In the heart of Griz Nation, it might surprise people to learn that Missoula has a football team that doesn’t wear maroon and silver.
On Sunday, a dozen people braved the blizzard-like conditions to get to the first practice of the Missoula Rage, the latest iteration of the city’s semi-pro football tradition.
When the four coaches ordered their new players to take three warm-up laps around Loyola High School’s indoor basketball court, only six had arrived on time.
“I wish we had more guys, but this weather isn’t giving us a break,” head coach Willie Beamon said as he watched the players form a stretching circle. “Hopefully we’ll get enough guys [next weekend] to actually have a decent practice. I want at least 30.”
Two more players showed up late and jumped into the stretching routine, and by the end of the practice period, 10 men were running drills.
The Rage is part of the Rocky Mountain Football League, which comprises 11 semi-pro teams in Montana, Idaho and Utah. Missoula’s most recent team, the Phoenix, played in the RMFL. At its peak, the league had 26 teams, including squads in the Bitterroot, Bozeman and pretty much every major city in Montana. Today there are four RMFL teams in the state — in Missoula, Kalispell, Helena and Billings.
Rage quarterback Sam Fernandez is beginning his fifth semi-pro season. He started in the sport as a kid and walked on with the Griz before getting hurt snowboarding. He now works as a youth pastor in Florence and is glad Missoula has a team again. He used to commute to Kalispell every week to play for the Flathead Monsters.
“The only people who play the game semi-pro are people who love the game,” Fernandez said. “You have people who are passionate about the game, or you got the guys who never tried it before. There’s no glory in this.”
Lack of glory didn’t seem to be a deterrent on Sunday.
There was Jarrod Rozelle, a delivery driver for McGowan Water who brought his daughter to watch practice. There was the former Griz benchwarmer who started shoveling snow at 4 a.m. that morning and finally made it to practice 37 driveways later. There was Tom Maney, 34, who hasn’t played football since high school.
“The ball comes a lot faster than I remember,” said Maney, who decided that getting back into shape would be more fun in a competitive setting. “I think it just takes a couple weeks for the mind to get back in the swing of things, and I think the hardest part is going to be putting the pads back on.”
The players spent an hour on conditioning, which consisted of minute-long drills at a half-dozen exercise stations. The range of abilities was evident early, from naturally gifted athletes who can dunk a basketball and hang on the rim (which they did during their warm-up laps) to those who looked like they hadn’t seen a jump rope in years.
Beamon addressed that discrepancy up front, shouting encouragement from the sideline.
“Just do what you can, we’re not trying to kill you,” he said. “Not till you put on pads, anyway.”
Despite all that, there was clear camaraderie among the players from the start, and while some of the players may lack experience, the coaching staff makes up for it.
Head coach Beamon was an All-American linebacker at Boise State in the 1970s, won the Rose Bowl while playing at UCLA in 1976, and spent a season with the New York Jets. He coached the Missoula Phoenix before that team folded, and is the linebackers coach at Hellgate High School every fall.
Offensive coach Dave Garza has played semi-pro ball for years, even after turning 50, and is a recognizable name to Griz Nation diehards, having caught the first pass in the first Cat-Griz game played in Washington-Grizzly stadium in 1986.
Another member of the Rage staff, and a key factor in getting the new team started, is Jamar Galbreath, a former Division III athlete who played running back for the Phoenix. Galbreath hasn’t decided whether he will step into a player role or a coaching role, but he was vocal and passionate while directing Sunday’s practice.
“This is the beginning, you’re already one day better,” he told the team after leading the post-practice cheer (“Rage on me, rage on three: one, two, three RAGE!”). “We’re building something new. We’re building something great.”
The team has a long way to go before it opens the season with a home game at Loyola’s Rollin Field on April 14.
The players and coaches are aware of that. (“What did we have, two or three throw-uppers today? And we took it easy on them,” Beamon said, chuckling.) But everyone is glad for the chance to play football in their hometown.
“It’s not money-making, but I hope it can keep itself alive,” Beamon said. “This town really needs something this time of year … and I think we can keep semi-pro football alive in Montana.”