The Montana Grizzlies left Missoula on a brisk, clear Tuesday morning in a convoy of buses led through the lined streets of Missoula by a bevy of patrol cars and mascot Monte situated in the bucket of a fire truck.
It was a glorious beginning to championship week as the hundreds of supporters who lined the three-mile route down Broadway to the Missoula airport recognized an undefeated football team with banners, placards, blinking lights and honking horns accompanied by a train salute from Montana Rail Link from Reserve Street to the airport entrance.
It’s a parade that has been tradition in Missoula since the Grizzlies returned to the championship game in 1996, a season after claiming a first-ever title at Huntington.
But just four days later, after falling to Villanova in the title game in Chattanooga, there was anything but fanfare when the Grizzly charter plane unceremoniously touched down in Great Falls at 4 a.m. after being diverted from Missoula and several other Montana airports because of weather.
The contrast between the two scenes was surreal.
Outbound Electric City travelers seemed dumbstruck when they arrived at the airport Saturday morning only to find the majority of chairs and floor space mostly occupied by the carnage of Montana’s fallen heroes.
Football is a violent game and casual observers are not often exposed to the immediate aftermath and the extent of triage performed by the medical staff.
At least two players were on crutches, many walked with limps, one lay flat on the floor, his leg elevated and ice strapped to a badly sprained ankle, and still others sauntered stiffly about.
The airport truly looked like a MASH unit and even those who were not medically impaired had been up for more than 24 hours with a sprinkling of a few hours of sleep on the cramped plane.
Some gathered in small groups around tables, others sprawled on whatever floor space they could find and still others lay in a darkened playroom, battered and bruised, alone with their thoughts of losing consecutive championship games after years of dedication.
Some predictably needed to be alone, still others talked among themselves about plans to join family members for the holidays. At least one already had missed a connection for a flight home from Missoula to Seattle.
Record-setting running back Chase Reynolds patiently walked behind his young son – all of the coaches’ and two married players’ families made the trip – up and down the concourse beaming at the enthusiasm that only the youngest of the group had remaining. For the children who were along, it was another cog in an adventure they are not likely to forget.
Now make no mistake that, while disappointed, players are extremely resilient, far more so than coaches, support personnel and broadcasters.
As they boarded buses for the airport outside Finley Stadium, the mood was not despair, but maybe even relief as another year-long commitment had come to an end, albeit with a loss.
The seniors, the majority of whom were rewarded with first-class seats for the trip, knew they had played their last game as a Grizzly and, for some, their last game ever, but also realized they had been part of a record-setting group that left an indelible mark on the fans at Washington-Grizzly Stadium.
And another group of wide-eyed youngsters, some of whom haven’t even committed yet to the UM program, stand ready to carry this banner of excellence that Grizzly football has become.
Make no mistake about it; the new head football coach will have big shoes to fill.
It has been almost three decades since Montana has had a losing season and the string of 17 consecutive trips to the playoffs remains intact as the longest streak in FCS history.
It won’t last forever, but what a ride it’s been.
Stay Connected with the Daily Roundup.
Sign up for our newsletter and get the best of the Beacon delivered every day to your inbox.