EDEN — It must have been a serious rivalry. At least it seemed that way last week when I finally found the trophy bell, a few hundred yards above Wolf Mountain ski area. It had a red frame, green base and "Rio Grande Railroad" engraved on its face.
Just below, in faint lettering, it said "University of Utah" and "University of Denver" and something nearly illegible that might have said "Trotsall Trophy."
Six months, two 150-mile driving trips, a couple of uphill hikes, and conversations with 10 people had finally yielded what I wanted to see. The bell wasn't in pristine condition. It had been marred by thousands of camp kids who probably should have been hiking or playing capture the flag. On the back side were two bullet holes; the crank was broken off.
Most of the writing had been scraped, worn away or tarnished.
Still, it was apparent the bell was once the symbol of football supremacy between Utah and Denver universities.
What it was doing there in the forest, at an LDS summer camp, I had no idea.
U. of Denver U hasn't had a football team in a half-century. Rivalries can come and go, but if someone isn't the keeper of the flame, not only the rivalry, but the reminders vanish. Before you know it, five decades have passed and nobody cares.
I'm thinking the bell should someday end up back at its old residence — in the Utah trophy case.
Or Denver's, whichever won the last game.
Actually, we know who won the last game. Their final meeting was in 1960, with Utah winning 49-16 — which might have been what convinced the Pioneers to drop football at the end of that season.
The teams first met in 1903, when Utah football was just 11 years old. They played 43 times, with Utah winning 28, losing 10 and tying five. That's one more game than Utah played against BYU before 1960.
Denver never beat Utah by more than 16 points, but Utah won by a combined score of 132-0 during one span in the 1930s.
I started thinking about writing a column on the bell back in November. A reader e-mailed me to say he had notice the inscriptions several years earlier, during a break in a youth camp. The bell was used to summon kids from surrounding campsites for meals and meetings.
The reader said he wondered how it ended up where it was. So did I.
Denver and Utah were in the Rocky Mountain and Skyline conferences together. Today, the scores from the 1955-57 games remain faintly visible. Utah won two of those three games. Other scores are partially or completely obliterated.
The trophy made its last trip over the Rockies after the 1958 game; Utah won the final three contests of the series. It wouldn't travel again until someone hauled it up to camp, where it has resided ever since, ringing out the glad tidings — not that Utah has defeated Denver, but rather, that dinner is served.
The first time I went looking for the bell, two weeks ago, I stopped at Wolf Mountain and asked a couple of maintenance people if they had ever heard a bell chiming through the hills. They hadn't. But they suggested I check out a youth camp nearby. I drove to the gate, then walked up through the camp and squinted down Wandering Wolf and Barney's Way ski runs. Nothing. After 30 fruitless minutes, I drove home and looked up the phone number of the guy who originally sent me on the search. He said I had been on course, but had stopped one or two switchbacks too soon.
So last week, I tried again, hiking until I ran smack into the bell. It sits near a house where Richard and Karen Thompson are serving an LDS mission, tending the property. They said about 2,000 youth visit the camp each year. That explains why the bell is so beat up. If there's one thing camp kids like, it's something to kick, scratch, hammer or dent. Then there's the damage done by hunters, hikers and snowboarders.
Before the Thompsons arrived, Ken and Connie Chambers — father and stepmother of former Ute and NBA basketball player Tom Chambers — served at the camp. Ken said he got looking at the bell three years ago and could read "University of Utah" faintly, so he cleaned it up. Soon, he said, he could make out six or seven scores. I could only see three by the time I arrived.
Yet neither the Chambers, the Thompsons, nor even Rulon Cummings — who was involved in the camp development from its earliest years — could tell me exactly how the bell got there.
I called Ned Alger, who was an assistant football coach when Utah and Denver were playing. He remembered the bell and the rivalry, but none of the details. He suspected someone donated it when the U. moved its athletic offices from the Einar Nielsen Fieldhouse to what is now the Huntsman Center in 1969.2 comments on this story
Forty years after the move, I rang the bell a couple of times, and it pealed out loud and clear. But it didn't tell me who took it to its present location. Or who donated the bell. Or whether it was actually donated, or just hauled off with the junk.
I left feeling a little wistful that the teams aren't still playing. But considering the directions the programs have gone — Denver's kaput, Utah's to the national rankings — I concluded it's not a rivalry that should be resumed.
Remembering is one thing, resurrecting is another.