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Run with it

How to survive Homecoming

Hundreds of extra bodies will swarm into Missoula the first weekend in October, as out-of-town Griz fans and University of Montana alumni gather for the annual glut of Homecoming festivities. Hotels are booked up. The Homecoming parade is locked in. Tickets for the football game are going for as much as $61 on eBay. Griz Nation, in other words, is primed for a hell of a party.

So what's a local to do when the bars are full, the traffic's backed up and the streets are awash in maroon and silver?

The easy solution is to hunker down at home and wait out the crowds. But cabin fever's a nasty ailment. Disrupting the usual Missoula routine of Saturday markets, mid-afternoon hikes and lazy beer garden get-togethers can feel like a wasted weekend, especially in these waning days of summer. And there's really no need to—provided you follow a few simple survivor steps for Homecoming.

click to enlarge PHOTO BY STEELE WILLIAMS

Know the lay of the land. Sure, homework was a total buzz-kill in college, but studying the calendar of events for UM's Homecoming week can save time and stress. The All Alumni Dance and Social, hosted at the Holiday Inn Downtown at the Park by the Office of Alumni Relations, promises to be a hotbed of Homecoming activity on Friday, Sept. 30. And where do all those thirsty UM grads of yore end up when the live jazz winds down? According to events coordinator Jay Kettering, probably at their old college haunts. That means long lines for drinks downtown, the bane of any Friday night. Finding a quieter bar away from the bustle—The Sunrise Saloon, Desperado, or any joint at the south end of Brooks Street—seems an obvious choice.

The real trick comes on Saturday morning, when popular brunch spots like the Old Post and the Shack swell at the seams. Reservations are virtually non-existent around town, and everyone's in a rush to get their meals before the start of the Homecoming parade. Adding to the downtown chaos are UM's 5K Homecoming Hustle and the usual host of market shoppers. By 10 a.m.—the start time for the parade—driving is more a hindrance than a convenience. To avoid getting "marooned" on the wrong side of Higgins when the marching bands and floats start their trek toward campus, Kettering suggests biking or busing to your destination. His advice for managing UM's temporary dominion over Missoula is simple: "Be aware of it."

"The alternatives are slim," he adds. "It's either bike, walk or bus, or park a good distance away. I don't know if there's really any magic solution."

Kettering had no estimates to offer on the number of alumni traveling in for the weekend. His best guess? Thousands.

But there's an appealing alternative to all-out avoidance of the Homecoming throngs: Don't fight the wave of Griz mania, ride it. Most of the festivities are open to the public and offer enough free music and complementary eats to make up for the mild inconveniences. Immediately following the bonfire and fireworks show on the Oval Sept. 30, the alumni jazz band and local rock quartet House of Quist are set to play the alumni social at the Holiday Inn.

click to enlarge PHOTO BY CHAD HARDER

The biggest perk to jumping on the Homecoming wagon, however, comes on Saturday afternoon when the Griz go head to head with the University of Northern Colorado Bears. Homecoming tickets are a rare commodity these days due to increases in season ticket sales and reserved student seating. Alumni Relations began selling its allotted Homecoming tickets to registered members of the 1971 class reunion—with a limit of two per alumnus—back in July.

"It's probably more difficult than ever to get a Homecoming ticket," Kettering says. "Even though they've added more seats to the stadium, the popularity is still so great."

To accommodate the hundreds of inbound alumni not lucky enough to snag a seat at the game, Alumni Relations began hosting a TV Tailgate in the Adams Center four years ago. By Kettering's account, it's just about the best alternative in town to watching the game in Washington-Grizzly Stadium—and it's open to the public. They leave the gym doors open, he says, so those watching the 11-foot projector screen can hear the cannon and the roar of the crowd. It's "growing every year," Kettering says. "It's a pretty good alternative if you want to be on campus and as close to the stadium as you can get without being in the stadium. It's probably easier to get a seat there than at the Press Box or trying to find a sports bar."

And for those ready to fully immerse themselves in the Homecoming hoopla, the TV Tailgate comes with an added bonus: A raffle for two stadium tickets, held just before kickoff.

As for the post-game exodus, you're on your own.

—Alex Sakariassen

The Contest

There was a big football game on campus the day Holden Caulfield got kicked out of school in The Catcher In The Rye. "You were supposed to commit suicide or something if old Pencey didn't win," he said. That's just the kind of goth-girl, can't-do attitude I'm determined to bring with me to the University of Montana versus Eastern Washington football contest.

I'm hung over from last night, so we're off on the right foot. It's a cruel joke that I've been sent on this assignment. You'd be hard pressed to find a girl with less school spirit. But, believe it or not, I know the rules of football. I leave my house at 12:30 on foot for the 1:05 kickoff. I should have known that to get the full spectacle, you should aim to arrive six months early. I talk to a girl from a sorority who's been playing beer pong in the parking lot since 10 a.m. By the time I get my press pass and filter in, the Griz have already scored a touchdown and spirits are high.

Looking down into the stadium is mesmerizing. The players seem so close, like toys you could pick up and move around. Maroon-clad fans envelope the field in a warm hug. I'm wearing my black hoodie with a bleeding heart on the chest, the one that makes me feel safe. The cheerleaders are wearing black as well, but it's not the same. My outfit implies dark sunglasses and a cigarette.

Usually, I'm a vegetarian, but I'm alone and suddenly I want to fit in, so I buy a hotdog. I hope it will temper my pounding head, but I'm pretty sure that by anybody's standards it's a bad hotdog, cold and rubbery. Every time, I'm startled by how long it takes to chew and swallow an animal.

The Griz kick a field goal, and here's something you might not know: Whenever the home team scores, there's a very loud gunshot. I jump. A man standing next to me with a walkie-talkie laughs.

"I wasn't expecting that," I say, pointlessly.

There's nowhere to sit and I don't want to, really, so I spend much of the game walking along the periphery. The hotdog is starting to make me sick, or I'm still hung over, or both. I pause at a garbage bag thinking I'm going to hurl when a man taps me on the shoulder.

"Where can I get one of those cushion seats," he asks, "and where can I get a coke?"

How the fuck should I know? I want to tell him, but then I realize my press pass must grant me authority. I think I'm important, too, but not like that. "The stadium is a big circle, dude," I say. "Just walk in any direction and you'll find what you're looking for."

The nausea passes. I eat a mini pizza. I notice a sign dangling above my head: "Not in Our House."

"What does that mean?" I ask its owner.

The sign means that the other team is not permitted to score more points than our team because this is our stadium and we would instead prefer to win.

The man with the sign tells me he's a season ticket holder. He seems delighted to talk to a reporter about his love for his team, his city, his country. I notice a cluster of red shirts behind the end zone—the Eastern Washington crowd—and decide to head down there in search of someone with a bad attitude.

click to enlarge PHOTO BY STEELE WILLIAMS

I find instead an incredibly congenial Eastern Washington fan named Mike.

"What's it like to be an away fan at these games?" I ask him.

"It's great," Mike says. Missoula is great. He comes to all of these match-ups. The Griz fans are warm and accommodating, he says, and he loves the town and the people in it. There's a little bit of friendly heckling, which is all part of the fun. He says we're especially nice when we win.

Eastern Washington won the FCS National Championship last year but so far they have a losing season. The Griz are 1-1. I overheard all this at the bar last night, and now I converse with Mike about it freely, like I'm some sort of expert. Then I go back to wandering around like a lost child.

I pass a couple of teenagers and I ask them my ace-in-the-hole question: "Why are you here?"

"We're pre-recruits," They say. One of them shows me a pass that says "Pre-recruits."

"I don't know what that means."

"It means they brought us to the game because we might play for the Griz!"

But they look so tiny! I've already grown attached. I don't want my little cubs to get hurt. They're from "Butte, America" and they ask me to emphasize this point. I will never get over how considerate Montana teenagers are. In Michigan, where I come from, these kids would have insulted my mother and then violated the Eastern Washington mascot.

I'm struck by all the families and children here. I see a few drunken people outside, but most everyone inside seems lucid and interested in having a nice time. There's nowhere to buy booze in the stadium.

I'm standing to the side on the concrete steps when a very drunk man comes lumbering down. The man in front of him catches his fall, and the drunken man says, "You wanna knock me out?" But it's clear nobody wants to knock anybody out. They're both wearing the same maroon outfit. A third man emerges, smiling, and gently escorts the drunk man down the stairs and out of the stadium. "You're alright, buddy," he says. It's a touching, slightly sad moment and I feel lucky to be alive to see it.

Remember the football game? Eastern Washington is advancing toward the end zone and there's a rule to spectating: The crowd gets super loud when the other team is on offense. It gives us a sense of control in a world full of chaos. We feel like we're helping.

It's first and goal and the Griz shuts them down. It's second and goal, less than a yard to the end zone, and they try to edge their way through. Everyone piles up like hamsters and Washington is thwarted again.

I'm starting to get emotionally involved. I want them to prevent this touchdown.

It's third and goal. Washington opts for a passing play, and...there's an interception! The Griz player runs it down the field for a 50-yard gain and the crowd goes wild! I actually clap and cheer for the first time, before I become embarrassed by my outburst.

It's halftime. I mindlessly follow the throng into the parking lot. Two shirtless men walk in front of me with the words "Down" and "First" written on their backs. I consider tapping them on the shoulders and asking them to switch places.

I wander out onto the grass where there is much beer drinking, more hotdog eating, and a bunch of little kids running around in Griz wear, which is painfully cute. I watch two little ones wrestling. They have to be twins, with their matching maroon hoodies and tiny jean shorts and oh my god. I hadn't anticipated the football contest would make my clock tick.

They each cling to one of their father's legs and he pats them on their heads and laughs. I start to think about my own father, how we used to go to the Detroit Lions games and watch Barry Sanders play and how special that was. I wonder if my father is watching me from heaven and if he's proud of me—which is weird, because he's not dead.

Halftime is about over and I think I should go find some potential husbands to "interview," but I can't find anybody worthy. We have nothing in common; they're all football fans.

Football is a neat but flawed sport. It seems unfair that only some people on the team get to catch the ball and only one person gets to throw it. That's why an interception is so extraordinary. That defensive player wasn't groomed to run down the field like that. It wasn't supposed to happen. College ball is less crisp and stylized than pro football. Earlier I saw an Eastern Washington player catch the ball and then down himself because the defensive players rushed at him. Apparently he got scared and fell over. And college ball is not yet ruined by fantasy football. Have you ever watched a game with one of those fools? Ask them who they want to win and they'll say, "Well, I'm rooting for the Seahawks defensive line, but I hope the Raiders have a good running game, because..." zzzzzz.

There is a mildly infectious mood in this stadium. Whenever Montana gets a first down, the announcer yells "First Down!" and the crowd screams back, "MONTANA!" It reminds me of Catholic mass, when everybody says "and also with you" at secret times I'm not privy to.

I'm told there are over 26,000 people in the stadium, and almost all of them seem bent on one precious, albeit inconsequential outcome. Montana never loses the lead, which makes us all feel safe. The stadium hums with love.

Eastern Washington gets close in the fourth quarter. They combine a couple of tight passing plays for a touchdown, plus a thrilling 2-point conversion, putting the score at 17-14 Griz with about 5 minutes left. That means we're a field goal away from a tie game, and I'm thinking, "Dear God, don't let this game go into overtime." It's fun and all, but Jesus, we've been here for three hours.

We win the game and I'm happy everyone is so happy. The stadium roars. I listen intently to the post-game chatter. The fans seem pleased but a little sleepy after so much fun in the sun. A red shirt passes through the crowd, and a guy near me says to his friend—he's not even talking to Red Shirt; he's having an implied, safe conversation with his friend about what he might have said— "You guys played a good game..." He trails off, searching fort the perfect words. "Just not good enough!"

Bears, as we know, are both fierce killers of men and plush comfort objects for children. Clearly, this Griz fan has claws. And that theoretical Eastern Washington fan is going to cry his eyes out.

—Molly Laich

Tailgating do's and don'ts

Wisdom gleaned from the throng of Griz fans grilling and imbibing around Washington-Grizzly stadium before the Sept. 17 game against rival Eastern Washington:

Do: "Have your tailgate marked well so your friends can find you," says Michelle Farris, who points to the pirate flag with the words "Time flies when you're having rum" aloft above the pickup behind her. You might want to look for the pirate flag, too, because Farris and company make tasty bacon-wrapped water chestnuts.

click to enlarge PHOTO BY STEELE WILLIAMS

Don't: "Don't leave the stereo on too long, because you'll have to have the porta-potty truck jump start you," says Tom Johns. Yes, this happened to Johns, a 25-year tailgating veteran who's expecting 50 to 60 people to arrive shortly—which explains the five tables of food.

Do: "Have a wife that likes to shop for this stuff," says Johns, smiling at his wife, Boo Johns.

Don't: "Don't get so falling-down drunk that you streak," says Kris Hosick, lounging in a camp chair and drinking a beer. He's referring to UM student Daniel Thew, who during the Sept. 10 game tore off his clothes, stole a cheerleader's megaphone and traipsed around the field.

Do: "Keep your clothes on—or at least shave. You have to groom." So says Mark, standing in a circle of friends outside an RV. He didn't want his full name attached to such a lewd comment.

Don't: "Don't dump your used charcoal in the field," says Lisa Schindler. "That's what the frat boys do sometimes." She's clearly perturbed by this.

Do: If a youngish person asks for a beer, check their ID, says Kathy Brodie. Last week, she says, a 20-something offered to trade beef jerky for a cold one. "I gave him a beer. Why not? But I ID'd him first. I wasn't about to get busted for that."

Don't: "Don't bitch about the music," hollers Jeff Bragg, who's blaring AC/DC out the back of his pickup. He yells that he plays music louder than anyone else in the lot.

Do: "Always have an Italian on your team," says David Paoli, who wears a white apron and stands over a grill and a ridiculously delicious-looking platter of marinated tri-tip steaks.

Don't: Smoke. It's illegal now on campus. And don't get Rex Boller started. He says the new rule is "an infringement on my personal Grizzly rights...I used to have a cigar to celebrate the game. No more. Are they going to outlaw alcohol next?" Another smoker, Marcy Best, says, "We're just killing ourselves—why can't they just let us be?"

Do: Start drinking early. "If you don't get started early, you can't drink all day long," says a white-bearded man named Tom, who's leaning on his tailgate, gleefully drunk at 11 a.m.

Don't: "Don't count the beers coming out of your cooler," says Bob Lins. "There's no accounting." Mi cerveza, su cerveza.

click to enlarge PHOTO BY STEELE WILLIAMS

Do: "Always make sure your food's prepared well so you're not getting anyone sick," says Bryce Lawrence, with the scent of bratwurst rising from a nearby grill.

Don't: "Don't leave your stuff sitting around at halftime, because it will disappear," says Kathy Brodie, who learned this lesson the hard way.

Do: Play beer pong with the Kappa Psi guys, who have a table set up in front of the Adams Center. Why play beer pong before a game? "It really brings the fans together," says frat-boy Bryan.

Don't: Leave your crap behind. Bharat Acharya urges others to practice the "Leave no trace" ethic in this Grizzly semi-wilderness. "Pack it in, pack it out."

—Matthew Frank

The Superfan

Lance Hughes, a superfan's superfan, has a tattoo inside his lower lip that says "FTC" for "Fuck the Cats." He's 6 feet 5-and-three quarters inches, 6 feet 6 inches with his boots on, and 238 pounds, with red hair and a red beard. When he yells "Go Griz!" in his booming voice, all other sound seems to disappear.

Hughes has another tattoo, on his right calf: a maroon Grizzly paw with an "H" for "Hughes" in the middle. He and his two brothers all got that same one together, when his younger brother was facing his first deployment to Iraq. And his ankle has an inked "'91" to commemorate Tim Bush, a former Griz football All-America player with whom Hughes worked at Stockman's Bar and who died last summer in a mining accident. "He was an awesome Griz player," says Hughes. "He was one of the greatest dudes ever."

click to enlarge PHOTO BY STEELE WILLIAMS

At the tailgate party Sept. 17, Hughes is eating pulled pork after having just shot-gunned a Pabst Blue Ribbon. It's two hours to the game, and family and friends show up to greet him and gather around his van, which is set up in Parking Lot Z—prime tailgate space, next to the University of Montana's Washington-Grizzly Stadium. "These spaces are, like, you die and then somebody gets it," he says, laughing. "It's the kind of thing that's willed to people."

On the night before the game, Hughes had cleaned his coolers and bought 39 boxes of Twinkies and Ding Dongs. Almost all of his preparation had to do with the party, not the game: making sure there was enough meat to barbecue and enough beer and liquor. The Twinkies and Ding Dongs, though, are for the game itself. Hughes and other superfans sit in the front two rows of section 107. Every time the Griz score, they throw snack cakes into the crowd after the extra point. (They always save some for the players after the game, too.) It's a tradition Hughes's older brother, Bubba, helped start 20 years ago, when Bubba was a kid.

Lance, who is 34, comes from a family of Griz fans. His father, Gary, was a UM assistant athletic director for 34 years, and his three brothers and two sisters all root for the Griz. But until he was in his early 20s, Lance says, he really only cared about skateboarding. Then he attended a Griz game with some rabid fans and found himself stirred as he joined in a cry of "Dee-fense! Dee-fense!" Ever since, he's been smitten.

On game days he wakes his family. "It's like Christmas morning for me," he says. "I get up like a little kid yelling at the wife, 'You excited?'

"And she's, like, 'No. Not yet, stop yelling at me!'

"And I yell, 'You should be excited!'"

Then he turns up the Kanye or Metallica on his iPod, puts on his Griz shirt and starts loading the van. He and his wife, Jessica, have three kids ages 5, 3 and 1. They're not old enough to care about football yet, Lance says, so they don't get to go to the game. Still, it's game day, so they do have to wear their jerseys, even if it's just for the babysitter. "My middle one doesn't like to put hers on," Lance says. "So she doesn't get anything special until she puts it on. My niece watches all the kids and they get root beer floats. But she doesn't get one until she puts the jersey on. She does eventually. Oh yeah. It's game day. It's important. You have to wear your damn jersey."

Lance departs at 10:30 sharp.

"He's in the car at 10:20," says Jessica. "And you better be in the car at 10:30. The only time I didn't get left behind when I was a little bit late was when I was pregnant and I threw a fit: 'You are not leaving a pregnant lady!'" She laughs. "It's serious. He has left people behind, and it will happen—even to me."

When everyone's aboard, they listen to loud party music. No one sings any Griz anthems until the car reaches the light on 6th Street. "We're not allowed to sing the song they come out of the tunnel to—we start that at the light," says Jessica. "And when we get into the parking lot, we do the 'Griz Fight Song'—but not a second before."

Jessica isn't one to complain. She's a big Griz fan, too. When Lance yelled "Go Griz" at the end of his wedding vows, at Caras Park, she didn't flinch, she says. "I didn't expect it, but I wasn't surprised."

click to enlarge Lance Hughes, superfan. - PHOTO BY STEELE WILLIAMS

She knew what she was getting into. Lance was already a Griz fan when they met. She was teaching in Alaska when they talked about getting married. He asked her if she'd start planning a wedding, and she said yes, so they planned a Christmas engagement. But Lance had other plans. When Jessica returned to Missoula in October for homecoming, he had it all set up. He invited family and friends to a game, a ring in his pocket. "We're going to the game, and we're standing in the student section," he says, "and I'm not drinking because I'm so nervous." The plan was to propose at the end of the first quarter. "I'm standing there sweating bullets, hand in my pocket rubbing the ring box."

Suddenly the Griztron lit up with the words "Jessica, will you marry me? Lance Hughes." And Lance was on one knee.

Jessica says she loved the proposal.

"It was pretty rad," Lance says. "22,000 people saw it...I did make sure she wanted to marry me beforehand. People say, 'That's terrible. I would never want anybody to propose that way.' And I tell them, 'I did that.' And they say, 'Yeah, well, it's different—it's you.'"

—Erika Fredrickson

eGriz Nation

Snappy barbs to regurgitate while drinking tall boys and sitting on a tailgate in front of Washington-Grizzly Stadium are plentiful at eGriz.com. Here's one that might win you friends next time you mingle at a Griz football game:

Q: "What does the average MSU player get on his SATs?"

A: "Drool."

The humor is fitting, considering that eGriz.com founder Chris Lynn conceptualized the message board in 2001 while he was in Bozeman, attending Montana State University. Lynn is a diehard Griz fan from Spokane who landed in enemy territory: The Bobcat blue-and-gold that fuels instinctual competitiveness in Griz fans was everywhere. Fortunately, he was able to transfer to UM after his freshman year. The Garden City offered more comfortable surroundings. Not only does the home team wear a pleasing maroon, it also significantly outclasses the MSU Bobcats. Lynn, a computer whiz, went on to earn a bachelor's in business information systems from UM and grow eGriz into a sprawling site that reflects the best—and worst—of Grizzly sports.

eGriz offers multiple forums for fans to exchange thoughts on topics ranging from cheerleader attractiveness to the way Monte the Griz mascot entered the stadium during the last game. Scores and schedules are easy to find. And site contributors, all of them volunteers, often break news. If you want to know who has verbally agreed to join the Griz football team next year, or which UM athlete most recently was charged with DUI, chances are eGriz will be among the first to report it.

click to enlarge PHOTO BY STEELE WILLIAMS

"There's fans out there, I don't know how they do it, they know stuff before I think the people that it's happening to know it," Lynn says. "I don't know what they do in their free time."

eGriz had more than 1.5 million page views during a recent 30-day period. Jokes, scores and breaking news draw traffic, but it's the smack talking—eGriz offers the opportunity to talk about pounding the crap out of opposing teams among like-minded folks—that seems to lure many.

This post from eGriz commenter "tojo70," written just before UM clashed with Eastern Washington, reflects typical fare: Eastern Washington players "act like they're the talk of the town and can do anything they want. They brag about their red field and how it's the greatest thing in the world...They like to jaw and act like they're so great...and they're not. They're cheap, chippy BS'ers."

Lynn says that after 10 years hosting the website, he's grown accustomed to the fervor that fuels online discussions. He chalks much of it up to the loyalty locals have for their hometown. "Everybody in Missoula seems to be passionate about the things that are Missoula. There are some people who are extremely passionate and nothing could be wrong with Grizzly athletics. They're always 100 percent right—they call it maroon-colored glasses. Some fans will defend them on anything, and cause big arguments. There's a few of those people out there that go a little over the top."

And then there are the trolls, the people who appear to the cruise the site just to make waves. In a sports venue, where competitiveness already runs high, the tension created by such figures can be especially acute. Word is that "David2" is a troll. "CDA Griz" thinks he's an old guy. Some posters surmise that he's crabby because the cheerleader-rating threads offend him. Many seem to agree that he's a know-it-all. The trolls "just come to upset people, whether or not they believe what they are saying," Lynn says.

When anonymous eGriz participants are particularly abrasive, self-policing site regulars go out of their way to track them. "Those characters sometimes disappear once they're outed," Lynn says. "It's kind of humorous."

click to enlarge PHOTO BY CHAD HARDER

Trash talking sometimes makes barb recipients angry. Because Lynn received no formal education in media law prior to launching the site, he's had to educate himself on the ins and outs of libel and slander, to ensure he's protected. "At first, I didn't even think about it," he says. "You know, young kid, I'm just having fun...And then, once I got my first threat of a lawsuit, I was like, 'Okay, I better get serious about this."

Lynn has become adept at navigating the challenges of moderating comments, something that often still confounds mainstream media. For instance, Lynn's solution to highly abrasive or crude comments was to create a forum, "The Bench," for high-intensity smack-talking and explicit discussions.

Lynn is 29 now. Even though his site is breaking even after years of running in the red, he still has a day job, as a web specialist in UM's Admission's Office. He also runs internet forums for every Big Sky school except Montana State. eGriz volunteers make Lynn's juggling act easier by consistently posting pictures and video and helping to moderate the site. It's that kind of support and camaraderie Lynn appreciates most about eGriz. Connections he's made there in the past decade go beyond the virtual. He tailgates with eGriz friends. They hang out and tell Bobcat jokes, referring to each other by their user names. As they do online, they stake out passionate and often divergent perspectives on their home team.

"It's a great community out there," Lynn says. "There's tons of different opinions. I think that's what the success is...people can go out there and talk about what they love 24 hours a day."

—Jessica Mayrer

The Walk-on

University of Montana freshman Matt Berg starts most days at 6:30 a.m. for the football team's weightlifting session. His nights end with a mandatory "Study Table" that wraps up nearly 15 hours later, around 9 p.m. In between, Berg hustles from a full course load of classes to film sessions and position meetings with his coaches to practice on the field. Somewhere in there, he eats. "At the end of the day, I pretty much crash," says the former high school quarterback and All-State kicker.

Berg's schedule is typical for a UM football player, but Berg's situation isn't. While most of his teammates compete with the reward of a full academic scholarship, Berg pays his own way through school and essentially volunteers to take part in the team's rigorous regimen of training, meeting, studying and competing.

There's virtually no chance Berg will play in a game this year—in fact, he watches the games from the stands—and there's no guarantee he'll ever see real action on the field. Berg is what's known as a walk-on.

"I just want to play football," he says. "I grew up watching the Griz and going to a few games here in the stadium. The support from the community and the students, that atmosphere, is something I wanted to be a part of. I wanted to be a part of a great team."

The opportunity also puts Berg in position to add to a growing legacy in the Griz football program. In recent years, two players who started their UM careers as undersized, undervalued, bottom-of-the-roster tackling dummies vaulted not just to full scholarships, but to the holy grail of any aspiring ballplayer—a spot in the National Football League.

Marc Mariani was a scrawny wide receiver from Havre when he walked on with the Griz in 2006. He didn't earn a scholarship until his junior season, but ended his career as the most prolific receiver and all-purpose player in Montana history. He's now an All-Pro kick returner for the Tennessee Titans.

click to enlarge PHOTO BY STEELE WILLIAMS

Colt Anderson walked on for the Griz in 2004 and, during his first two years on campus, only saw action in five games. Under the guidance of position coach Tim Hauck, a former UM walk-on who eventually played professionally for the Philadelphia Eagles, Anderson became one of the university's all-time leading tacklers—and biggest hitters. He now plays for Hauck's old team, the Eagles.

Berg knows all too well about UM's history with walk-ons, especially Anderson's. "I'm from Butte, and that's where Colt Anderson is from, so I hear about it," he says when asked about his chances of following a similarly long-shot path. "It's hard not to think about it a little bit. But I try not to think about it too much. I need to focus on just getting better every day."

Berg starred for the Butte Bulldogs as both a quarterback and a kicker, rewriting his high school's record books. He started for three years at quarterback, and, as a senior, averaged 250 passing yards per game and threw for 30 touchdowns. As a kicker, he earned All-State honors both his junior and senior year, and once successfully booted an attempt from 50 yards. Despite his accomplishments, Berg had one major strike against him as he pursued a college career: He's listed as 5 feet 9 inches, which is criminally short for a quarterback. He received just one offer from an NAIA school, and it was without a scholarship. He also received a personal visit from UM head coach Robin Pflugrad and recruiting coordinator Mick Delaney.

"They came to Butte and told me they'd give me a shot," recalls Berg, "and that's all I wanted."

Berg, however, quickly realized that his best shot was to focus exclusively on kicking. While not as glamorous or complex as playing quarterback, the position still requires a ton of adjustment at the next level. For one, college kickers aren't allowed to use tees; they must kick off the ground. The speed of the game is also jarringly fast, and the players rushing to block Berg's kicks are a little bigger than the AA division high schoolers he faced last year. So while Berg tries to keep his head as he juggles college life for the first time, he's also trying to keep pace on the field. "It can be a lot," says the business and accounting major, who just turned 19. "I think for any freshman, adjusting to the skill, speed and size of the other players is the hardest part. That's just part of it, though. You adjust."

Berg currently sits as one of two kickers backing up senior Brody McKnight, arguably UM's best player and an All-America candidate. Berg says he's learning a lot from McKnight about the finer points of the position, and puts his current kicking range at 45 yards. With McKnight's eligibility up at the end of the year, there could be a chance for Berg next season. But the freshman walk-on knows better than to project too far into the future:

"I keep it simple: Work hard and show your teammates and coaches you're there to get better. That's my biggest responsibility right now. I can't worry about the other stuff."

—Skylar Browning

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