Bitterroot Blaze head coach and defensive lineman Joe Murawa started getting 7 a.m. wake-up calls last week. His players and teammates were phoning to remind him—as if he needed reminding—exactly how many days remained until the upstart Blaze, in their first season of the Rocky Mountain Football League (RMFL), take on the defending division champions from up the road, the second-season Missoula Raptors.

To say Montana’s new semiprofessional football rivalry is intense would be an understatement. The competition goes beyond the usual neighborly bragging rights and threatens to reopen the wounds inflicted when most of the current Blaze team defected from the Raptors to start their own team. Blaze starting quarterback Buckie Brawley, starting running back Justin Nixon, and most of the defense played for Missoula last season. Since those former teammates became opponents, the blood’s turned bad; chatter on the RMFL message boards between players—and even more so between fans—is unprintable, even in the Independent.

“I’ve been in enough bar fights and street fights to know that the guys who talk are the ones who are scared,” says Murawa, claiming the Raptors are doing most of the trash talking. “They can pop their chests out and run around the henhouse, but come Friday they’ll get what’s coming to them.”

Murawa doesn’t stop there: he claims to have seen “car washes run more professionally” than the Raptors organization, and says the “heart and soul” of last year’s Raptors team is now in the Bitterroot, leaving the current Missoula roster with “scraps.”

“All I can tell you is our guys down here are ready to play,” says Murawa. “This is the game.”

As if the rivalry needed any more buildup, it’s been scheduled for Friday, April 21, with a 7 p.m. kickoff under the lights at Loyola Rams Stadium. Blaze founder and starting linebacker Bryan Hellyer predicts more than 1,000 Bitterroot fans will travel to the big game, and while Raptors founder and offensive lineman Rajiem Seabrook prefers not to guess at the likely attendance, he acknowledges it will be a big crowd; the Raptors April 8 home opener against Kalispell drew just 700 spectators.

“I don’t think it’s as big for us as it is for them,” Seabrook says, denying that any players, per team rules, are contributing to the message board bickering. “Considering our records [the Raptors are 2-0, the Blaze 1-1], the fact they’re actually favored to win the division and that, as the new team, they have so much more to prove, I think the pressure’s more on them. We’re just trying to treat it like any other game.”

Fat chance.

But for all the pre-game smacktalk and what’s sure to be on-field intensity, rest assured that in the end it’s only a game.

Says Hellyer: “I hear we’re all supposed to be going to the Elbow Room afterwards.” Leaving just one score to be settled: who’s buying?

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