On the road and up in the air: The wild ride of Colorado’s equipment truck

  • Senior Writer for ESPN The Magazine
  • Columnist for ESPN.com
  • Author of five books (3 NYT best-sellers)

CHRIS LEHMANN DISCOVERED he had become an unlikely object of curiosity when he found out media outlets were speculating on his whereabouts, as if he was some sort of fugitive with an 18-wheeler loaded with football equipment. He discovered he was a minor celebrity when he realized he was about 400 miles from where they thought he was.

Earlier that day, on Dec. 16, Lehmann had rolled away from the University of Colorado campus, carrying almost everything the Buffaloes would need to play in the Pac-12 championship game in Los Angeles two nights later.

But when he drove off, the Buffaloes weren’t in the championship game. There was just a chance they would be by the time he got about halfway between Boulder and L.A. The whole story is a mess of logical guesses, bureaucratic indecision and aimless wandering, which is what makes Lehmann the perfect emblem of an illogical, indecisive and often aimless year in both college football — two conferences that canceled and then un-canceled, more than 150 games lost to COVID, a conference champion in the College Football Playoff after six games — and the entire world.

Colorado’s entry into the absurd began when Washington had to back out of the title game because of an outbreak of COVID-19. That elevated North Division runner-up Oregon to play South champion USC, which in turn forced the cancellation of Colorado’s game that weekend with Oregon. But — and here’s where the saga gets so weird it eventually involved a 48-year-old truck driver from Wellington, Colorado — the leaders responsible for scheduling games and cashing television checks realized the conference needed a backup in case USC produced its own run of positive tests. Since Colorado was the second-place team in the South, and since the prospect of having no game at all sent a cold and bitter wind through the conference office, the Buffaloes were told to be ready to play a game in case USC couldn’t.

“We’re in code-red mode,” Buffaloes coach Karl Dorrell said on local radio Tuesday as he awaited word on his team’s destination. “We’re preparing as if we’re playing, but we’re waiting to hear. The way the conference has set up and protected this championship, they’re keeping us on the hook to make sure at a certain point and time in the week that everything’s OK, then take us off the hook.”

There is a lot of planning that goes into a football game, but also there’s just a lot of stuff — the kind of stuff that has to be there but nobody really thinks about, which is also the same kind of stuff that can’t fit on an airplane if that airplane is also being used to transport human beings. And what Lehmann does is drive the truck that gets the Buffaloes’ stuff from one place to another. He carries cartons of tape and pallets of prewrap and scissors and tape-cutters and bandages. He carries cases and cases of Gatorade, and boxes of food that he presumes are protein bars but has never fully investigated. (“I’ve never looked in there,” he says, “but if I break down and I’m hungry, that story might change.”) He carries helmets and replacement helmet parts and shoulder pads, cleats and communications equipment and popup medical tents. “Everything you see on the sideline but the benches,” says Christopher Dountas, Colorado’s director of football equipment.

The Buffaloes received word of their potential involvement in the title game on Tuesday, roughly 72 hours before kickoff. The drive from Boulder to Los Angeles is a shade over 15 hours with no stops and good weather, abiding by Department of Transportation rules stipulating that a driver must rest eight hours for every 11 he drives. So, a two-day drive. The gear being hauled in Lehmann’s truck needed to be in Los Angeles on Thursday, preferably by noon, to have the sideline and locker room set up the night before the game.

You can see where this is headed.

All that stuff needed to be loaded and the truck driven west before Colorado had any idea whether it would, in fact, be playing in Los Angeles. Lehmann planned to head out Tuesday afternoon, but he was told to wait. Then he planned to leave on Tuesday evening, but he was told to wait.

Finally, on Wednesday morning, Lehmann rumbled away from campus assuming none of this would ever make any sense at all. He had decided beforehand that he would head south, toward Albuquerque, to avoid a potential winter storm on I-70 over the Rockies. “Weather was blowing in,” Lehmann says. “Winds were picking up.” Plus, there was talk of avalanche control near the Eisenhower Tunnel, and — just to complicate the already-overcomplicated — there were faint rumblings that, if USC’s tests were good and everyone could mobilize fast enough, Colorado might schedule a replacement game against UTSA in Dallas. Lehmann says, “If I get a call that asks, ‘How fast can you get to Dallas?’ my answer is, ‘A lot faster if I’m in Albuquerque than if I’m out on I-70.'”

So Lehmann would drive the truck south and await word. He and Dountas mapped out a route that would take Lehmann roughly six hours toward Albuquerque, at which point he would either head west toward California or — if USC remained COVID-compliant — turn around and head back to Boulder, or — follow along here — east to Dallas. The whole thing started to feel like a scene out of an old Western, where the lines on a map show the path of the wagon train before a match appears and burns the whole thing up. “There’s nothing to do but hold on to the steering wheel and be there with your own thoughts,” Lehmann says. “And I’m thinking, Should I be driving this fast? Because if I go this fast, it’s going to be that much farther to drive if I have to turn around and head back. That’s what I’ll remember about this trip.”

Somewhere along the way, Dountas told him, “People are looking for you, so keep an eye out,” which Lehmann found funny since even he wasn’t sure where he was headed or whether he would know it when he got there. But the Los Angeles Times and a few other outlets called Dountas after the Colorado football Twitter account sent out a photo of Lehmann leaving Boulder (a post they later deleted). “My phone started blowing up,” Dountas says. “I had no comment.”

Lehmann had become this oddity, one of those quirky “And, finally…” sendoffs delivered with a chummy smile at the end of the local news. They reported that Lehmann had driven halfway from Boulder to Los Angeles and was squirreled away in a hotel in St. George, Utah, awaiting word on which direction to turn next. A couple of issues with that story: St. George was never on the itinerary, because St. George is off I-70 and therefore part of the weather/avalanche/potential-game-in-Dallas issues, and a hotel was never on the itinerary because Lehmann planned to rest in the semi’s sleeper cab. “Hey, they threw out St. George,” Dountas says, “so we just went along with it.”

“We were laughing about that,” Lehmann says. “Never got to St. George. But if you Google it, that’s normally the fastest way to get to L.A., and it is about halfway. People were trying to figure it all out, and I guess if you’re a betting man and you’re not taking weather into account, I could see where you might think St. George makes sense.”

(In other words: amateurs.)

So. Albuquerque. He got to Albuquerque and still no word. He turned west. Still no word. Dountas called: Where are you? “Middle of nowhere,” Lehmann answered. They decided that Flagstaff, Arizona, would be the logical rest stop, but as Lehmann was rolling into Gallup around 10 p.m. Wednesday, he got a message from Boulder: Stop. We’re still talking to the Pac 12, but we have no idea what to do. Hole up there and we hope to have an answer in the morning.

“So I had just enough time to get the truck washed,” Lehmann says, “and I was just about to lay my head down for the night when I got word: Young man, time to head home.”

USC was cleared to play in the title game, where the Trojans lost 31-24 to the Ducks. Lehmann was back in Boulder before kickoff.

Today, Colorado plays Texas in the Valero Alamo Bowl (9 p.m. ET, ESPN and ESPN App), an invitation the team accepted despite the fact that five other bowl-eligible Pac-12 teams decided not to play in the postseason. “I think our players felt like they were ready to play another game,” Dorrell said during a news conference to announce the bowl. “We just wanted to finish the season with the fruits of our labor being rewarded. They worked hard in such a short period of time, and they’ve earned this.”

And where Colorado goes, Lehmann goes, too. He is talking to me on Saturday afternoon from a room at the Hyatt at the Riverwalk in San Antonio. He drove the Buffaloes’ gear here even though it meant breaking a pact to never drive an 18-wheeler through the Riverwalk again. He’s talking as he looks down on the actual Alamo, and he says his room is so nice and the view so good he half-expects to be kicked out when the coaches arrive later in the evening.

Lehmann is quite the character. He grew up in the moving business and says, “My dad taught me to drive a truck sooner than it was legal.” When I try to compute the mileage and the hours he drove from Boulder to somewhere near Gallup, Lehmann says, “I just want to get it on the record that I have a fast truck and I abide by all DOT laws — and yes, my fingers are crossed right now.”

And in many ways Lehmann was the perfect man for this task, more familiar than most with shifting circumstances. He drives the truck part time, hauling gear for Colorado and Colorado State, but his main gig is as a chaplain in the Wyoming Air National Guard. He enlisted at 38 years old, and when he showed up for Air Force basic training, the drill instructors, all about 10 or 15 years younger than he was, didn’t know what to make of him.

“They’re looking at me wondering, ‘Is this court-ordered?’ ‘Life out of options, old man?'” he says. “Not to get all weird on you, but sometimes you feel called by God to do something. And then you find yourself with a bunch of kids around your bed at night crying because they’ve never been away from home and you’re the closest thing they’ve got to a parent, and you realize, ‘OK, Lord, I’m right where I’m supposed to be.'”

Still, he never expected to be held up as the perfect symbol of the 2020 college football season: a guy driving a truck full of equipment on a road to nowhere, waiting to hear whether one team’s COVID testing results would push him on toward his destination or force him to turn around and go home.

“This whole thing is probably one of the goofiest things ever,” Lehmann says. “For me, the emotional side wasn’t there like it would be for the players or coaches. I just needed to know whether to go east or west. Given all that’s happened in the world this year, for me to drive 12 hours and then have to turn around really isn’t that big of a deal.”

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