For three days last December, Justin Hoffman sat in his Aurora home in a state of total physical and emotional exhaustion.
The previous five months had wrung everything out of the normally fiery Gateway High School football coach, who served as a coach, counselor and pillar for a school devastated by the July 20, 2012, mass shooting at the nearby Century Aurora 16 movie theater.
The school he’d spent 16 years at and invested countless hours to improve had been cut to the core by the shooting, which left 12 people dead and 58 others injured including one of his star players, Colorado State-bound lineman Zack Golditch.
Golditch and nearly half of Hoffman’s Gateway football team had been in the theater at the time and fortunately had escaped with their lives. Hoffman was faced with a situation he’d never been trained for as a teacher or coach.
“You put so much effort into other people’s kids regardless of the situation; this is one of those things that as a staff we were talking about that we had to be there for them for every little thing,” Hoffman recalled a few days before the first anniversary of the shooting.
“Things that might seem trivial to you as a coach, but are big to them. We told them ‘if you need a break, speak up and just say ‘I can’t do this right now’ and somebody else will take over. You always look back and wonder what you could have done different. It’s about realizing that you did your best and hopefully the kids come out of this all right. I think they did for the most part.”
Hoffman will lead his new school — Smoky Hill — in a 7-on-7 football camp at Stutler Bowl on the anniversary of the shooting, but he’ll have Gateway in his heart and the scenario that unfolded 365 days earlier playing in the back of his mind.
Shortly after the events of the shooting had come to light, Hoffman arrived quickly at Gateway — which became a center of activity just a few blocks south of the theater — along with several others to lend whatever help they could.
As details soon emerged, the impact on the Gateway community grew.
One of the school’s most well known students, 2012 graduate AJ Boik, had been killed. Golditch — the school’s most prominent athlete who had a full-ride scholarship to Colorado State waiting for him — had been shot through the neck, but survived.
The days that followed at Gateway became more than about the normal things of school or football. Learning and X’s and O’s took a back seat to healing.
Fortunately, Hoffman had a large class of 27 seniors who made him proud on a daily basis with how they leaned on each other and lifted up the rest of the team.
In a show of strength, Golditch kept a streak of perfect attendance alive as he came to every workout and practice until he got medically cleared to put on pads. On the field, the team’s other veterans set the tone on a daily basis and encouraged each other when needed.
The Olys relished the chance to focus on football and their ability to give Gateway the lift of school pride it so desperately needed at the time.
Hoffman recalled the unbridled joy that came from a 26-0 victory over Smoky Hill in the season opener, which came just five weeks after the shooting.
“All of the stuff that we had to do that nobody else had to do and deal with, just to watch the kids compete was the fun part of it,” Hoffman recalled.
“The way the kids handled everything spoke mountains about their character. …When the season started, we got to take a deep breath, look around at everybody and exhale like things were back to normal, or as normal as they could be.”
Riding a roller-coaster of emotion off the field, the Olys put together a cathartic 7-2 regular season — with stumbles only against eventual Class 5A state finalist Cherokee Trail and rival Rangeview — and earned a home game in the 5A playoffs.
Though Gateway lost that game to Regis Jesuit, the Olys had been as positive as Hoffman hoped they would be. He feared some backslide from a losing season.
“If we would have gone 3-and-whatever, it might have been a different story,” Hoffman said. “We might have gone to the other side and been talking about more negative things than positive ones.”
When the football season ended, the reality of life remained, which brought Hoffman to his house over winter break with his tank virtually empty.
An unexpected opportunity presented itself when John Thompson surprisingly stepped down as head coach at Smoky Hill, which is near Hoffman’s house.
Smoky Hill football had struggled in recent years, but Hoffman saw what most high school football coaches are after: the chance to take over a program at a bigger school that plays in one of the premier conferences — the Centennial League.
After careful consideration, Hoffman also saw a chance to demonstrate to others that moving forward was OK and did something for himself. So he went for it and got the job.
“My wife and I talked about the need to show that it is OK to change,” Hoffman said. “I wasn’t really looking to change jobs, but it was another opportunity for me to teach and to teach that it is OK to move on and do some other things. It doesn’t make you a bad person.”
Reaction to Hoffman’s departure was mixed at Gateway. Many people he’d worked with for 16 years at the school congratulated him. Some players refused to even talk to him, however, and he heard the word traitor used.
“Some kids were flat out pissed off and wouldn’t talk to me, even though I tried,” Hoffman said. “They said ‘How can you do this? You’ve been a part of my life for so long.’”
Golditch — who is now up at CSU — felt it was a great chance for a coach who had been so influential in his life, on and off the football field and who had helped him became a two-time 5A state champion in the discus.
“Change is good for everyone in every kind of way, big or little,” Golditch said. “Coach Hoff has done so much for Gateway, now he has a chance to have more money to do things and to go in as a head coach and see if what he learned at Gateway can translate somewhere else.”
From a strictly football standpoint, the change appears to be good.
Hoffman has his energy back as he seeks to mold Smoky Hill into a competitive team, while new coach Ashour Peera has brought a new shot of energy and a bold new way of doing things to Gateway.
They’ll face each other in the opening game of the 2013 regular season, but Hoffman hasn’t allowed himself to think about what lining up on the opposite sideline will be like just yet.
“I still love those guys and me coaching at a different school is not going to change any of that,” Hoffman said.
Reach Sports Editor Courtney Oakes at [email protected] or 303-750-7555