MISSOULA — Eureka native Garrett Graves remembers the moment he decided that football was going to be the future he would pursue as he got older.
"I very distinctly remember my first tackle football in sixth grade, my parents who have been supporting me this whole time, they would drive me to Kalispell, over an hour away to go practice because we didn't have tackle football in Eureka," Graves recalled. "And I was itching to do it and I remember coming home on that long over an hour trip home with my mom, and I remember telling her I love football and I told her I want to play college football."
That dream was met with support, but also a heart-to-heart from his parents to let the young athlete know just what he was aspiring to do, and how to do it.
"They never pushed me to do anything I didn't want to do besides make sure I don't quit anything I started, and they've always just supported my choices, but they always let me know what to expect when I do make those choices," Graves said. "So I told my mom I want to play college football and her and my dad sat me down and they said that's a long road of hard work."
That support system has paid dividends for Graves, a small-town Montana-grown product who is now wrapping up his career at Montana.
A multi-sport standout in Eureka, Graves got to UM and was tasked with a number of position changes early on — from quarterback, to running back, to receiver and more — before eventually landing at safety in 2020. Graves also handles kickoff return duties.
It's there, he's been a staple for the Grizzlies defense since 2021.
"I always wanted to be on the field, so that was great that I was able to do that and doing that at any position, didn't really matter for me as long as I was out there with the boys," Graves said. "So being able to earn that playing time at safety was nice for me to know that I was in one position, but like I said it doesn't really matter for me as long as I was out there.
"I think that's everybody here, just wants to do whatever they can for the team and that's been one of my favorite parts about being a Griz is just my teammates, just a bunch of great men, great dudes, guys I can call if I need anything, and so being with a group of dudes like that, it makes it easy to want to do anything for the team."
And that trust from the coaching staff has meant a lot to the Class B football product,
"Some advice to younger guys coming in is put your head down, do everything you're asked to do and do it to the best of your ability. I really wish I could perform better every chance I get for those guys. I'm going to do the best that I can but when the coaches trust me to put me in a position I hope I can do the absolute best every time I'm in that position."
Foundationally, teams need players like Graves — those who are selfless and work hard and do what's best for the program.
But even more, Graves is using his time with Montana to be a model for other kids coming from the Treasure State's smaller communities. Graves is just the third player ever from Eureka to suit up for the Griz, and first from the tiny northwest Montana town just south of the Canadian border since his former coach — and still current Eureka football coach — Trevor Utter in the late 1990's.
Graves led their program to back-to-back Class B football titles in 2016 and 2017 — and was also a two-time state wresting champion — before making his way to UM.
"It's really cool for me but I hope more than anything it's just proving to those kids that it's possible to have a dream to go on and play some college ball," Graves said. "And I know that was my dream when I was in sixth grade so being able to carry that out and prove it to those guys is a good feeling."
Graves will look to wrap up his final season strong as he exits Montana with two undergraduate degrees in marketing and management information systems, and will complete his masters in business administration this winter.
There's still plenty of football to be played, but Graves will cherish the relationships with his teammates forever, as well as the pride of who he represents every time he takes the field.
"Lot of really good humans in (the program) and good guys and I hope to stay in touch well after the end of our careers here," Graves said. "Representing this state and my family and my hometown and this town and all of the people they root on the Griz and they bleed maroon and silver and I think just trying to be a good person and a decent person and representing them well has meant a lot to me and having Montana on my chest is a big deal to me.
"It's just meant a lot to me to be able to represent Montana and be in this position as long as I have and I think we have some really good guys coming up that I'm excited to pass it down to."