2020 and 2021, and go on to, so far, make five appearances for the USWNT while also being selected No. 2 by Racing Louisville FC in the 2022 NWSL Draft.
There is sibling support, and there is sibling support from a sister who has competed at the highest level possible. “There’s always been valleys in my career,” Jaelin says. “It’s how you respond that really shows your character. I’ve always wanted to show that example to my younger brothers. Especially Jack … I always tell him it’s going to suck at the time, but in the long run, you’re going to be thankful that you didn’t get the attention you deserved, and all these schools turned you down, because it fuels his fire.”
Intensity is their gift to each other. These days, if ever they’re at home at the same time, Jack grabs his goalie gloves and stands between the posts at a local park while Jaelin fires off penalty kicks. It’s no leisurely chore: Jaelin once fired a ball so hard it broke her other brother Jake’s wrist. “That gets a little scary,” Jack Howell says. “She gets mad if I block one shot.”
It all explains the serrated edge at the heart of Colorado State football in 2023. Who the best Howell is of them all, no one will ever agree. “There will never be a resolution, that’s for sure,” Jack Howell says, laughing. “I’m definitely the loudest saying I’m the best. But pickleball got really serious this summer.”
When Jay Norvell traces all of this to the source, he looks at that cardboard cutout leaning against the wall to his left.
Four years into his first head coaching job at SMU, Hayden Fry signed Jerry LeVias, the first Black player in the history of the Southwestern Conference. Fry recounted the aftermath, including the parts about death threats he and LeVias received, to his Iowa teams. But Norvell remembers Fry emphasizing how important it was to have LeVias on the team, and how the group rallied around LeVias and the “living hell” he endured.
When Norvell saw East Coast teammates matriculate to the Iowa cornfields and scooter around campus wearing Kangol hats and Run D.M.C. T-shirts, it was a continuation of the concept, albeit with far, far less controversy and bigotry. “They brought a toughness and an attitude and an edge to our team,” Norvell says. “And we were super close. I’m starting to see that from our guys. All those different guys from different places, this is becoming their home now. This is their family away from family.”
Under the circumstances — Colorado State hasn’t had a winning season since 2017, losing 24 of its last 35 games — Norvell and his staff have no option but to home in on potential, and look everywhere for it.
But even if the going gets good, Norvell might not alter his approach. He’s a believer in the way manifold life stories can evolve into a singular experience hundreds of people share.
“It’s like a big stew,” Norvell says. “When you put all the different ingredients in, it becomes something its own.”
(Illustration: John Bradford / The Athletic; photos: Courtesy of Colorado State Athletics)