Sean Tufts is a former CU football player and Ralphie Handler. Now he’s back at CU, this time with a cause.
At the age of 6, Sean Tufts (Soc’04, MBA’11) received direction that altered the course of his life.
“My soccer coach walked me over to the football field and said, ‘You should do this instead,’” said Tufts.
His early decision to play football eventually brought him fame at CU and in the NFL. But today, the former star CU linebacker — and Ralphie Handler — has a larger intention: Helping former CU athletes in need, especially those struggling with their mental health.
Tufts is head of the Buffs4Life organization, which provides a crisis hotline, resources and funds to former CU players and their families.
“We want to get to people before their worst day,” said Tufts, who lost his friend Drew Wahlroos (A&S’02) to suicide in 2017.
“I was a middle linebacker and he was outside,” said Tufts. “Almost every picture I have in a Buffs uniform, Drew was somewhere in the background.”
The decision to lead Buffs4Life was an easy one: Like football, CU was part of his life at an early age.
“In elementary school, if you had a good day in gym, the coach would put you on his shoulders and you’d get to slap a picture of Eric Bieniemy (Soc’01),” Tufts said.
After playing linebacker at Denver’s Cherry Creek High School, the country’s No. 17 recruit chose CU over Michigan. (Bieniemy became one of his coaches.) From 2001 to 2003, he played starting middle linebacker, finishing his senior season with 95 tackles.
“Sean took football very seriously,” said Brian Cabral (Rec’79), who was on the Buffs’ coaching staff for 24 seasons. “It was like having another coach on the field.”
“Everybody needs help sometimes, whether you’re the Heisman winner or an 18-year-old engineering student.”
In 2004, Tufts was drafted by the Carolina Panthers in the NFL’s sixth round. A knee injury ended his professional football career after three years.
“The funny part is, for everybody except Peyton Manning and John Elway, it all ends more abruptly than you thought it would,” said Tufts, 37.
Tufts reinvented himself. He applied to business school at Stanford, but still felt a strong pull to Colorado. He returned to CU for his MBA.
“I wanted to challenge myself, to come back to Boulder and prove that I was invested in the community,” he said.
Back on campus, Tufts again found himself at Folsom Field on Saturdays — this time as a Ralphie Handler. He and Chad Hammond (Engl’01) are the only two former football players to run with Ralphie.
“She’s got a sandpaper tongue, like 80 grit industrial sandpaper, and she loves licking leather,” he said of the recently retired Ralphie V. “She’d wear out your boots or try to take the gloves from your pocket.”
After graduating, Tufts started a business leasing land for the development of wind farms. Forbes named him to its “30 under 30” in 2011 for his work.
In 2017, he joined Optiv Inc., a Denver information security company, working with cyber security solutions for critical infrastructure, which includes everything from power plants to dishwashers.
In the midst of his thriving career, he again answered the CU call. In 2017, Cabral asked him to serve as the president of Buffs4Life.
“Every time we talked, he just took Buffs4Life to another level,” said Cabral, who is on the board for the nonprofit. “It was a natural fit.”
Since 2005, more than 40 other Buffs or their families have received Buffs4Life support. Last year, proceeds from the Kyle MacIntosh 5K, one of the nonprofit’s signature events, went to the family of TJ Cunningham (Comm’99), who was killed in February 2019.
Tufts hopes Buffs4Life can become a model for the rest of campus.
“Everybody needs help sometimes, whether you’re the Heisman winner or an 18-year-old engineering student,” he said.
Photos courtesy CU Athletics