They discovered their connection one afternoon at Red Robin, on a day when they piled in a booth, exhausted from two-a-days and hungry for chicken strips. They started talking about their families, trading stories about brothers, sisters and moms. Then they got to their dads. Wait, your dad played at Colorado? asked one. So did mine. Then another piped in. Hey, my uncle did, too. Within minutes, Uryan Hudson, Kolter Smith and Jake Stoltenberg realized they were more than just walk-on freshmen redshirts bonding over a hellacious fall camp. They were legacy walk-ons, each with a relative who had played at Colorado in the mid 90s, back when the Buffs were a college football powerhouse.
"I mean, it is pretty cool," says Hudson, whose uncle, Chris Hudson, was a CU All-American and the 1994 Thorpe Award winner, presented annually to the nation's top defensive back.
But it's more than that, according to Hudson's mother, Lacelia.
"In a season when they're transitioning back to the type of program they were in the mid-80s to mid-90s, when all those older guys played, how appropriate that these three boys are here now," she marvels.
It's been a resurgent season for the No. 10 Buffs, who host No. 20 Washington State on Saturday. After the Cougars come the No. 11 Utes, with the Pac-12 South title likely on the line. That's quite the climb back for Colorado, just two seasons removed from a winless conference slate. The Buffs haven't compiled a winning record since 2004, and have been through four head coaches in that drought. Through it all though, the legacy walk-ons swear they were loyal fans. And their parents have stories to prove it.
In Houston, where Uryan (pronounced "U-Ryan") grew up, the Hudsons dressed their son in black and gold and taught him to cheer for the Buffs. At 4, with a giant helmet perched on his tiny head, Uryan asked his mom and dad for a smoke machine, so he could practice running through the smoke like the big boys at Colorado did. "You know looking back on it, we probably should have known he was always going to go to Colorado," laughs Lacelia, who is in Boulder this weekend with her family to celebrate Chris's induction into the school's Hall of Fame.
Courtesy of the Hudson family
Early, Terry Hudson, Uryan's dad and Chris's older brother by five years, realized his son might be the next superstar in the family. A former defensive back at Southern University in Baton Rouge, La., Terry lived in Colorado during Chris' heyday in Boulder, and often attended practice, picking up coaching tips and tricks and storing them in his brain for later. "He taught me everything—just like he taught his brother," giggles Uryan. Terry laughs when he hears this, and says he's glad his son has the story straight. Meanwhile, Uncle Chris stayed busy by touring through the NFL in the late 1990s and early 2000s, with stops in Jacksonville, Chicago and Atlanta. He'd come home to Houston to check in on his nephew every few months, playing tackle football in the front yard and reminding Uryan to keep cheering for the Buffs.
Four hundred miles away in Edmond, Okla., Kyle Smith was also raising his son to root for Colorado. "He's known the fight song since he was 2," Kyle says of Kolter, an offensive lineman. "We just haven't had much reason to sing that song the last few years."
Kyle Smith will be in Boulder this weekend for the first time since 1996, his last game as a player with the Buffs. A two-year starter at left tackle, Kyle remembers the glory days well. In his five years in Boulder, the Buffs played in two Fiesta Bowls, one Cotton Bowl, one Holiday Bowl and one Aloha Bowl.
Kyle always thought it would be neat if his son played college football, too, but when Kolter hovered at just 5' 8" for almost two years (his father is 6' 6"), that seemed unrealistic. Then, as a junior at Deer Creek High in Edmond, Kolter sprouted six inches and found himself in conversations with college coaches.
Despite a handful of scholarship offers at lower level schools, Kolter decided he wanted to take the harder, walk-on route after visiting CU and falling in love with the Boulder campus. He's tried to share every detail with his dad, calling him each night to tell him what happened at practice that day. Kolter had his "what'd I get myself into?!" moment less than a week into fall camp, when his roommate, another preferred walk-on lineman, quit unexpectedly. That absence depleted the Buffs' practice depth.
"We went from having six scout team offensive linemen, which means there was a constant rotation and you were never in for more than about 12 plays, to suddenly no rotation in a two hour practice," Kolter says. "That day after practice, I honestly thought I was going to die." Dad's counsel: "Everything gets easier after fall camp. I promise."
They've shared record-breaking moments, too. After Colorado set a school record for most points scored in a half and biggest halftime lead in a 56–7 win over Idaho State on Sept. 10, Kolter told Kyle, "Yeah, they said that hasn't happened since, like, 1995 against Northeast Louisiana." Kyle's response: "I started in that game!"
Courtesy of the Smith family
"Being a Buff fan, it's a family affair," Kyle says, swallowing tears. "There's Kolter, walking by all that history in the new facility, and … I'm a part of that. I sweat and bled on that field and to have my family, my son, be a part of that, it means more to me than I thought it would."
One person Kyle wishes could be in Boulder this weekend for what he imagines will be an awesome reunion is Bryan Stoltenberg, the father of walk-on linebacker Jake Stoltenberg. An All-American center in 1995—he started alongside Kyle Smith on the '95 offensive line—Bryan Stoltenberg died in 2013, at just 40 years old, of complications following a severe car accident.
"Being here, I feel connected to him," says Jake, who was a freshman at Clements High in Sugar Land, Texas, when his dad passed. "Seeing his name on the All-American wall every day is pretty cool."
When he realized his junior year at Clements that he wanted to play at Colorado, just like his dad had done, Jake called the one man in college football he knew could help him. First-year USC coach Clay Helton is also a Clements High graduate, and was best friends with Bryan Stoltenberg when the two were in high school. Acting as a "godfather-type," Helton called Colorado coach Mike MacIntyre and asked him to look at Jake's highlight reel. When Jake and his mother, Laura, visited Boulder, MacIntyre told his coaches Jake was one of their own, and they had to take care of family.
MacIntyre believes legacy athletes are crucial to rebuilding a program because they already have deep roots in the team, which helps them keep perspective during the inevitable valleys that come with the rebuild process. The fact that these three building blocks just happen to walk-ons makes it a little cooler though.
"It's really huge because they're invested in the school, not just the football program," MacIntyre said. "And, they grew up being CU fans. That means a lot. You really have to have a love of football when you're a walk on."
As current redshirts, Jake, Kolter and Uryan are not allowed to travel with the team, so they take turns hosting each other in their dorm rooms and watching games on TV. "No one broke anything during the Oregon game, but we did get pretty excited," said Kolter, explaining that Colorado's 41-38 win in Eugene, with a backup quarterback, has been everyone's favorite highlight so far this season. Forced to sit in the stands during home contests, the trio embraces tailgating before kickoff and heckling opposing teams.
"Even though we sit far away, I think we feel a part of (the success), 100 percent," Uryan says. "Coach Mac always says 'Star in your role' and right now, that's our role, to prepare these guys in practice every day to win every game."
The three walk-ons know their time will come. And when it does, it'll be that much sweeter because of the men they followed.