Injured police sergeant Justin Dodge sets tone for Parker football rivalry

PARKER — As the national anthem played, Justin Dodge and his son Brody stood side-by-side on the Legend sideline with their arms wrapped around each other. While the Titans fullback held up his dad, tears welled in the eyes of both tough guys.

Dodge, a Denver Police Department SWAT sergeant, was seriously hurt during the Nuggets’ championship parade on June 15 when a fire truck rolled up on his left leg as he tried to protect fans who had moved onto the street. His leg was amputated below the knee a few weeks later, and he’s coming off his seventh surgery to address lingering issues from the injury.

But Dodge isn’t dwelling on that — he’s looking forward. On Friday at EchoPark Stadium, he led Legend out onto the field in a wheelchair for the Titans’ crosstown rivalry showdown against Ponderosa, moments before standing and soaking in the anthem with his son.

“I told (Brody) to make sure to help me stand up, and to basically hold me so I didn’t fall,” Dodge said. “That was a really special moment — it was a moment (that epitomized my determination and support from everyone). I’ll be back, and I’ll be back on a leg, working… I’ll be running, sprinting, deadlifting, jumping, everything.

“Better on one than two — that’s my mindset going forward.”

With Dodge setting the tone, the rivalry game had a bit of everything to make for a sublime Friday night lights experience as Legend pulled away in the second half for a 49-7 blowout victory.

Beyond the packed, energetic crowd of about 5,000, there was a reason to play greater than football itself, as the game served as a Folds of Honor fundraiser for a second straight year. Folds of Honor is a nonprofit organization that provides scholarships to the spouses and children of military members and first responders who have died or been disabled while serving. Last year the game raised about $15,000, and this year that number is hoped to be around $20,000.

Legend took control early due thanks to interceptions on the Mustangs’ opening two drives. Titans senior Jeff Baca’s 14-yard touchdown run made it 7-0 in the first quarter, then senior Alex Martinez’s one-yard TD run put Legend firmly in control, up 14-0 in the second quarter.

Ponderosa responded with a long drive capped by a highlight catch by junior star wideout Max Mervin on a fade route in the corner of the endzone, cutting the Mustangs’ deficit to 14-7 just before halftime.

Nobody scored again until late in the third quarter, when junior tailback Jaden Lawrence hit a seam and burst for a 63-yard touchdown to reassert Legend’s momentum and push the score to 21-7. A Nate Sandy interception on Ponderosa’s next drive, Legend’s third pick of the night, set up another Titans score to put the game away. A Titans pick-six by junior Payton Aukland followed, and the rout was on.

Legend’s victory puts the Titans one win away from reclaiming the rivalry trophy given annually to the series winner between LHS, Ponderosa and Chaparral. The Titans play the Wolverines on Oct. 29 at EchoPark Stadium.

While that coveted hardware is known colloquially as the Pride of Parker Trophy, its real name is the 20-Mile House Trophy. That eponymous historic property, located just west of downtown Parker, housed structures that were the first hotel, blacksmith shop, mercantile, restaurant and official post office in town.

Under longtime property owner and postmaster James Sample Parker, the town then known as Pine Grove was situated at a key pit-stop for travelers along the southern branch of the Smoky Hill Trail. Thus, the trophy with the 20-Mile cabin atop it is emblematic of the gutsy pioneer spirit of the town’s roots — a spirit that both Legend and Ponderosa are summoning to become the teams they want to be.

Legend is an ascending Class 5A program with huge numbers, and the school’s playoff success over the last four years is recent evidence that the Titans are only starting to scratch the surface of what the program could be in terms of dominating the talent in burgeoning Parker. The Titans’ enrollment is 2,215, making it the 12th-biggest school in Colorado.

That means the talent will continually be there for Legend (3-1) to replicate the deep postseason runs it had in 2020 and ’21, when the Titans made consecutive semifinal appearances after winning their first playoff game in 2019.

“We feel like we’ve taken our program a long ways, and that’s been the work of many people,” said Legend head coach Monte Thelen, in his eighth season on Hilltop Road. “Our whole goal every year is to win games in November.”

Ponderosa, 25 years older and the original Parker high school, is a relatively small Class 4A football school in terms of enrollment at 1,440. Head coach Jaron Cohen and the Mustangs (2-2) have kept the school competitive despite a decline in enrollment since Cohen took over a decade ago, leaning on the program’s tradition (Class 5A state champs in 2003) in order to continue it.

“We’ll take our neighborhood kids and go compete and prepare them as best we can, and there’s a lot of pride that comes with that,” Cohen said. “And there’s a lot of pride in the tradition of this program, and wanting to (expand on it).”

While most of the Mustangs’ roster is kids who came up through the neighborhood, Ponderosa benefited from a pair of move-in transfers at quarterback this fall. Senior Aurelio Marchiol, who appeared in eight games last season for Cherry Creek, got the start Friday after junior QB Marcus Price (Legacy transfer) started the first three games.

Who will be Ponderosa’s QB1 when league play begins against Denver South on Sept. 30 is still up for discussion. The Mustangs host Class 4A No. 1 Palmer Ridge next week in their final nonconference test. Marchiol threw interceptions on consecutive drives to start Friday, was pulled for Price, and then later re-entered the game and threw the TD to Mervin. But Ponderosa was shut out in the second half, and Marchiol threw the pick-six.

“We wanted to get each guy varsity competition,” Cohen said. “We have two varsity-caliber quarterbacks, so we feel good about the position, we just want to make sure the guy we hand the keys over to is the right guy. But also, we wanted to have two guys who have varsity action, because there hasn’t been a year yet where we haven’t needed two quarterbacks.”

Meanwhile, watching from up in the stands, Dodge keeps looking ahead, too.

Friday was the first Legend game he’s been able to attend this season, because it’s still difficult for him to get out of the house. But he’s hopeful to be in a spot to be fitted for a prosthetic by the end of the year. Brody Dodge, who said his family has tried to “find the good in moments” since June 15, believes his dad found just that on Friday.

“There’s no question I’ll be a team leader with our SWAT team again,” Justin Dodge said. “I’m trying not to set a timeline for that, because there’s days when it’s like, ‘Wow, this is going great,’ and then there’s days when we have setbacks. I take it as it comes. But there’s a goal from a mental and physical standpoint to be back at the unit with my boys, doing what I was doing before.”

Pride of Parker rivalry history

A look at the Parker rivalry winner since the 20-Mile House Trophy was first awarded in 2002. Legend’s first game in the series was 2010, and the Mustangs have won the trophy the most times at eight. In many years, the three schools didn’t all play each other.

2002 — Ponderosa

2003 — Ponderosa

2004 — Ponderosa

2005 — Ponderosa

2006 — Chaparral

2007 — Ponderosa

2008 — Chaparral

2009 — Chaparral

2010 — Ponderosa

2011 — Legend

2012 — Did not play

2013 — Did not play

2014 — Chaparral

2015 — Chaparral

2016 — Chaparral

2017 — Ponderosa/Chaparral

2018 — Legend

2019 — Legend

2020 — Legend

2021 — Legend

2022 — Ponderosa

2023 — Legend can clinch the trophy outright with a win over Chaparral on Sept. 29 at EchoPark Stadium.

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