BOULDER, Colo. — Just as the sun peeked over the horizon, the line to get into The Sink started to form. By 6:45 a.m., roughly 100 people were wrapped around the block, waiting for the iconic 100-year-old bar and restaurant to open its doors for what promised to be a historic day.
“There hasn’t been this much energy here in 25 years,” said Mark Heinritz, who took ownership of the beloved Boulder institution in 1992.
As fans waited outside, some traded undergraduate stories. Others heckled red-clad Nebraska fans. Mostly, though, they shared their amazement of the moment. Less than a year after Colorado finished one of the worst seasons by a Power 5 football team in the last few decades, there was a palpable predawn buzz for the Buffaloes’ home opener under coach Deion Sanders.
“We bought [The Sink] two years off the national championship and it was intense,” Heinritz said. “People showed up right off the bat; they’re ready to go. They would get up on a Saturday, we would fill right up and be busy all day. And through, let’s call them the hard years, that dissipated quite a bit.”
For now, those days are over.
Even for an establishment like The Sink, which is so engrained in the local community that it has an exhibit at the Museum of Boulder, Saturday was special. This is a place that has been featured on “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives” and “Man vs. Food,” and welcomed the likes of Anthony Bourdain and President Barack Obama. But those visitors didn’t necessitate Heinritz opening four hours early to serve breakfast beers.
By 7:20 a.m., the place was so crowded they had to briefly stop letting people in, and inside it might as well have been 2 p.m., as servers deftly navigated the standing-room-only bar area, carrying trays of shots and pizzas.
“I tell you what,” Heinritz said. “The [athletic director] makes one of the most important economic decisions for the city of Boulder. It’s night and day between Deion Sanders’ potential and a 1-11 team. Night and day. The restaurant’s sales are incredible. We’ll go from just having some extra business on a Saturday to where we’ll actually get business Friday and Sunday. It turns into a three-day deal.”
The Prime effect has been felt all over town. On Pearl Street, Boulder’s eclectic brick-paved downtown strip, all kinds of shops and restaurants have bought into the craze. One clothing store offered a 21% discount on a single item, as an homage to Sanders’ number in the NFL. Prime Time merch is everywhere.
All of that came without a ball being snapped at Folsom Field.
When the gates opened two hours prior to kickoff, thousands of students burst through like they were trying to escape from Ralphie, the Buffaloes’ live mascot, and ran to claim the best seats possible. As the stadium filled with 53,241 people — the largest crowd in Boulder in 15 years — there was an anticipatory intensity that exists only before truly meaningful games in college football.
“It was phenomenal just feeling the energy of the student body as well as the fan base here,” Sanders said. “It was unbelievable. That was my first time. We didn’t get to really feel it in the spring because there was snow. I didn’t want to go out there. It was cold. So, I really didn’t get to feel it. But we felt it today.”
Had this game been played in Boulder a year ago, there would have been a real risk — maybe even an expectation — the stands would have been overrun by red shirts. And while Nebraska fans still traveled well, their impact on the atmosphere was negligible.
“I’ve seen the pictures of red in the stands a couple years ago,” Buffs quarterback Shedeur Sanders said, referencing a recent Colorado-Nebraska game in Boulder. “I don’t know when that was, but I’ve seen that. This looked totally different. Our fans came out to support.”
New fans and old.
Since the spring, the school has been preparing for the parade of celebrities expected to make their way to Boulder this season. Saturday’s VIP list included the Wu Tang Clan, former NFL receivers Michael Irvin and Terrell Owens, rapper Cam’Ron, and Denver Nuggets players Peyton Watson and Collin Gillespie, among others. The athletic department set a record for media credentials distributed.
Everything that occurred before kickoff was a product of hype and hope. Hiring Sanders ensured the first part. His larger-than-life presence guaranteed the Buffs would be relevant again, but it would only stay that way if they started to win.
So far, so good.
Even on a day where the Buffs had plenty of sloppy moments they’ll want to get cleaned up, they had no trouble swatting away an overwhelmed Nebraska team, whose own first-year coach, Matt Rhule, signed an eight-year, $74 million contract in November.
The game’s outcome was determined long before the Cornhuskers scored a touchdown with one second left to make the final score 36-14. As the clock wound down on that final Nebraska drive, Colorado students forced their way to the lowest rows behind the south end zone, preparing to storm the field.
A call for them to remain off the field from the stadium’s PA system — at the request of Coach Prime, no less — had no impact, and before Nebraska could kick off to officially end the game, delirious students spilled over the barrier.
Another reminder from the PA announcer that the game was not over was equally ineffective, and with a second still on the clock, the officiating crew called it. Chaos ensued.
“I’ve never been on the field when it was stormed,” Sanders said.
And he didn’t get to experience much of this one, either, as his security detail quickly escorted him away. His son, however, wasn’t about to miss out this opportunity.
“This is my first time when somebody rushed the field, so I’m excited for it,” Shedeur Sanders said. “Then it was bittersweet. I started getting beat up in there. It looked fun, but I’m telling you, stay out of that. They tried to tell me, but with me being so hard-headed, I’m like, ‘Nah, I want to enjoy it.'”
Just like everyone else.
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