Northwest Montana, tucked away from the rest of the state and disconnected from the circuit of interstate highways that tether the Big Sky’s largest cities, is grizzly country, where the iconic bear prowls the wilderness and lends its name and likeness to countless oil paintings, coffee mugs and corporate identities.
But on Saturdays in the fall, Grizzly country takes on a different meaning. That’s when — at least when there’s a home game at Washington-Grizzly Stadium — streams of cars form a conga line down U.S. Highway 93 to Missoula, and thousands of other locals sidle up to their television to catch the University of Montana on the gridiron.
Josh Sandry grew up in Bigfork and had an affinity for the Griz that extended beyond just the university’s proximity. His grandfather, Bruce Olson, quarterbacked the team in the late 1950s and his great-grandfather, Ed Chinske, was the head coach earlier that decade. So it’s unsurprising, then, that the fifth-year senior safety says putting on the maroon and black every week still feels like “a dream come true.”
But it’s a dream that must have seemed unlikely, at best, while Sandry was in high school. He was a multi-sport star at Bigfork High but played in Class B, one of the state’s smaller classifications, and kids from a school of any size in Northwest Montana were hard to find on the Griz roster before Sandry arrived in Missoula in 2015. From 2010-14, only four total Northwest Montanans (Flathead grad Josh Harris, Glacier’s Shay Smithwick-Hann and Jackson Thiebes, and Whitefish’s Derek Crittenden) suited up for Montana, and Sandry is just the second Bigfork Viking play football for the Griz since the mid-1990s. During the same five-year stretch from 2010-14, 16 different Northwest Montanans suited up for bitter rival Montana State.
Five seasons after he arrived, however, Sandry is no longer in such exclusive company in Missoula. This year’s Griz have 10 Northwest Montanans on the roster, the third year in a row the region is represented by at least that many players, and the first 2020 Division I football commit from Northwest Montana, Glacier’s Drew Deck, picked UM earlier this summer. The reason why is, in part, a combination of improved play from the high school programs here and the current Griz coaching regime’s interest in this region, but no small factor is the impact of having thousands of kids grow up watching former locals like Sandry shine on Saturdays.
“Having guys like Josh set the way, coming from Class B and up (in Northwest Montana),” Eureka native Garrett Graves, a redshirt freshman quarterback, said. “When he comes down, balls out, it helps guys like me get a chance and get a shot.”
Graves, indeed, is an even more unlikely member of the Griz than Sandry. Eureka is remote even for Northwest Montana, and the football team there had never won a state championship before Graves led the Lions to back-to-back Class B titles in 2016 and 2017. He is the first Eureka grad to play in Missoula since his high school coach, Trevor Utter, did so in the mid-1990s.
Before he was winning state championships in football and wrestling, Graves honed his athletic abilities more than 60 miles away in Kalispell, where he regularly traveled to work out with other young football players. It helped build a sense of camaraderie among Northwest Montana’s top prospects, and that connection extends to the large contingent now in Missoula. Running back Drew Turner came to Missoula in Graves’ class along with three of his Glacier High School classmates, including safety Jackson Pepe.
“We had conversations, especially me and Pepe, considering where we might go,” Turner said. “It’s a big deal for me and those guys, especially from Montana, to go play on a team like this. It’s an honor.”
Turner and Graves both expect to see some playing time as reserves this year — Graves could see the field at a number of different positions — and Sandry should once again be a mainstay in the Griz secondary, where he has played every game in the last three years. Kicker Brandon Purdy, another Glacier grad, was third-team All-Big Sky Conference in 2017, and tight end Matt Rensvold (Polson) and defensive end Jed Nagler (Whitefish) each played in at least 10 games in 2018.
Nagler, who helped lead Whitefish to the Class A state championship in 2015, now relishes the opportunity to share his experience at Montana with the next generation of Bulldogs.
“The cool part for me is going home and seeing the smaller kids from my hometown,” Nagler, now a redshirt junior, said. “They know who you are; it’s cool to see kids that age that are still fans.”
As for the rest of the Northwest Montana contingent, Patrick O’Connell (Glacier) is in the mix at linebacker after redshirting in 2018, and true freshmen Carver Gilman (kicker) and Dillon Botner (offensive line) of Whitefish round out the group.
Montana State still has a recruiting presence in Northwest Montana as well, and this year’s Bobcats have a local feel, too. Seven area natives are on the roster, including seniors Logan Jones (running back) and Josh Hill (linebacker), who keyed Glacier High School’s powerhouse state title-winning team in 2014.
Montana and Montana State open the 2019 season on Aug. 31. Their annual showdown, the Brawl of the Wild, is scheduled for Nov. 23 in Bozeman.