Gordon Anderson has been a Grizzly football season ticket holder since 1989, and on Saturday afternoon he sat at Washington-Grizzly Stadium to take in some local pigskin action. But this time he wasn’t watching the Griz—they were busy finishing spring drills with a scrimmage in Billings. Instead, Anderson was witnessing the debut of the Missoula Phoenix, the latest local competitor in the semiprofessional Rocky Mountain Football League (RMFL).
“This is very interesting,” said Anderson, nodding, taking in the game with a coffee buddy out of pure curiosity. “They got some good talent out there.”
Anderson wasn’t the only one curious about the Phoenix. The new-look team—formerly known as the Raptors—kicked off amid a complete overhaul that began a year ago. At the end of last RMFL season, when the Raptors won their second-straight divisional championship, a number of players expressed frustration with the team’s player-run organization. The Phoenix, composed of a group of former Raptors, successfully petitioned the RMFL to allow a new team to represent Missoula under a different organizational structure.
“There needed to be a separation between administration and players so the players can play and the administration can run the team,” explained Phoenix General Manager Chip Bush.
On Saturday, the orange-and-black-clad Phoenix took the field against Helena in front of 800 fans, and beat the Helena Titans, 34–12. The decisive victory is not only important to football-hungry fans, but also to the weekend warriors who get a chance to compete with the Phoenix.
The latter includes one player longtime Griz followers like Anderson may recognize: 41-year-old wide receiver Dave Garza, a former UM standout who hadn’t played in Washington-Grizzly Stadium since 1987. Garza caught three touchdowns against Helena, including the first score in Phoenix history. When asked what it was like being back, Garza lifted up his shoulder pad to reveal a faded Griz logo tattooed on his large bicep.
“Being back here and playing in this stadium is amazing,” he said.
It was a new beginning for Garza, as well as for local semiprofessional football.