MISSOULA — This past weekend, still dressed in his tattered football uniform after Montana’s pivotal win over Eastern Washington, Derek Crittenden had a lot on his mind.
The 23-year-old co-captain and defensive end had just played in his final regular-season home game in Washington-Grizzly Stadium and potentially his final game as a Griz. Earlier that day, his hometown high school team, the Whitefish Bulldogs, advanced to the state championship game. And likely the most important two days of his life were just around the corner, interviewing in Seattle for a Rhodes Scholarship, the oldest and most celebrated international fellowship award in the world.
“Looking back, I wanted to have a career where I wouldn’t have any regrets,” he said.
“I don’t have any regrets. I’ve given my life to Grizzly football and it was an awesome experience.”
There are few student-athletes in the nation like Crittenden, if any.
It began in elementary school, after the Crittendens moved from Utah to Whitefish when Derek was in first grade. By fifth grade, the young boy showed a propensity for learning and thinking; he hasn’t received a grade below an A since. He also showed a strong ability to compete athletically. In high school, he lettered in football, wrestling and track and was voted defensive MVP his senior season on the gridiron. He considered dropping athletics and focusing solely on academics, and nearly attended Harvard University.
But a childhood dream of his was always to play football for the vaunted Montana Grizzlies. And when UM offered him the chance, he jumped at it.
In the five years since graduating high school, he has built a remarkable resume that will include three academic degrees — chemistry, philosophy and mathematics — and many of the top honors at the University of Montana and across the nation, including four consecutive nominations for the Big Sky Conference All-Academic team.
Crittenden is a finalist for the so-called Academic Heisman, which recognizes the top football scholar-athlete in America. Crittenden, whose lineup of classes this semester includes Advanced Biochemistry 482 and Contemporary Moral and Political Theory, has the highest GPA of all 12 finalists. It’s the same GPA he’s had since fifth grade — a perfect 4.0. He’s also the only Rhodes Scholar candidate in the group.
The 6-foot-3, 245-pounder has played the last four seasons for the Grizzlies, logging over 100 career tackles and was named co-captain this season by his teammates. Last weekend he recovered a fumble in the first quarter and helped the Griz defeat Eastern Washington for the first time in four years. The triumphant victory kept the Grizzlies’ postseason prospects alive after many people counted them out.
“There’s a tradition in this program,” EWU head coach Beau Baldwin said of UM after the game. “They have a lot of heart and character on that team.”
Montana wraps up the regular season this weekend in Bozeman against rival Montana State. It’s the biggest game of the season, but there’s a good chance Crittenden will miss it.
He has a bigger competition to face.
On Nov. 19, Crittenden will fly to Seattle for an arduous interview process with a regional committee that will choose two Rhodes Scholars among an estimated 15-20 finalists from Alaska, Idaho, Montana, Oregon and Washington. Crittenden will undergo two days of challenging interviews, Nov. 20-21, meaning it will be difficult for him to make it to Bozeman Nov. 21 for Montana’s game against Montana State at noon.
A win against the Bobcats would significantly improve Montana’s chance of qualifying for the FCS playoffs; losing would almost certainly eliminate the Griz and end their season.
Despite the enormity of this weekend’s game, Crittenden’s head coach and teammates have made it clear — their co-captain should focus on the Rhodes interview.
“This is a lifetime opportunity,” first-year UM head coach Bob Stitt said.
Each year, 32 young Americans are selected as Rhodes Scholars among over 850 candidates. A total of 80 students from around the world are chosen. Being chosen means receiving a free multi-year tuition to study at Oxford, one of the most distinguished institutions in the world.
“It’s unlike anything you’ll experience in your life,” Ashby Kinch, UM’s Rhodes representative and student advisor, said of the interview process.
Kinch has worked with Crittenden for several months preparing him for this two-day process.
“The Rhodes process is exhaustively focused on finding out who these people are. They want the best and the brightest but also the most grounded and character-driven Americans to send over as the exemplary products of our educational system,” Kinch said.
Crittenden is the University of Montana’s seventh Rhodes finalist in the past 11 years. The last winner from UM was Charlotte Morrison in 1993.
“It’s been just a huge honor to work with Derek. He’s an amazing man and just getting to know him over last 16-18 months has been fantastic for me. He’s an inspiring guy,” Kinch said.
“The more you get to know him, he just has a lot of wrinkles. There’s a lot going on inside that head.”
Crittenden stands out in a lot of ways, but most notably his athletic stature will be uncommon among the other finalists.
Historically, Rhodes Scholars were required to be athletes in some form or another. The original application says the ideal Rhodes Scholar has the moral force of character and energy to do the world’s work.
What better person can tackle that heavy task than a football player like Crittenden?
“To some extent, it will distinguish him from other candidates,” Kinch said. “I think he’s robust in all of the Rhodes criteria.”
Stitt couldn’t agree more.
“Everything Derek does is 100 mph. He wants to be the best. Those are the types of guys you want playing for you, that have an unbelievable desire to be the best at everything they do,” Stitt said after last weekend’s game. “He deserves everything he’s received on the academic side of it. We’re blessed to have him as a captain on our football team. These guys are blessed to have him as a teammate.
I hope that he can go over there and wow them just like I was the first time I met him.”
Unfortunately, it might mean Crittenden misses this weekend’s Cat-Griz game in Bozeman. Or maybe not.
“I still got my fingers crossed. It’s not for certain,” Crittenden said.
The winners of the Rhodes Scholarships will be announced Nov. 21.
“I feel ready,” he said matter-of-factly. “I’m excited to get out there and see what it’s going to be like. It’s a huge opportunity and I want to make the most of it.”
Either way, he’s already made the most of it.