George Snyder defies death; lives for Gilpin basketball

georgeBarbara Lawlor, Gilpin County. Last August, George Snyder of Gilpin County went to the hospital to have his right knee repaired. It had been giving him pain for years. When he was released from the hospital in September, he was happy to be home, but he wasn’t there for long.

After slipping and falling down, he realized he couldn’t get up. His wife called for help, and an ambulance with EMTs showed up to help him into the house. Later, George was unable to communicate and was taken to the ICU at Lutheran where it was determined that he had septicemia and was given a less than 10 percent chance to live.

George doesn’t know how this happened, and was not totally cognizant during the days of dialysis and a breathing machine. He was told that after five days, he had jumped up and torn out all of his tubes and IVs.

“But I don’t remember any of that,” says George. “And I don’t know how I survived. I wasn’t conscious of any of it. All I know was I was thirsty and wanted some of the ice crystals they brought me. I kept thinking, ‘Lord, I guess you brought me here to die so I better get doing it.”

After this statement to the heavens, George fell asleep and when he woke up he was hungry and thirsty and knew who and where he was.

After three weeks in rehabilitation, George could walk again. But the sepsis returned and he was taken to St. Anthony’s, where he was told he had a Staph infection in his blood. After a week there, he went home and enjoyed two weeks away from the hospital. He carried a bag with a computer that continuously injected antibiotics into his body. The bag was replaced every 24 hours.

When his temperature shot up, he was taken to Lutheran to discover he had diverticulitis and was having heart palpitations and breathing hard. It turns out that he was allergic to the medicine.

“Well, we finally got everything calmed down and I began feeling better, can walk with a cane and was out of the hospital just in time for the basketball game against Nederland on December 2.”

George sat in a chair behind the Eagles’ bench, his notebook on his lap, his cane leaning near him, carefully watching what was happening on the court. Every now and then he leaned forward to say something to a player, to give them a smile of encouragement, or to offer a suggestion to Coach Paul Hanson. As the clamor of the gymnasium buzzed around him, the sound of the ball bouncing on the hardwood, the ref’s whistle, the shouts of the fans, George felt happy. This is what he lived for, this is where he wanted to be.

In fact, the Gilpin School gym plays a large role in George’s life and how he came to be a member of the coaching team. He was born in Ventura, California but moved to Lakewood, Colorado, when he was 10. While attending Alameda High School, he tried out for basketball but was the last cut from the team. “I was insulted and didn’t try out again, but I knew I ought to do something, so I became the team manager. I brought towels to the players to wipe their faces and I shined the basketballs.”

Although he didn’t make it to the court, George became the pitcher on the baseball team in his senior year; says he threw a mean forkball. In college at DU, George studied journalism and minored in history. As a reporter for the college newspaper he got to travel with the basketball team, getting to know the players and the game.

george and cindy snydaer

After graduating from DU in 1960, George became an apprentice sports writer for the Denver Post. He says he probably should have pursued that as a career, but instead he got a job teaching English at Hillrose, where he was asked to coach the junior high school basketball teams. “We won both seasons I taught. They were a good bunch of kids and every coach likes to win. But I got bit by the bug. It was like a disease. I was addicted to basketball.”

He lived on the plains about 15 miles from Fort Morgan, with another teacher. He says he was probably a lot happier there, then, than he thought he was.

“We had an oil stove to heat us and one night we ran out before the Big Blizzard and the driver couldn’t get through. Then a car hit a telephone pole and all the electricity was out. It was dark and cold but we stayed warm enough and we survived the night.”

He remembers that the kids in the area didn’t have much to do and one of their favorite pastimes was speeding past the local cops, getting them to hit the lights and sirens and chase after them. The kids would then pull into a corn field and lose them.

One night the kids broke into George’s house and stole a pair of long johns and ran them up the flag pole at the school. They also stole a half gallon of ice cream. Near the end of school, George found out who the culprits were. One of the dads bought a half gallon of ice cream and made his son eat the whole thing as punishment.

When George received his draft notice in 1962, he decided to join the National Guard, but when he went to be sworn in, he was told that teachers were exempted and he had lost his job for nothing.

After being hired by Crowley County High School, he was heading to Limon by way of I-70 one night, when he saw lights on in the Agate High School gym. He pulled over and went in to watch a basketball game between Agate and Gilpin County.

“I noticed that Gilpin County was not doing very well, and suddenly had a thought that that might be a possibility, a chance to coach. All I had to do was ask.”

So he called to find out that the Gilpin basketball coach would rather be a football coach, and in the summer of 1963, George moved to Gilpin County to teach English and coach basketball. There were about 50 students in the high school at the time and the school was located in what is now the Central City Museum. The grade school was in the current Gaming Office.

At the time George took over, Gilpin High School had won two games the previous season, but George had Dennis and Jerry Stahn. Dennis was 6’2″, 220 pounds, and all he had to do was wiggle his hips under the basket to grab a rebound. He was all all-league football player. Jerry was smaller and quick.

The team was scheduled to play Crowley County on December 19 in the old quonset hut gymnasium, when the Crowley team changed its mind, saying it was too far. Mount Carmel in Denver agreed to come up and play their B squad. “Their varsity was unbeaten and the boys were cocky,” says George. “We threw a triangle and two on the top two scores and kept them 10 under their usual score and in the last few minutes we beat them. The Register Call didn’t even run a story and I thought it was an important game.”

Before the game, the team had told George that if they won, they would throw him in the shower. George remembers that game as the only one his father ever saw. He had to hike soaking wet to his house on the hill above Central City.

At the time, the Union Pacific Basketball League had kicked Gilpin out because the team was too weak. George and his boys went independent and that season they beat Nederland two out of four games, beat Idaho Springs and a sophomore Boulder Team.

“That shook up the Union Pacific coaches who sent scouts to check us out. We finished 8-8 that year. When Gilpin played Agate in the tournament, Dennis Stahn was injured and the Agate boys took the game by one point. We played Strasburg for the consolation prize and won. We were the only Gilpin team to win the UP trophy.”

At this time Ralph Callabrese was the Gilpin Superintendent of Schools. One day his son was caught fighting in the parking lot during the sixth hour class and the superintendent ran down the steps to stop them. As he stepped in between the pugilists, he was clocked by a haymaker and the kids disappeared, thinking he was dead. A whiff of smelling salts brought him to. The boys were never punished. It would have been too embarrassing.

It was about this time that the school board was pressing to build a new school, one closer to the north end of the county to bring  back kids who were going to Nederland. Phillip Pyles was the new principal—the same principal who was at Agate when George graduated.

It was a bad football year for the Eagles. Their number one running back couldn’t play and George injured his back during a practice. The boys didn’t win a game that season and George said it was important the basketball team come out on top. Without Dennis Stahn, the team won only one game.

“I was getting desperate. Maybe I needed to get thrown out, so I began yelling at the refs but they wouldn’t kick me out. Pyles was pissed off, ‘cause he wanted to win the sportsmanship trophy. I wanted the other kind of trophy. In the Estes Game we lost by one and that was my last game. I was done at Gilpin.”

George headed back east to the flatlands to coach at Seibert. He chuckles: “We were so bad, Flagler beat us 103-0, that we won the record for bad. Lone Star has since beat us, 110-0.”

The best part of the era was beating Bennett by one point when the trapped guard launched a hook shot as the buzzer sounded. “That was our biggest accomplishment of the year.”

In the second year, George was told by the Bennett coach that he “got more out of the guys than anyone I have ever seen.”

But in his third year, George had enough varsity, went back to junior high and took second place in the championship.

Moving on to Montana, George ended up teaching in a Montana oil town that needed a coach. Then in 1974 went to the University of Northern Colorado to earn a master’s degree in education. He worked for the Colorado Secretary of State, where he met his wife Cindy.

He was then asked to coach at Arickarree, a school in the middle of nowhere, where all the administration and staff lived near each other. George was the principal and the basketball coach and it was his job to discipline the students. Once during a staff meeting a kid threw a bunch of tomatoes at the school building and when George found the senior who did it, he made him scrub tomato seeds off the building and grounds.

In 1986, there was only enough money to pay one administrator, so George resigned and headed to Georgetown for the next 25 years, becoming a Mason and a member of the Elks Club. During this time he drove to Gilpin to put together a Little League baseball team, to assist Fred Webber. George became the pitching coach and the league president. At the end of the year, when the kids won the league tournament, George decided that instead of driving 30 miles each day he would move to Gilpin.

In 2006, he moved back to Gilpin County, knowing he would want to stay. He wrote to Paul Hanson, the basketball coach, asking if Paul might need a scout or a member of the coaching staff. He just couldn’t stay away. He was accepted and since then hasn’t missed a home game and often traveled to other schools to see what the competition looked like.

“I keep records and pick up on the formations and plays and give suggestions on how to win the game. I like to help but the coach rules the game.”

So far, George hasn’t been up to scouting, but says he is very happy to just be at the practices and games.

“This year’s team is going to have a good season and will be a great team next year.”

He looks forward to getting healthy again and says he is too old to coach or he would still be doing it.

“I just hope we will go to the state tournament. That’s the biggest objective I have, and when that gets fulfilled, then I don’t know what my goal will be.”

Barbara Lawlor

Barbara is a reporter for The Mountain-Ear.