Believe it or not, a football team from Colorado is going to the Super Bowl this year. No, the team doesn’t hail from Dove Valley. They don’t spend $170 million annually on their roster. And they …
This item is available in full to subscribers.
If you're a print subscriber, but do not yet have an online account, click here to create one.
Click here to see your options for becoming a subscriber.
If you made a voluntary contribution in 2022-2023 of $50 or more, but do not yet have an online account, click here to create one at no additional charge. VIP Digital Access includes access to all websites and online content.
Believe it or not, a football team from Colorado is going to the Super Bowl this year.
No, the team doesn’t hail from Dove Valley. They don’t spend $170 million annually on their roster. And they don’t attract millions of viewers every time they play.
What they do do — contrary to the team just alluded to — is run an exciting brand of football, score points by the bushel and not only win games, but bring opponents to their knees in the process.
And on Dec. 1, the 12U Highlands Ranch Mountain Lions will board a plane and take their collective talents to the bright lights of the Camping World Stadium sports complex in Orlando, Florida, where they’ll compete in the 64th Pop Warner Super Bowl.
Seven other 12U teams will be there. The Mountain Lions are guaranteed two games, which will be on Dec. 3 and 6. If they win those two, they’ll play for the ultimate prize on Dec. 9 at the 60,000-capacity Camping World Stadium, the current home to college football’s Cheez-It Bowl and Citrus Bowl.
“I think we definitely have a chance (to win it all),” said Jack Lind, a 13-year-old slot receiver who also plays cornerback for the Mountain Lions. “Some of those teams are really good.”
In the 40-year history of Pop Warner football in Colorado, no team from the Centennial State has ever won the Super Bowl. That streak nearly ended last year, though, when the Mountain Lions punched their ticket to Orlando, went 1-1 there and finished the season ranked No. 5 nationally.
That experience, head coach Jason Lind and assistant coach Donnie Salum believe, will serve their players well when the time comes to lace up in Orlando once again. The youngsters have already witnessed the trappings of Pop Warner’s biggest stage — the lights, the cameras, the stars. There’s comfort in knowing what to expect. (The players met four-time Super Bowl champion Rob Gronkowski at Raymond James Stadium, home to the NFL’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers, ahead of their second game last year).
“We’re so much more prepared,” said the elder Lind, who played football and ran track at UC Davis. “We kind of went into it blind last year. We know what to expect this year.”
Making it to the Super Bowl isn’t easy — Highlands Ranch had to win league, state and regional championships to get there.
The Mountain Lions went 7-1 in Rocky Mountain Pop Warner League play to capture the league title and earn a spot in the state championship game against the Soco Warriors (Colorado Springs), whom they steamrolled 32-8. Highlands Ranch went on to shut down the Los Lunas Tigers (New Mexico) 53-0 and the St. Philip’s Saints (Texas) 38-6 in a pair of regional games to claim the Southwest Region crown.
According to Salum, in the game against St. Philip’s, the Saints fielded five 200-plus-pound players, but Highlands Ranch still won going away.
“We’re small, but we’re fast and disciplined,” said Salum, who was drafted in 1990 by the Atlanta Falcons out of the University of Arizona.
Donnie Salum Jr., 12, a running back and defensive end for Highlands Ranch, echoed what his father said: “We’re much faster and tougher than other teams. We’re more disciplined.”
The Mountain Lions use that speed to their advantage, too, especially on offense. Unlike Pop Warner teams of yore and most of today’s Pop Warner teams, Highlands Ranch runs a spread-type offense, deploying four receivers on every play. Running backs? Yeah, they’re in there, but they’re usually busy running routes, too.
Think Mike Leach and the Air Raid offense, Pop Warner-style.
“Opposing teams have never seen it,” the senior Lind said.
The result: The Mountain Lions have mercy-ruled every team they’ve played this year except one. In fact, many of the Mountain Lions’ scoring drives during all those drubbings lasted all of two or three plays because they have the ability to cover so much ground so quickly.
Of course, to make that kind of offense go, having a smart, accurate player at the controls is a must, and Highlands Ranch has one in 13-year-old quarterback Bentley Unruh, who has accounted for 40 total touchdowns this season.
“It’s fun,” Unruh said of the Mountain Lions’ pass-happy offense. “I just like throwing the ball a lot. A lot of teams don’t do that. I always know Tav’s down there somewhere.”
The “Tav” Unruh is speaking of is one of his trusty receivers, Tavish Burt.
“Sometimes I get nervous on deep passes because I don’t want to drop them,” said Burt, a seventh-grader at Castle Rock Christian Academy.
But Burt doesn’t drop many. Instead, he’s snagged a whole bunch of spirals thrown his way en route to scoring 17 touchdowns this season.
Moral of the story: The Mountain Lions can score and score often.
“If you make it to the championship game in Orlando,” someone begins to ask the Highlands Ranch coaches and players, “do you think you’ll be able to replicate what you’ve done …”
The elder Salum interjects.
“When we make it to the championship game, not if. We’re going to win this thing.”
The team has started a GoFundMe to help defray the expenses of the Orlando trip for the players. Donations can be made at bit.ly/MountainLionsOrlando.
Other items that may interest you
We have noticed you are using an ad blocking plugin in your browser.
The revenue we receive from our advertisers helps make this site possible. We request you whitelist our site.