To celebrate the Big Sky Conference’s 50th anniversary, the league has been counting down its top moments and athletes. Former University of Montana football player Dave Dickenson was selected as the No. 1 athlete by a panel of former and current coaches, administrators and media members from across the league.
A few blocks north of the oil refinery in a middle-class neighborhood, he was bound to be playing sports.
One day it was football, the next basketball or baseball. Street hockey wasn’t out of the question. The high school football coach lived on the block. So did a number of future college athletes.
Great Falls, Mont., sits right in the heart of Montana, in the middle of Big Sky country. The Missouri River snakes through one of the windiest cities in the United States. Famed American Western artist Charles Marion Russell settled in the Electric City. The Lewis and Clark Expedition had to portage around the area’s five waterfalls in 1805.
It was also home to former Montana Grizzly quarterback Dave Dickenson, who was voted as the No. 1 male athlete in the first 50 years of the Big Sky Conference. His parents, Bob and Sue, still live in the same house, a short par-4 from the football field at North Middle School.
“If you wanted to plant a tree in our neighborhood, it wasn’t going to last,” said Dickenson, the youngest of three children. “The fence was going to get knocked over. Sports took over our neighborhood. We played it and it was full-go all the time. We did it all ourselves. There was no structure. We’d make a hoop here; this yard was the end zone. We’d make the rules and the penalties. One day this kid was crying, and the next it was someone else. It brought out the competitive nature in me, and I was competitive in everything from board games to school.”
Listed at just 5-feet, 11 inches, and tipping the scales at 170 pounds soaking wet, Dickenson wasn’t the prototypical football player. Off the field, the red-head wore glasses. He maintained a high school grade point average of 4.0, and was a collegiate Academic All-American.
“The guy is lying to you if he says he’s 5-11,” said legendary former Montana coach Don Read. “He’s lying big time. I remember the first time I saw him. I was at his home, and he opened the door and walked in. He wasn’t big in stature, he was slumped over, and he had these big, thick glasses. He looked like a student at Princeton. He didn’t look the part of a football player. He was a calm, cool guy until you had to have something happen.”
In a helmet and pads, Dickenson’s smarts, competitiveness, and ability to motivate equated into something magical. In high school, he went 23-0 as a starter, leading C.M. Russell High School to back-to-back Class AA state championships. He was the starting point guard on the basketball team and one of the school’s top golfers.
“I’ve known him since he was in the third grade,” said Jack Johnson, the legendary coach at CMR, who just retired after 41 years. “He was a great hockey player. I remember going to Canada because my son Mark played with him when they were little kids. Dave made all five goals. He was a great tennis player, an outstanding bowler, and a great golfer. There wasn’t anything he couldn’t do.”
In his first start as a sophomore at Montana, he engineered one of the biggest comebacks in NCAA history, throwing for 401 yards with four touchdowns and two rushing touchdowns in a 52-48 win over South Dakota State. A week later, he nearly led the Grizzlies to a victory over Oregon. Ducks’ coach Rich Brooks called Dickenson “Houdini” after the game.
His collegiate career ended with a national championship, a 22-20 victory over Marshall in 1995. Three times he was named the Big Sky’s Offensive MVP. He was a landslide winner for the 1995 Walter Payton Award and a consensus All-American. Newspaper headlines and media guide covers referred to him as “Super Dave,” and the “Legend of the Fall.”
“He was extremely bright,” Read said. “I don’t know his IQ, but it must be 300. He had football smarts. He could take principles and concepts and package those things in his mind. It didn’t take him very long to see why we were trying to do something. He digested that early in the week, and gained confidence through repetition during the week. He could make all the throws you needed to make. He had a quick delivery and was accurate. He didn’t have a great arm, but it was good enough. The other thing he could do was avoid the pressure.”
Officially, he finished his career completing 67.3 percent of his passes for 11,080 yards with 96 touchdowns and just 26 interceptions. He averaged 317.57 passing yards per game, which ranks second in Big Sky history. His average of 379.64 passing yards per game in 1995 remains the best in single-season history.
Statistically, those numbers only tell part of the story. In his era, the NCAA did not recognize playoff statistics. In seven playoff games, he completed 76.2 percent of his passes for 2,406 yards with 20 touchdowns and two interceptions. Inclusion of those statistics would bring his career totals to 13,486 yards and 116 touchdowns with 1,015 completions in 1,477 attempts for a completion percentage of .687. During the four 1995 playoff games, he threw for 1,500 yards with 13 touchdowns, bringing his total numbers that year to 5,676 yards and 51 touchdowns.
If his playoff numbers counted – as has been the case for athletes since 2002 – he would hold nearly every single-season and career passing record in the Big Sky.
His numbers may have also been affected by his greatness, and the team’s success. Many times during his career, Dickenson spent most of the second half on the sideline watching his teammates finish off a blowout victory.
“Montana had a nice run and won some championships, but it wasn’t until Dave got there that they really started to pound out championships,” said current Idaho State coach Mike Kramer, who was at Eastern Washington during Dickenson’s reign. “He elevated Montana above the Reno’s, the Idaho’s and the Boise State’s. Even though Montana had played four wide receivers since Don Read’s first day, it wasn’t perfected to the numbing effectiveness until Dickenson became the starter.”
“Who took the pressure off of him, nobody,” Kramer added. “You can’t name a running back from Montana when Dave was the quarterback. He was the target. Literally no one could stop him.”
So, how did this undersized, unassuming kid from Great Falls rise to become the greatest athlete over the first 50 years of the Big Sky Conference? What drove him to greatness?
Did he watch film till his eyes hurt?
“Don Read told me he watched less film than any quarterback he ever coached, and I can tell you he didn’t watch film in high school,” Johnson said. “We didn’t teach him. He just had a God-given gift. He could read coverage, and he knew who to throw to and when to throw it better than anyone. And he was so accurate.”
Was he a tireless worker and a weight-room junkie?
“Dave was not a hard worker,” Johnson said. “He wasn’t in the weight room, and he wasn’t in the film room. He was late for meetings. He had a gift that not many people have. He processed things faster than the average cat. The kid also inspired everyone. He elevated them. He had a gift to inspire people to play better than they were.”
Did a fear drive him? Yes.
“I was always playing for the fear of failure,” Dickenson said. “I’d get all concerned. I didn’t want to let anyone down, my parents, the cities in Montana, the state, or my coaches. I played on an edge that way. I was scared of failing. I always had nerves that first snap. But, I always locked in. I can’t remember many games where I was ever confused. To win was important for the state. No one knows who finishes fourth or second. You’ve got to win it. I’m very proud to be from Montana and have won a championship for the state.”
What about the competitiveness?
“I was overly competitive at everything,” he said. “I’m a poor loser, and I am to this day. I want to at least be considered decent. I didn’t like school, but I viewed it as a contest. Everything was a contest. I wasn’t a quitter. I had it engrained from my dad to go after something and not back off.”
That outlook served him well during his defining moment, the final game-winning drive against Marshall in the 1995 national championship game. Dickenson made some key plays, including a game-saving completion to Mike Erhardt on a fourth down near midfield. A few plays later, Andy Larson kicked the game-winning field goal.
“I remember calling a timeout on that final drive, and Dave came over to the sideline,” Read said. “We talked it over, what we wanted to do to get in the proper field-goal position. We talked back and forth, and he turned and walked away. I told him, ‘don’t throw an interception.’ He turned and looked at me, and said, ‘that’s what I had in mind.’ ” He was so confident. Everybody around him had the same feeling because he generates it. He’s a very special guy. I had a chance to coach many good quarterbacks along the line. There is no one like Dave. He’s really special in every way, shape and form.”
Many assumed Dickenson would become a doctor. He maintained a 3.9 GPA in molecular biology and had secured postgraduate scholarships. But, Dickenson couldn’t walk away.
After leaving Montana, he embarked on a long and successful Canadian Football League career that began in Calgary with him learning from players like Doug Flutie and Jeff Garcia. In 2000, he was the CFL’s Most Outstanding Player. He tried the NFL for two years, but never played a down. He returned to the CFL in 2003 with the BC Lions, leading them to the 2006 Grey Cup.
“I believe I was a better player pre-kids because once I had kids, they were the No. 1 thing in my life,” said Dickenson, who with his wife Tammy are the parents of a 9-year-old girl Avery, and a 7-year-old boy Cooper. “I couldn’t in good faith stay at the facility. I just wanted to go home and see them. You start wondering about your mortality and getting hurt. Pre kids, I felt I was more reckless.”
In 143 professional games, he completed 67.5 percent of his passes for 22,913 yards with 154 touchdowns and 50 interceptions. He is the league’s all-time leader in passing efficiency at 110.4.
He was forced to hang up the helmet in 2008 after suffering post-concussion problems.
“I do worry,” Dickenson said. “But it is one of those things that you shouldn’t stress about something you can’t control. I put myself in this situation. I played the game, and I’d play it again.”
At 42, football continues to pay the bills, and it should remain that way for many years. Dickenson is the offensive coordinator and assistant head coach for Calgary. He’s considered the heir apparent to become the Stampeders’ next head coach. One of his pupils is former Eastern Washington quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell.
“To me, this is the kind of thing I’ll do until I can’t do it anymore,” Dickenson said. “It’s fun to stay in the game, work with the athletes and talk with coaches. We’re pretty lucky, and we’ve had pretty good stability. It’s something I was concerned about, but everything has worked out fine.”
Some Grizzly fans hope to see him return to his alma mater one day as the head coach. A return to the U.S. may be difficult. Tammy, his college sweetheart, is a native of Alberta. Dickenson has spent most of his adult life north of the border.
“Tammy is a good influence on me,” Dickenson said. “She’s a pharmacist. She’s a sports nut. I call her “Scoop” because she finds out more information on sports than anyone else.”
Through 50 years, the Big Sky Conference has been blessed with great male athletes such as Jared Allen, Damian Lillard, Lopez Lomong and Shannon Butler. But, maybe, Dickenson represents more than all the others the spirit of the league.
“To have 50 years of competitors and boil it down to one guy is about impossible,” said Kramer, who was a member of the selection panel. “But Dave is the one guy that is probably fitting because he embodied so many things our conference is about. He had humility, toughness, respect, he had academic achievements. He had the drive and competitiveness to elevate a program. ”
“He is what every athletic director, president and coach hopes to see out of student-athletes,” Kramer added. “He’s been a treasure for us. He is what our conference strives to be. That’s our standard. I couldn’t be more proud of our conference to have selected him as the very best.”
Dickenson, himself, isn’t sure he’s worthy.
“Part of me chuckles,” he said. “I’m a million percent sure there are better athletes and other people who did more than me. I’m proud of it. I can’t say that I don’t treasure these types of things. It’s nice to be respected for what you did. I think it matters how you carry yourself. I think I did things the right way. No one can ever doubt that I was chemically enhanced. I did it the natural way. I had great success because of heart and mind. You don’t have to be physically imposing to be a great athlete. There’s a lot of stuff you can’t measure.”
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