In just four weeks, Justin Hoffman has seen his football team grow up in front of him.
The Gateway football coach has been blown away with how his players are dealing with the aftermath of the July 20 massacre at the Century Aurora 16 theater, especially considering so many of them were there that night.
Close to half the team — and more than 60 Gateway students past and present — were at the midnight showing of “The Dark Knight Rises” in the theater just four blocks north of the school on Sable Boulevard.
Senior Zack Golditch had a stray bullet pass through his neck, but the others escaped physical damage. The mental toll it took on them was great, however. Hoffman’s been greatly impressed by how the players have helped each other recover since then.
“A lot of these kids were close already, but the first thing was I don’t think they knew how to react; Who does?” Hoffman said. “As you go through it a little more, you lean more on your brothers and it makes it a little easier.
“They are all fighting the same type of emotions one way or another, but I think they’ve done a great job of being that shoulder for each other.”
Just over a week before the shooting, Gateway linemen were bonding in football terms, as they took second and third place at Rangeview’s annual Hog Wars strength competition.
After the shooting, they were bonding as brothers, trying to deal with the tragedy that happened at a place so close to home.
“At first, we were sad and a lot of us were quiet; It’s our home around here and a lot of us go to that theater very often,” senior running back Miguel Gonzalez said.
“At first it shocked us. It was right there. After a couple of weeks, we started to come together and talk about. Since then, we’ve been coming together as a family.”
Hoffman sets a strong example for his team, but he believes he has the right senior class in place to lead the team in its time of need with players such as Golditch, Gonzalez and quarterback Tate Johnson.
A quarterback needs to have the pulse of his team and Johnson has felt the group grow more unified by the day.
“It’s obviously very tragic and very scary, but we’re just staying up and staying together,” Johnson said. “It’s bringing us closer together than anybody knows.
“Not only here at Gateway, but all of Aurora. The community is getting stronger and stronger.”
Anybody looking for strength can just look to Golditch, a rock-solid 6-foot-5, 260-pounder who committed to Colorado State earlier in the summer.
In the midst of the shooting, Golditch initially thought somebody had ignited firecrackers during the movie and quickly ran out when he’d been hit to find help. A fraction of an inch saved his life or debilitating injury.
Just hours after he was released from the hospital, Golditch — who said he’s never been late to a class or practice since he was a freshman, when a bout of salmonella sent him to the hospital — told his mother, Christine, he wanted to go to football practice. He stayed home that day and several after that, but he got the OK to do light work when Gateway hit the practice field Aug. 13.
“I’m holding up pretty good; I’ve been able to get to my normal routine,” Golditch said Aug. 14. “I still think about it though every so often, but it’s not something that’s going to drive me crazy.
“My teammates have been really supportive and haven’t tried to push me to get back. There’s been a lot of support from the community.”
An anxious Golditch was cleared for contract drills on Aug. 20 and to nobody’s surprise, didn’t skip a beat.
“He was solid and aggressive,” Hoffman said. “He looked relieved to be able to play.”
Golditch is monitored closely day-by-day, but could be completely ready to go when Gateway steps on the field for the first time, a 7 p.m. all-Aurora contest Aug. 31 against Smoky Hill at Legacy Stadium.
Football has become the best thing the players can focus on, especially considering the Olys — who gave eventual state runner-up Lakewood all it could handle in the first round of last season’s playoffs — have big expectations for the season.
Gateway’s strong showing at Hog Wars and a strong performance over the summer in 7-on-7 work against teams such as Grandview and Bear Creek.
“Football is our passion; it’s what most of us live for,” Johnson said. “It’s good to turn our attention to something else. We’re all excited to see what we can do.”
Reach Sports Editor Courtney Oakes at [email protected] or 303-750-7555