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'They're a special group': Former Griz teammates react to Montana's run to FCS title game

Posted at 6:02 PM, Jan 01, 2024

MISSOULA — Arguably no one outside of this year's Montana Griz football team knows more about what this group has gone through, or has enjoyed seeing them reap their rewards, like former teammates who suited up alongside these guys the past few years.

They know the day-in and day-out grind it takes to be successful at Montana, and watching their former teammates succeed and make their run to the FCS national title game in Frisco, Texas, has been special for the now Griz alums.

"I'm so pumped for all those guys and that all the hard work they put in, I mean, the last four, three years, however long they've been there, you know, to get to this point," said Jace Lewis, a Townsend native who wore the No. 37 legacy jersey and played linebacker from 2016-2021. "From an ex-player, it's super cool to see all those guys succeed like they have and put themselves in a situation to get to Frisco. And I mean, at the beginning of the year, you always talk about winning the Big Sky like they did and then making it to the (championship). So I think it's awesome.

"It's awesome. It's just one thing you talk about every year. So it's one thing to talk about it and another to go out there and do it. And these guys worked their butts off all year to get there. So they definitely earned it. And from an ex-player and an alum, it's awesome to see and I hope they go and kick some butt."

Past and present members of the Griz football team compete at a summer softball tournament.

Those goals include getting degrees at UM, beating the Montana State Bobcats, winning the Big Sky Conference title and ultimately capturing the FCS national championship. For the alums, seeing this group having accomplished three of those things with the possibility to get all four brings them joy.

Griz athletics has deep-rooted pride and tradition, with all sports forming a tight-knit bond for those who go through the programs.

That goes for football, as Montana returns to the national championship for the first time since 2009.

"Just the dominance, like just the culture of Griz football of powerful defense that, you know, defense that doesn't give up anything, and an offense that provides explosive plays and it's fun to watch," said Dylan Cook, a Butte native who played offensive tackle from 2018-2021 and now plays for the Pittsburgh Steelers in the NFL. "It's bringing it back to old Grizzly football dare I say, but you know, it's fun football to watch. And these guys are creating the atmosphere for it and Griz nation creates the atmosphere for it and it's just so much fun to watch.

"Knowing where they all came from, like, there's some guys on the defense who have been through, you know, so much just to get here and just to be on this stage. And same with the offense, and knowing these guys personally, like, it's so special. I feel just as much as a part of this as anybody and I assume a lot of former Griz players feel the exact same way. And that's just the culture that Griz nation has created. These guys deserve all the credit. This coaching staff has bought into these players and let these players lead this team to great things and they deserve all the credit in the world."

Former players, whether it be last year to 20 years ago, helped fortify the foundation of the program, and while that's true, this group competing in Frisco is deserving of all their flowers, according to their former teammates, with the way they've bounced back from the early loss to Northern Arizona and have since been on a roll to win 10 straight games.

All of which led up to celebrating jubilantly alongside those guys when UM topped North Dakota State in the FCS semifinals to punch a ticket to the title game.

"I mean, that was so cool. The security guards probably don't like me, but I think I was one of the first people to jump on the field after, there was no stopping me. I'm gonna go congratulate these guys, because I was just so happy for them and see that pure emotion on everyone's face down on the field," said Helena native Marcus Welnel, who played linebacker from 2017-2022 and wore the No. 37 legacy jersey in 2022. "And just, they finally did it, you know, got to a national championship. They've just completed all their goals and to be there with them, I just was so happy for them. I couldn't hold back my emotion there in that moment.

"Man, they're a special group, they are a gritty group. Especially after the NAU game, they stuck together. Still found ways to win games. I mean, it's truly just such a cool story of how they came together, they all play so hard together, they love each other. They find ways to win games. And that's all you can ask for. So it's cool, I'm so happy for them."

Members of the Griz football team celebrate in the locker room after beating Washington in the 2021 season.

Not to mention, these guys saw all of the behind-the-scenes work this group put in when they were both up-and-coming younger players, but also as they started to see playing time.

From winter conditioning to spring ball, fall camp and more, knowing all of that work put in has made this special for those who passed the torch down.

"It's your best friends. You want your peers and your brothers to succeed," said Robby Hauck, who was born in Missoula and played safety for the Grizzlies from 2018-2022 under his father, head coach Bobby Hauck. "I understand everything that they've gone through and what they did to get to that situation. And I was just as excited as them. It's awesome, because they deserve it, they worked their tails off to be in that situation, and they got themselves there, and then executed and were able to succeed. So it's amazing."

Now watching as alums in post-college life, seeing the Griz get back to where they all wanted the program to be has brought joy to the alums and more.

"I think it means everything to this community. I mean, not just as a former player, but like, you can tell like, every game day, I mean, the whole city of Missoula is behind the Montana Grizzlies," said Missoula native Mitch Roberts, who played wide receiver for the Griz from 2017-2022. "And no matter what, they have the team's back. And I think that as a former player, you know, it's important to also be there in support and it means everything, you know? You want your buddies to succeed as well.

"Not surprised at all. Those guys, you see it on Saturdays how successful they are, but behind the scenes we were able to see what they're doing and the work that they're putting in. So it's cool to just see how successful they are this season. And I'm just excited to watch those guys play for national championship. It's pretty special."

Montana's wide receivers and coach Brent Pease celebrate in the locker room after UM beat the Montana State Bobcats in 2021.

And you can bet, come kickoff next Sunday in Frisco, Texas, they'll be tuned in as the loudest supporters for the guys in maroon and silver.

"I mean, it is all pride, you have no idea — like, it warms my heart so much," said Samuel Akem, who came to the Treasure State from Oklahoma and played wide receiver from 2016-2021. "Every time a good play happens, no matter who it is on the field, like whether I know him or I don't, it's like, this is freaking amazing. Like, these guys are awesome. It just warms my heart so much with joy to see the success and I'm just so happy for them.

He added, laughing, "The stress you feel as a player is one thing, but the stress you feel as a fan, especially like an alum who's been through it and done it all, like it's crazy. I feel like I've always been on the butt end of teams, like I used to be a (Dallas) Cowboys fan, they never win. I'm (an Oklahoma City) Thunder fan, they never win, our best players left us, so to see my team finally — like, we won the Big Sky, we beat the Cats, we're going to the natty. To finally be able to like brag and like the team will back it up, you know, it's amazing."