Editor’s note: This story was originally published on March 30 to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the day Sal Aunese had been diagnosed with cancer. It has been updated and republished today in remembrance of the 20th anniversary of the day he passed away.
Alfred Williams said he has never forgotten the day he played the most intense football game of his life.
The year was 1990 and the Colorado Buffaloes were in Lincoln, Neb. on a cold, dreary and wet November day. Williams and the Buffs were warming up on the field as they prepared to battle archrival Nebraska. As Williams looked up at the stands, he saw a Cornhuskers fan hold up a sign that ticked him off.
The sign read: “There’s no Sal Aunese this time. What are you going to do now?”
It’s true, there was no Sal Aunese (pronounced A-nessie) that day, but not because Aunese was playing quarterback in the National Football League or starting a career in an endeavor he chose.
On March 30, 1989, Aunese was diagnosed with an inoperable cancer in his stomach and lungs. He died on September 23, 1989 at the age of 21.
With Aunese’s death still fresh in many minds, the former outside linebacker decided to stick up for his fallen teammate.
“In the locker room, I just went off talking about the disrespect of the crowd in Lincoln,” Williams said. “I always thought it was a classy program and I still think it is a classy program. But when I saw that fan, it hit a nerve that I wouldn’t let go. You just don’t disrespect a guy who was an athlete till he died.”
It didn’t end there for Williams. When the game started, he put his words into action.
“When you see someone who disrespected the intent of the game, you just want to go off and play with the passion and rage that you haven’t played with in a long time,” Williams said. “In the couple of Super Bowls I played in, I never played like that. It was the most intense football day of my life. That fan gave me the greatest inspiration. I would never forget that day. I could be 95, but I’ll never forget that day. To me, whether or not we had won another game that was enough for me.”
The Buffs rolled past the Cornhuskers 27-12, en route to the school’s first and only football national championship.
The Ultimate Competitor
Had Aunese been there to see Williams and company trample on Nebraska, he would have likely been proud because, according to his former teammates, he was as competitive as they come.
Wide receiver Jeff Campbell and his roommate David Gibbs visited Aunese at the University of Colorado hospital in Denver during the week of the Illinois game in 1989. Campbell recalled how Aunese was still fighting in his hospital bed.
“[Sal] wanted to see scouting reports and film, and anything that he could do to stay involved – at that point, he was really sick,” Campbell said. “That experience taught me that there is a whole bunch of more fight in a person than they will ever realize. Along the way, he was just never going to give up until it was his time.”
A couple of days later at the Illinois game at Folsom Field, Aunese showed his teammates how much fight was left in him.
During the coin flip, the Fighting Illini tried to intimidate CU by sending out their entire team to the hash marks. Then, they sent their captains the rest of the way.
Aunese, watching the game from the press box, saw it as a sign of disrespect and Williams said he let his teammates know about it.
“We’re looking up there and all you can see is Sal waving his hands and be like, ‘Get them, don’t let them do that to you, let’s go,’” Williams said. “Once everybody saw him do that, we’re all like, ‘Let’s go, let’s go.’”
Campbell said the team was ready to take on Illinois full force.
“It was on,” Campbell said. “We had a brother of ours who was sick and they wanted to do something like that. That’s just not right. I don’t think there was a guy on that team that wasn’t 100 percent involved in beating Illinois.”
CU blew out Illinois on national television 38-7. The defense also knocked out Illinois quarterback Jeff George, the No. 1 overall pick in the 1990 NFL Draft, during the game.
“We beat them down,” Williams said. “These people came into our home stadium and tried to embarrass us. It wasn’t close. It was never close. We knocked Jeff George out of the game and they surrendered.”
A week after the emotional victory, Aunese passed away.
“We knew he was going to die, it was staring at him right in his face,” Williams said. “But what he wanted to do was to be at a football game and rooting on the University of Colorado and his teammates. The last image that most of us got was him pumping his fist. That was the last day I saw him alive.”
Campbell said Aunese was “a born leader” on the field. Off the field, former teammates said Aunese had a warm smile and a deep, baritone laugh, especially after he heard a funny joke.
“When I think of Sal, I think of his smile and his laugh,” said center Jay Leeuwenburg. “I don’t remember him having a frown on his face when he was healthy.”
Williams said he also remembers Aunese’s smile.
“He was a really good dude,” Williams said. “He’s the kind of guy you would see and always smile at you.”
After news of his cancer had spread, it was Aunese’s competitiveness, smile and laughter that made some believe he would defy the odds and beat cancer.
“I think that, to a certain extent, most 20-year-olds are still fairly selfish people,” Leeuwenburg said. “And I absolutely knew in my heart that he would get better and be back leading our team.”
Leeuwenburg and others who were optimistic about Aunese’s chances saw just how serious his illness was on opening day of CU’s preseason drills in August 1989.
Aunese was driven onto the practice field that day in his car with an oxygen mask strapped to his face. It was then that most knew of the severity of Aunese’s cancer.
“It was the first time [I saw him] and that’s when it was like getting a sledgehammer to the head,” Leeuwenburg said. “I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, he’s really sick.’ I thought he might not live.”
Talking to Sal
Aunese may be gone, but as Campbell said, “We love him and we miss him.”
If Aunese and his teammates ever met again, Leeuwenburg said there would be a lot of catching up to do.
“I think, selfishly, How’s heaven? What’s it like? Who do you see up there? Who made it? Where am I standing? I hope, like with many of my ex-teammates, to talk football with him,” Leeuwenburg said.
Williams, on the other hand, wants to begin with an apology.
“I would tell him that we should’ve beaten Notre Dame [in the 1990 Orange Bowl for the national championship],” Williams said. “But the situation was overwhelming. There were missed tackles, missed field goals and fumbles. Anything and everything that could go wrong happened.”
After apologizing, Williams said he would tell Aunese about his wishes for him and for himself.
“I would probably tell him my best time as an athlete was as an amateur,” Williams said. “I wish I would’ve played hard all the time. I wish he could’ve been there while we were winning in college. I would’ve loved to see him as a father.”
Aunese is survived by his 20-year-old son, Timothy Chase McCartney. Known to many as T.C., McCartney’s mother is Kristyn McCartney, the daughter of former CU head football coach Bill McCartney.
Contact CU Independent Sports Editor Cheng Sio at Cheng.email@example.com.