Heartbreak to Hope: Remembering the 1999 Columbine football team

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JEFFERSON COUNTY, Colo. -- Spend enough time on a football field and you'll hear someone say it: Football is just a game.

That is true, but every once in a while, a game becomes something more. Sometimes, sports can heal.

It happened at Columbine High School in the days and weeks following what was once our nation's deadliest school shooting 20 years ago.

"Retrospectively, looking back, I had instant baggage," said Mike Rotolo, a former Columbine Rebel football player who survived the shooting in 1999.

Columbine High School won the state football championship the season after the tragedy. The team helped unite the community at a time when unity was needed.

That story is now being made into a documentary that is being created by the former students who lived it. It's set to premier sometime next football season.

"People have heard about Columbine football and Columbine High School. This is the untold story about Columbine football, the stuff people don't know about," said Rotolo.

He is one of the driving forces behind the documentary, called "Together: The Untold Story of Columbine Football." 

"I don't make films. I've never made a film in my life, until now," explained Rotolo.

Ryan Barrett is one of many students and former players interviewed in the documentary. He was hiding in the back room of a school library that fateful day in April 1999 when two gunmen stormed in and murdered his friend Matt Kechter.

"I know when I got out of the school, I stopped and I was looking for him. He never came, obviously, and I couldn't get back into the school," said Barrett, fighting back tears as he reminisced about his friend.

Fortunately, Barrett found an escape in football.

"Living that day for me was 'where are the exits? How do I get out of here?' Well, you don't feel that on a football field. Despite what any of us had gone through, the game was still the same. That's what football provided," he said.

The Columbine football team strung together 13 wins that season, one -- they say -- for every person killed in the shooting.

"If we would have gone out and lost every game, everyone would have said, 'That's OK. You guys dealt with something no one imagine, so it's OK.' But that's not Columbine football," said Rotolo.

"We had heart. There's no doubt we had heart, and we had a mindset we were tougher than anyone else," said Barrett.

As players adopted that mindset, so did the Columbine community.

"People who had never thought about football were showing up at games because it meant something more. It was something we could all experience together and it was something positive, and we were all refusing to let evil win," said Rotolo.

And evil was defeated. The team marched all the way to the state championship, defeating Cherry Creek High School by a score of 21 to 14.

The team chanted Matt Kechter's initials as they celebrated afterward with his parents.

"It was so raw, but just being able to chant Matt's name and see Matt's little brother hold the trophy, I've never been more proud to be a part of something in my life," said Rotolo.

It was a moment when football became so much more than just a game. It helped a community heal, proving in the end good will prevail, and love will conquer all.

"I'm a big believer in love rules all and love heals all. And I think in this instance, love was accompanied by a state championship trophy that was shaped like a football," said Rotolo.

To mark the 20th remembrance of the Columbine tragedy, we're telling the stories of victims and survivors in a unique way.  We're not showing images of the school from April 20, 1999.  We're not airing 911 calls from that day, and we're not showing the names or pictures of the killers.

Saturday, April 20, 2019 marks the 20th anniversary of the shooting - and we have special programming on FOX31 and Channel 2.

At 5:30 pm and 9:30 pm on FOX31, and at 9:30 pm on Channel 2, join us for "Columbine 20: Heartbreak to Hope," a commercial-free half-hour special anchored by Jeremy Hubbard highlighting Columbine victims and survivors. 

At 8:00 pm on Channel 2, we're airing the broadcast premiere of "13 Families: Life After Columbine," a documentary featuring each of the families most closely affected by the Columbine tragedy.  The documentary will air commercial-free.

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