Betters’ Classic Legacy

After 30 years of bringing NFL players and other celebrities to Whitefish for a renowned community bash and fundraiser, Doug Betters is bowing out as host of the Whitefish Winter Classic

By Dillon Tabish

Last weekend Doug Betters watched Super Bowl XLIX from inside his longtime home near the shores of Whitefish Lake. It was an event with which he’s all too familiar.

Thirty years ago – Jan. 20, 1985 – Betters was starring in Super Bowl XIX between the Miami Dolphins and San Francisco 49ers.

Betters, the 1983 Defensive Player of the Year and an All-Pro defensive end, helped lead Miami to two Super Bowls and five AFC East titles throughout his professional career. In the 1970s and 80s, Miami fans were very familiar with No. 75, who was a vaunted member of the Dolphins’ menacing defense featuring a collective of intimidating players known as the “Killer B’s,” considered one of the best defensive units in NFL history.

But nowadays, when people in Northwest Montana hear his name they likely think of another remarkable legacy. It’s a legacy that also dates back 30 years.

In 1985, when he was in his late 20s and in the thick of his playing days, Betters founded what is now called the Whitefish Winter Classic. Over the last few decades, Betters has wrangled together professional athletes and celebrities, such as Peter Fonda and Steve Young, who have taken part in a weekend of festivities and fundraisers in Whitefish each spring.

The events have included all-star basketball games between pro athletes and local high school students, a public barbecue that drew more than 1,500 people and a gala event that regularly features prestigious auction items, such as Super Bowl tickets and jerseys signed by Hall of Fame players.

The Winter Classic has grown into a beloved annual tradition and one of the longest running and most successful charity events in Montana, raising nearly $2 million for local children in need of medical care.

“It sure has helped a lot of people over the years,” said Charlie Abell, a longtime volunteer with the Winter Classic alongside his wife, Susan. “It’s been a great thing for the kids from Northwest Montana who needed that help.”

Now, after an impressive run that has long outlasted his memorable NFL career, the man at the heart of the event is bowing out.

This year’s Winter Classic, slated for March 5-8, will be Betters’ last as host. The 58-year-old is ready to pass the torch on to a new generation of NFL players and volunteers.

He will remain involved as a member of the Board of Directors for the Classic along with his wife, Jennifer, who has been similarly devoted to the event over the last 10 years. The couple will also stay actively involved with For the Children, the nonprofit organization tied to the Classic that provides financial assistance to families with children in need of medical treatment outside the valley.

The Classic could evolve in the coming years and board members are in the process of reviewing possible changes that could be announced in the coming months, signaling a new chapter for a revered local staple.

“We’ve had a good run. It’s like football, though; you don’t want to hang it up too late and you don’t want to get it all stale,” he said recently. “We need some new blood, from the players up to the board. Change is good. I’m ready to let somebody else run with it.”

Betters’ decision marks the end of an era for Whitefish’s All-Pro volunteer, although his legacy carries on in those he inspired and helped.

“It’s such a great event and the money raised goes to such a great cause. It’s something my wife and I look forward to every year,” said Colt Anderson, a Butte native and free safety for the Indianapolis Colts, who has attended the Winter Classic since 2008.

“Being in its 30th year, that speaks volumes for the amazing work that him and his wife have done. Not all events can carry on such a great tradition. Doug’s a big man but his heart is even bigger. There’s a reason why this event has gone 30 years. It’s all because of Doug.”

Miami Dolphins defensive end Doug Betters (75) chases San Francisco quarterback Joe Montana during an NFL game. Dave Cross photo | Courtesy photo
Miami Dolphins defensive end Doug Betters (75) chases San Francisco quarterback Joe Montana during an NFL game. Dave Cross photo | Courtesy photo

Growing up in the Midwest, Betters was a Boy Scout who always found himself involved in community service projects. Being his size, he also developed a noticeable knack for football.

As a highly touted high school recruit from Illinois, Betters made a surprising move and visited the University of Montana in Missoula.

When Betters was younger, his father had shared memorable stories of his great-aunt’s ranch in Hardin, and the 18-year-old felt drawn to Big Sky Country, even though larger schools closer to home were offering him scholarships to play football.

“(Montana) had a draw to me for some reason,” he has previously said.

“I made my choice because I was in love with the idea of Montana, and when I got there it reinforced what I felt.”

In his three seasons in Missoula, Betters earned All-Big Sky Conference twice, in 1975 and 1976. He transferred to the University of Nevada the following year, earning All-American honors and the attention of the NFL.

In 1978, the Miami Dolphins selected the 6-foot-7 defensive lineman in the sixth round of the NFL Draft.

After that, the Killer B’s were unleashed. Betters joined a defense that coincidentally had six players whose names began with the letter “B.” Over the next 10 years, Betters would torment quarterbacks like Joe Montana, who he sacked in Super Bowl XIX, as one of the best defensive linemen of his generation.

In 1983, he put together a career year and recorded 16 sacks in 16 games, winning the NFL’s top award for defensive players. All told, he recorded 64.5 sacks and more than 450 tackles in 146 games, carving out a place among the all-time greats in Miami’s franchise history.

In 2008, Betters was inducted into the Dolphins’ Honor Roll, a rare achievement that fewer than 20 players had earned at the time. Betters’ name now hangs from the team’s stadium rafters alongside such greats as Dan Marino, Don Shula and the 1972 undefeated team.

“Doug was a guy who went to work every day and didn’t do much complaining,” Hall of Fame center Dwight Stephenson said in a Dolphins’ press release announcing Betters’ honor. “I felt that he was one of the most underrated players. He did not get a whole lot of credit in the National Football League itself, but he was one of the best defensive linemen that ever played during that time.”

Despite leaving during college and spending his playing days in the Sunshine State, Betters never lost that connection to Montana. Specifically, Whitefish.

In 1974, when he was 19, he and some teammates from UM visited Whitefish during the annual Winter Carnival festivities. They reveled in the lively events that erupted across town that weekend.

“That’s how I fell in love with the place. Then I started coming up more visiting, going to Glacier Park and checking it all out,” he said.

There was something especially unique about Whitefish that really lured Betters.

“A foot and a half of pow. Bluebird days. There was nothing like it,” he said. “We started coming up here during the college days. We’d get up early and drive up to go skiing and then get a burger and a beer at the Great Northern and head back to Missoula. That was pretty great, especially for a college kid.”

Betters became a devoted – and skilled – skier, and by the time he was playing professionally, he had a place rented in Whitefish that became his refuge as soon as the NFL season ended. In 1981, he decided to lay down roots and bought a house near the shores of Whitefish Lake. It’s the home he still lives in today.

Doug Betters, center, former University of Montana football player and defensive end for the Miami Dolphins, signs autographs during the Winter Classic's NFL 60 Challenge. Beacon File Photo
Doug Betters, center, former University of Montana football player and defensive end for the Miami Dolphins, signs autographs during the Winter Classic’s NFL 60 Challenge. Beacon File Photo

Throughout it all, he never lost that compassion for community service, and after visiting a celebrity fundraiser in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, Betters came up with a similar idea that would feature NFL players appearing at an event he could host in Whitefish.

He found a partner in Big Mountain Ski Area, which jumped aboard as a main sponsor and helped Betters travel across the region rallying players and other supporters.

The goal of the event, besides having a fun time, was to help children in rural Montana who had medical needs that could not be taken care of locally.

“Hospitals like Shodair in Helena and Deaconess in Spokane would take a lot of our kids who didn’t have insurance, and we thought we had a duty to help them out,” Betters said.

The Winter Classic would do exactly that. The first year, in 1985, Peter Fonda and Betters headlined the three-day event, which featured more than 20 players from the NFL and Canadian Football League. The event was a success despite fears that it would fall on its face and lose a lot of money.

“That first year it was a little scary. But we got it rolling,” he said, crediting the help of Larry Delaney, the marketing director at Big Mountain, and others who helped bring the Classic to life.

The event took off and became a massive endeavor that took more and more of Betters’ time as the volunteer president and founder.

To make it successful, he relied on the same skill that made him one of the NFL’s best linemen: tenacity.

“For defensive linemen, that’s what you do. You just keep going like a bulldog,” he said. “I can be persuasive but I don’t intimidate people. I just talk to people and let them know that there’s nothing in it for me. I also have the cajones to ask for some outrageous things. You just shoot high and take what you can get. And if it doesn’t work out, you just find a way to make it work.”

He added, “When it comes to kids, that’s something we can all agree on helping. So when I told the guys what we’re doing — we’re helping kids — most of the time it wasn’t hard getting them here.”

The Classic became a mainstay event and Betters became its familiar face.

But then it almost all fell apart in the mid 1990s.

Betters’ NFL career had ended and like most players it wasn’t an easy transition.

“A lot of people have trouble with it. I didn’t wear it on my sleeve that much. I wasn’t as immersed in football as a lot of guys are but it’s tough. A lot of guys have a tough transition,” he said.

“There was a time when I was making some bad decisions and I went through divorce and got done with football. In 1995-96, we had some troubled times with (the Classic), and the board members kind of pushed me out. They said we can do this without you.”

Betters was afraid that the Classic would end without him, so he fought to stay involved and keep it running.

“I was afraid they were going to pull the plug on this thing. I wasn’t going to let that happen,” he said.

Then tragedy struck. On Feb. 5, 1998, Betters caught an edge while skiing at Big Mountain and crashed, landing on his head. He suffered a spinal injury that re-aggravated a previous neck injury from his playing days, paralyzing the former NFL player. He regained partial use of his arms and hands but remains partially paralyzed.

The Classic was canceled that year while Betters recovered in the hospital. Rumors circulated that this was the end of the event.

Again, Betters didn’t let that happen.

“We still wanted to do this. We still saw the need. We wanted to keep going,” he said. “I wasn’t going to let this end the Classic.”

With the help of volunteers and business sponsors, the Classic returned the following year as big and successful as ever.

That’s how it remains today, reflecting the true tenacity and steadfast devotion of its founder.

“Not all NFL players are doing neat things like the Classic. Then you look at a guy who has had a ton of hard luck and been out of the league for awhile, and the fact that he is still putting all this heart and soul into this all these years later, it’s remarkable to me,” said Nick Polumbus, director of marketing and sales at Whitefish Mountain Resort and a board member for the Classic.

The impacts of the Classic extend beyond the thousands of families that have been helped through its charity. Local kids who have attended the event have been able to play alongside the same players they look up to in the NFL and consider role models.

“I remember going to the Classic when I was a kid. I remember seeing the players and getting autographs and playing with them as a kid,” said Sean Averill, a real estate agent with Trail West Real Estate whose family owns The Lodge at Whitefish Lake, a longtime sponsor of the Classic.

“Doug’s generosity and how he really wants to make the community a better place really stands out. I think his legacy is cemented,” he added.

Baltimore Ravens' Haloti Ngata takes aim during a ferocious dodge ball game at the Whitefish Winter Classic's NFL Play 60 Challenge. Beacon File Photo
Baltimore Ravens’ Haloti Ngata takes aim during a ferocious dodge ball game at the Whitefish Winter Classic’s NFL Play 60 Challenge. Beacon File Photo

Reflecting on the last 30 years from his home recently, Betters acknowledged hard times and good memories. It wasn’t easy, he said, but in the end, all the hard work and countless hours were definitely worth it and very rewarding. He was also quick to credit the thousands of volunteers who over the years have made the Classic what it is today.

“It wouldn’t ever happen without the people who have lined up to volunteer or donate money,” he said.

“I’m glad it’s successful. I’m not getting any kudos for this other than karma. And it makes you feel good.”

30th annual Whitefish Winter Classic | March 5-8

Organizers are seeking stories from past attendees or families who have benefitted from the charity event. Stories will remain confidential and can be sent to info@whitefishwinterclassic.org.

For more information about the Classic and the nonprofit organization For The Children, visit http://whitefishwinterclassic.org/

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