‘The Winning Spirit’

St. Ignatius QB Kellen McClure shines at Indigenous Bowl

By Frank Gogola for 406mtsports.com

Kellen McClure was looking for some personal redemption after St. Ignatius came up agonizingly short in the 8-Man state championship football game last month.

The senior quarterback got that shot earlier this month instead of having to wait until the all-star games over the summer. He participated in the Indigenous Bowl, pitting the top Native American high school seniors against one another at the NFL’s Minnesota Vikings stadium.

McClure took full advantage of the opportunity. He threw three touchdown passes while leading the Bad Medicine team to a victory. He was named the team’s “unsung hero,” which resulted in him receiving a $10,000 grant for his high school.

“Whenever I get in any game, the winning spirit takes over and you want to win,” he told the Missoulian and 406mtsports.com. “I’m really competitive.”

McClure dreamed of playing in the Indigenous Bowl since he saw the game on TV last season. He thought he might have been passed over when he didn’t initially get an acceptance email.

To be selected, athletes first must be enrolled in at least one federally recognized tribe. McClure is Bitterroot Salish and Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate.

Second, they had to have at least a 2.5 grade-point average. McClure holds a 3.78 GPA, he said, while being a three-sport athlete.

Third, they had to submit football film that would be evaluated. McClure was a four-year varsity starter, a two-time all-state quarterback and the conference offensive MVP this year while leading the Bulldogs to four playoff appearances and a state runner-up finish this fall.

Approximately 500 athletes around the country applied. McClure was one of just 74 players representing dozens of tribes chosen to participate.

“I had so much fun playing with my teammates,” he said. “I feel like we bonded well because we all come from the same background living on a reservation. We all talk the same, have the same type of humor. I think we meshed good. I made some good relationships I still have.”

McClure adapted back to the 11-Man version of football he played in middle school during the four practices leading up to the game Dec. 11 at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis. He threw touchdowns of 73, 13 and 3 yards with some college scouts in attendance.

His coach, Derek Fine, a member of the Cherokee tribe, was impressed with McClure’s velocity on his passes, his quick release and how he could throw with accuracy while rolling out of the pocket without setting his feet. The coaches saw McClure’s capacity to throw the ball deeper than he had been, so they worked on having him lead his receivers more.

Fine saw college potential in McClure during their short time together. He knows a thing or two because he was a captain for the Kansas Jayhawks’ 2008 Orange Bowl team and a fourth-round draft pick who spent two seasons with the NFL’s Buffalo Bills.

McClure, who stands at 5-foot-11 and 160 pounds, currently has one football offer, from NAIA Dickinson State in North Dakota. He’s also received some initial college interest for his track and field event of javelin, he said.

“I think D-II or D-III would be a great fit for him,” Fine said. “He has the athletic ability to be able to play at the D-I level because of his mechanics and what he does naturally. Unfortunately for him, larger programs get caught up in measurables, and his height kind of hurts him.

“Outside of that, I think he would be a great addition to any team. He’s a high-character guy. Tough kid. Did everything we asked. Played really hard. What really stood out outside of his character is his athleticism.”

McClure came into high school thinking he’d excel more on the basketball court than the football field. For one, the Bulldogs didn’t have a recent history of football success when he arrived in 2019. They also recently transitioned from the 11-Man game to the 8-Man version.

He found football came easy because of his accuracy, ability to make reads and his patience. He credited his numerous coaches with helping him grow, he learned from former pro quarterbacks Dave Dickenson and Jeff Garcia at Marty Mornhinweg’s summer camps in Missoula, and he had a good example in his father Cheyenne, who is the Bulldogs line coach and played football at Haskell Indians Nation University.

As a freshman starter in 2019, McClure helped St. Ignatius qualify for the playoffs to snap an 18-year postseason drought. They made it back-to-back trips in 2020, although both were first-round exits under former coach Tyler Murray.

As a junior, McClure and the Bulldogs won their first playoff game since 1988 under first-year coach Carson Oakland. This fall, they hosted a playoff game for the first time since 2001 and made the state title game for the first time since 1948.

“I thought all the new football spirit was amazing,” he said. “Hopefully they continue to have success and put Mission on the map. We deserve a little bit more respect. We’re always overlooked being a reservation team.”

McClure and the crop of eight football seniors have started to make a name for St. Ignatius, at least in western Montana. He’s now looking to help the basketball program take another step and make history before he leaves high school.

St. Ignatius hasn’t qualified for the state tournament in his time there. He’s in his fourth year on varsity and his third as a starting guard who can drive inside, shoot outside, use his long arms to disrupt passing lanes and translate his all-state safety abilities into reading the opponent.

The Bulldogs’ goal is to be playing on the final night of the divisional and state tournaments, basketball coach Stuart Grant said. Their last trip to state came in 2006, although they’ve been close in recent years, falling one win short at divisionals two times.

St. Ignatius has players who know what it takes to compete at a championship-caliber level. McClure is joined by fellow football players Kenny Ness and Carmine Adams, making up three of the six seniors on the roster.

The team also includes seniors Zoran LaFrombois and Erich Morigeau, who were on the State B champion cross country team this fall. That was St. Ignatius’ third-ever state crown, joining the 1948 football title and 1956 basketball championship.

Those long seasons have left St. Ignatius still recuperating while beginning the hoops campaign. They’re 1-1 with McClure back in the lineup after going 0-2 while he was at the Indigenous Bowl.

Grant treasures having a role model in McClure, who shows his leadership when he pulls players aside at practices for one-on-one talks and instruction. He sees how McClure carries himself as stemming from how his parents Cheyenne and Kristin raised him.

“Kellen’s a genuinely good person,” he said. “He has a big heart and cares about his family and his teammates. He’s got compassion. He’s got a good personality. He’s soft-spoken but as of late his confidence has grown and he’s turning into a man maturity-wise. He just wants people to feel good.”

McClure has already helped leave St. Ignatius in a better spot than he found it on the gridiron. His performance at the Indigenous Bowl can now help with the athletic programs in another way.

The $10,000 equipment grant he received came from the NFL Foundation, which put on the event in partnership with the 7G Foundation, a Native American advocacy group. He got that because he was chosen by the coaching staff for his leadership, sportsmanship and performance. A school’s need was also factored into the equation.

McClure offered the idea of using the money for hot tubs to help the St. Ignatius athletes recover after practices and games. Improvements to the weight room or the creation of an athletic training room came to mind for Grant, who is also the athletic director.

Serious conversations still need to be had at the school. The focus is to do something that’ll benefit all athletes in all sports.

“To leave a mark here in Mission besides runner-up in state, it’s very cool,” McClure said. “I can give more to a community that’s showed so much support and gave us their time. It’s amazing to give it back.”