Appreciation and Hope For Local Skydiver

By Beacon Staff

Having grown up in Missoula, I’ve attended more Griz football games than I can remember. When my mom was a student, she would take me and either my younger brother or sister to games and we’d sit in the north endzone when it was just open grass. Since I didn’t really know anything about football — I was more into basketball — I usually wasn’t paying attention to what happened on the field.

But I do remember one of my favorite parts of Griz gamedays, and that was watching the skydivers float into the stadium from high above. Watching the skydivers come flying in was both spectacular and awe-inspiring.

The news that one of the skydivers entering last weekend’s Griz game — Whitefish resident Blaine Wright — was critically injured saddened me and reminded me how much I’ve appreciated their exciting entrances for years.

It sounds like Mr. Wright is recovering from surgeries, and hopefully more good news will follow. He has more fans rooting for him right now than can fit inside Washington-Grizzly Stadium.

Joel Carlson with the University of Montana wrote a nice piece about the Silvertip Skydivers and passed it along. Here it is below:

In 1957 a group of students who were smokejumpers on the side – or maybe they viewed themselves as smokejumpers first, students second – started a skydiving club at The University of Montana. That club would eventually evolve into the Silvertip Skydivers, today giving the group more than half a century of tradition with UM.

The group’s affiliation with the University strengthened in the early ‘70s when members started landing at midfield at Dornblaser Stadium to signal the start of home football games. The Silvertip Skydivers followed the Grizzlies when the team moved into Washington-Grizzly Stadium in 1986.

They have made jumps every season since their long-ago debut, with the exception of 2001, when the 9/11 terrorist attacks grounded the skydivers for the fall.

After nearly four decades of safe jumping, the practice was brought under the microscope Saturday when Blaine Wright, a veteran skydiver from Whitefish, came up short on his descent into the stadium and had a violent landing outside the stadium’s southeast corner.

His selfless, split-second decision to avoid landing in the crowd and causing perhaps dozens of additional injuries came at a heavy personal cost. The impact onto concrete left Wright with serious injuries, including a fractured pelvis.

He was airlifted to Harborview Medical Center in Seattle, where he is currently undergoing a series of surgeries.

Though the skydivers’ insurance indemnifies the University, the incident led to discussion this week among campus leaders about the future of the popular pregame jumps.

At a regularly scheduled meeting of the President’s Cabinet, the group, in a unified voice, cleared the way for the Silvertip Skydivers to continue.

“We performed a strictly internal review, and it was unanimous that people wanted to let the Silvertip Skydivers go forward,” said Jim Foley, UM Vice President for External Relations. “We want to continue the tradition.”

The ultimate decision was still the Silvertip Skydivers’ to make, so Scott Spraycar, who has more than 60 jumps into Washington-Grizzly Stadium and was one of the three skydivers performing Saturday, and Don Rakow, a former jumper who is now the onsite weather evaluator on game days, were called in for consultation.

“We weren’t sure how the University was going to feel about going forward,” Spraycar said, “but (the six skydivers who are qualified to make stadium jumps) all talked about it, and it was pretty clear we would still like to do it.”

With the two sides in agreement and weather permitting, Spraycar, Brett Wold and Tim Hanson will skydive into the stadium at the Western Oregon game Saturday.

With it coming just seven days after Wright’s accident, Spraycar and Rakow were asked to answer for Wright the question: Should the jumps go on?

“If I know Blaine, he’s probably planning his next jump right now,” Rakow said, tapping into an insider’s knowledge of the typical skydiver’s mindset.

If there was any positive to be found in the unfortunate events Saturday, it’s this: Skydiving – man against gravity, with all hopes of survival linked to a few pounds of packed gear strapped to the back – is inherently dangerous, and that’s easy to forget when game after game, season after season, the Silvertip Skydivers make perfect midfield landings look as easy as navigating the crowded stadium steps on the way to your seat.

“It’s a long-standing tradition, one that’s been very popular with the fans,” UM Director of Athletics Jim O’Day said. “They are always disappointed when the skydivers can’t jump.

“If anything, what happened last Saturday is only going to lead to more of an appreciation for what the skydivers do. They are so good and make it look so routine, that it’s easy to take for granted that it has its risks.”

Saturday the jumping will start anew, but things will feel different. There will be a new perspective on what it means to take a risk for the enjoyment of thousands and what we take for granted. There will be new appreciation for perfect midfield landings and even for those that are not perfect.

And Saturday will start the countdown clock for the heroic return of Blaine Wright, whether by air or by foot. An appreciative Griz Nation awaits.

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