When a running back gets tackled by the Colorado School of Mines defense, they’re left with the lasting impression that they were just pummeled by a bunch of nerds.
“You get run over and the last thing you see is the back of the helmet that says ‘computer science,’” says Tim Flynn, the school’s assistant athletic director. “It’s a nice psychological advantage.”
Mines football players have stickers on their helmets that list their major. That’s how seriously this team takes academics at a university that’s widely regarded as one of the best engineering schools in the world.
They are nerds. And they wear that label with a badge of honor.
When you think of nerds, you may think of the sitcom, “The Big Bang Theory,” where Sheldon goes on and on about string theory or the Born-Oppenheimer approximation. And anyone who remembers the 1980s is probably familiar with the all-time geek anthem movie, “Revenge of the Nerds,” where glasses and pocket protector-wearing students clash with their university’s football team.
But at the Mines campus in Golden, there is no stereotypical jocks versus nerds rivalry – because everyone is a nerd. In fact, the athletic department’s motto is: Where Nerds Win.
“I do like that nerds label,” said Eb Alfred-Igbokwe, a senior chemical engineering student who plays defensive end for the Orediggers. “It shows how smart we are. Because they don’t call people nerds because they’re strong or big — it's how intelligent they are. And on the football team, we pride ourselves on our intelligence.
“We think we’re the smartest football program in the nation. And being a nerd is cool because that just means you're interested in learning. You can learn every day.”
And here’s the thing: The Mines football team is really good.
The Orediggers have won three straight Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference titles. And just last year, Mines was one game away from playing for a Division II national championship. So far this season, they’re undefeated in conference play. Through four RMAC games, Mines has outscored their opponents 222-57.
Not bad for a bunch of nerds.
“We talk all the time about how our organization isn’t a normal football program,” said freshman punter Matthew Eich. “Especially with the stuff we gotta go through at school. And I feel like it bonds us all tighter together, this football team.”
Slot receiver Tristan Smith, who’s in a masters-level engineering and technology management program, says Mines football players share a unique camaraderie.
“Because if you go to other schools and you wanna do engineering and push yourself academically (and play football), you're kind of on an island to yourself,” said Smith, who has won several conference awards for his play and academic performance. “Whereas here, everyone struggles together and I think it helps bring our team dynamic a lot closer.”
No matter their program of study, from chemical and biological engineering to advanced energy systems, Flynn says Mines football players aren’t immune to the school’s rigorous curriculum.
“There’s no easy majors at Mines,” he said. “These kids really have to work the same load on the academic side and they’re adding athletics on top of it,” he said. “It’s an incredible balance they have to do.”
In addition to his duties on the football field, wide receiver Roberto Valenzuela, a biochemistry major, says he’s ‘“gone through organic chemistry, inorganic chemistry, physical chemistry, differential equations and thermodynamics.”
“So, those classes can be pretty brutal,” Valenzuela said.
On top of everything, Valenzuela is also the team barber. And, interestingly, he wants to go to dental school after graduating. So, you can say that Valenzuela gets to knock some teeth out on the field … “and then replace them later,” he says with a laugh.
Whether you wanna be an engineer – or a dentist or a barber for that matter – everyone is on the same page at Mines. And the success of the nerdy football team is appreciated by the nerdy students who follow them.
At a recent Orediggers game, freshman Ariana Rouse, who plays drums in the school’s band, was warming up with her bandmates just before the football team took the field.
She’s familiar with the athletic department’s motto.
“‘Where Nerds Win,’ yep, that's definitely us,” she said. “It's awesome, because honestly I don't think anyone expects Mines students to be athletic or anything. We are just a very ‘stick-to-the-book’ kind of people. But then we get out on the field and it's just great.”
Freshman Jackson Stathis agrees.
“I think at Mines you have an interesting combination of nerds and jocks,” he said. “Even the jocks are engineering students who are just as nerdy as you. So anyone really can be a football player here and you would have no idea.”
For students, alumni, anyone who follows the Orediggers, the excellence in the classroom at Mines is replicated also in athletics. It all makes for one, big, nerdy family.
“You can be a nerd. And you can also be great at football and win games all the time.”
You want to know what is really going on these days, especially in Colorado. We can help you keep up. The Lookout is a free, daily email newsletter with news and happenings from all over Colorado. Sign up here and we will see you in the morning!