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Something missing: Montana State faithful lament historic absence of Cat-Griz game

Something missing: Montana State faithful lament historic absence of Cat-Griz game

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BOZEMAN — Trying to grasp all that’s missing, Butch Damberger realizes life is quieter than it used to be.

Damberger is the director of Montana State’s Strand Union Building, a meeting space usually saved for conferences, dinners and banquets. Now, it’s used for classroom space. People aren’t meeting in large groups much anyway.

Damberger’s Saturdays used to be reserved for Bobcats games, including if they hosted rival Montana. The former all-American tight end and coach assisted officials with video reviews. He loved it. His view was not far away from where he once stood either immediately on the sideline or on the field.

Now, though, a lot of things are different. The coronavirus pandemic has altered countless aspects of life.

Damberger has kept busy with yardwork. On Saturdays, he tries to watch FBS games from home with Bobcats games postponed until the spring. He enjoyed watching late Pac-12 games after he came home from a long day at Bobcat Stadium. But with no fans, the game he loves is quieter than it used to be.

“Watching college football just isn’t the same. It just doesn’t have it,” Damberger said. “Just something about having those crowds and atmosphere of college football games. ... There’s just something lacking. It’s not just the crowds. It just doesn’t seem all in. There’s something lacking in the whole thing.”

He’s long been bracing for the weekend that will provide the most stark contrast. For the first time since 1945, the Bobcats won’t take on Montana because of the pandemic. Saturday would’ve provided the Treasure State the 120th edition of the storied Cat-Griz rivalry, a yearly staple and tradition for football fans here.

Instead, Bobcat Stadium and Washington-Grizzly Stadium, rocked to their foundations by the clamoring of distressed fans for decades, will be still this weekend.

The parking lots, perennially packed by the bustling of tailgaters eager to discuss possible game strategies with family they haven’t seen in months, will be hushed.

The fields, which bear the brunt of players digging deeper in desperate hopes of cementing legacies, will be unscathed.

All of Montana will be missing something. Chuck Karnop, MSU’s athletic trainer from 1968 to 2002, described it as a void.

“Something is taken away from you,” Karnop said. “It’s like having a holiday. Now, we’re going to get some semblance of a Christmas and some semblance of a Thanksgiving, but we’re going to have no semblance of a 2020 Grizzly-Bobcat game. It’s huge. It’s just such a highly-anticipated thing. Win or lose, there’s just so much joy and happiness associated with it.”

The significance of the Cat-Griz game is often ingrained in Montanas when they are young. Those who grew up and watched or participated in these contests gain even more attachment with each passing year.

MSU senior associate athletic director Dan Davies’ first memory of the rivalry was watching it in Missoula in 1968. His family witnessed the Bobcats score 20 points in the final nine minutes. MSU won on a touchdown with 12 seconds remaining by Paul Schafer, who carried the ball 58 times for 234 yards in the contest. Dennis Erickson, who went on to coach Miami to national championships before his NFL career, was the quarterback of that MSU squad.

Karnop, who was in his first year working at MSU, called that his favorite memory tied to athletics.

“I think everyone has ratcheted up their anxiety and emotions up from a few notches to perhaps several notches,” he said. “I don’t think there’s an in-state kid that’s ever put his pads on to get ready for the Grizzly-Bobcat game that wasn’t ready to play.”

MSU was a special place for Davies. His parents and all of his brothers attended MSU.

He went on to play for the Bobcats. He was a member of MSU’s 1976 national championship team, and he was an assistant coach on MSU’s last national title squad in 1984.

Those around the Cat-Griz rivalry say a person is either a steadfast Bobcat fan or a Grizzly fan. But Davies proved otherwise, as his wife used to be a cheerleader for the Grizzlies.

“It was adversarial at times early in the marriage, but when the Bobcats were writing checks to me to support the family, she quickly swung to the Bobcats,” Davies said. “... She’s a convert.”

Montanans are tied to the game because of what it represents. MSU special teams coordinator and recently appointed associate head coach B.J. Robertson noted his social media feed has been seemingly as quiet as the Bobcat Stadium stands.

He misses hearing from friends, whether they’re rooting for the Bobcats or the Grizzlies, about the game.

“It gives people a reason to connect with you I guess. I miss that part, honestly,” Robertson said. “I’ve gotten more sleep. My stomach is not churning like it usually is this time of year, so that’s been a bonus.”

For some, families have tied their best memories to the game. Damberger, who went on to coach at Great Falls CMR, noted a Cat-Griz win capped off a landmark weekend in his family. His oldest daughter was born on a Thursday, he led the Rustlers to a win over Great Falls on a Friday, then he watched the Bobcats win on a Saturday.

Untold numbers of supporters can easily recall their favorite Cat-Griz stories. Some are well-known history. Others are personal anecdotes, ones which don’t mean anything to anyone else but are inherently tied to the game countless others have relished in.

Many can recall brutal weather on October or November days, wrapped up in warm clothing to support their team. They also may remember snow-covered roads on drives back home.

Former MSU lineman J.C. Murray said his first Cat-Griz clash was on the sidelines as a redshirt freshman. He claimed it was negative-20 degrees that day, or so it felt.

Growing up on a ranch in eastern Montana, Murray didn’t comprehend the importance of the matchup until he played in it.

“The hits are a little bit harder,” Murray said. “Everybody gets ready for that week and focused. It’s easy to see it means a lot to the players who participate in that.”

As a former player and coach, MSU defensive coordinator and four-time all-American Kane Ioane said those new memories are formed every year. They all rush back instantaneously whenever someone mentions the rivalry to him.

He was on the 2002 MSU team that broke Montana’s streak of 16 straight victories over the Bobcats on a cold and windy day in Missoula. He said at the time he was relieved he didn’t have to hear anybody wonder if the Bobcats would ever defeat the Grizzlies again.

Ioane usually feels antsy whenever he wakes up on Sunday mornings on ’Cat-Griz week. Last year, after the Bobcats defeated UC Davis exactly one week before their next game against Montana, MSU safety and Belgrade native Brayden Konkol tweeted that he had been looking forward to that week for 358 days.

After all the time spent focusing on previous opponents, this is when Ioane usually realizes he has to gear up for a game unlike any other. He’s content knowing the Great Divide Trophy won’t leave Bozeman for now. But that doesn’t erase his desire to take the field opposite of the Grizzlies.

“Every Saturday comes around and you miss those Saturdays in Bobcat Stadium,” Ioane said. “I think I speak for all of us, there’s no question in my mind we wish we could be playing … in front of a packed house and competing. Obviously this week being a special week in that regard just because there’s no atmosphere like a ’Cat-Griz game. There’s no feeling quite like that week building up to that game. It’s just a special time, and to not have that feeling, it’s tough.”

History is made constantly in the intense rivalry. Those who have watched it for decades regard the 2018 Bobcats win on their last-second goal line stand in Missoula as one of the most exhilarating. Before he lamented about MSU’s “heartbreaker” losses in 1997 and ’98, Damberger said that 2018 “miraculous comeback” win “was the ultimate therapy.”

He tried to tell his daughter, who was teaching in Brazil at the time, about it. He didn’t feel he could properly illustrate his exhilaration over the phone.

“That kind of balances the pendulum there in terms of the ’97 game,” Damberger said. “That one we probably should’ve won, and they found a way to win it. It all levels out. It took 19 years to do it, but it levels itself out.”

All of these games, Damberger said, illustrate “just sheer guts and effort” of those yearning to win.

Years of winning streaks on both sides keep the stakes high. Pressure for each class of Bobcats and Grizzlies to win remains over a century after the first game was played in 1897.

Ioane said last year’s group of MSU seniors relished in the idea of never losing to the Grizzlies, just as UM players grow an increasing desire to break MSU’s current run of four straight wins in the series.

Ioane credited Bobcats head coach Jeff Choate for grasping the magnitude of the rivalry immediately. Karnop, in his decades at MSU, believed this wasn’t always the case for head coaches.

But Choate, Ioane said, was different. Bobcats players and coaches tell newcomers as soon as they’re welcomed to the program how paramount it is. Every weight lifting set or conditioning session builds toward that game.

It’s not just about the past, as Montana leads the all-time series 72-40-5. And it’s not just about the present, MSU’s current winning run. It’s about the future — how players, both all-Americans and bench-warming freshmen, will be remembered for decades to come.

After the Bobcats won in 2019, Choate called it a “forever game.”

“You can’t just say this is just another game,” Ioane said. “This is a special game you all have an opportunity to be a part of and you need to take that for what it’s worth and work toward a lasting impact on that game every opportunity you get.”

During the Big Sky’s virtual media day in July, which was meant to prelude a fall season which never happened, Choate tried to downplay the competitiveness of the rivalry. But at the same time, he refused to say the name of MSU’s rival out loud.

Grizzlies head coach Bobby Hauck, who was 5-2 against the Bobcats before he returned to Montana and has since lost to MSU twice, was short with his response about the rivalry. He was asked how the Grizzlies could shift the balance of power back to Missoula.

“It’s already done,” Hauck said. “We need to win that game. They kicked our ass last year, and we’re not pleased about it.”

In 2018, the Bobcats came back from a 22-point deficit to win on a last-second goal-line stand. Last year, MSU won 48-14, it’s highest-ever point total against the Griz.

Hauck has yet to lead the Grizzlies to a win over Choate’s Bobcats.

“It goes pretty deep in their souls with this game. It’s extremely important,” Davies said. “Those two guys really embrace it and cherish it and will do anything in their power to win that football game. I think it makes it a really good rivalry.”

Damberger believes that 2019 matchup should be considered a top-10 game in the history of the rivalry in the minds of Bobcats fans. This isn’t because it was close, because it wasn’t, but because of the sheer jubilation that surrounded it. The No. 8-ranked Bobcats secured a first-round bye in the FCS playoffs by beating Montana, then ranked No. 3. This catapulted the Bobcats to their first national semifinal appearance since 1984.

“I probably never want to find out what it feels like on the other side,” Choate said last November.

In July, Choate wasn’t sure when the Bobcats would play the Grizzlies again. But he said MSU would have “a pretty good blueprint for how to take care of them.”

This intensity, this competitiveness, this escape from everyday life, it’s all missing for Bobcats and Grizzlies fanatics.

History was made yet again in 2020, but not for reasons either team wants. Those who would normally be watching football on Saturday are instead forced to find other ways to burn time. Murray said he’s been often hunting. He might help his daughter find a car this weekend.

“But I would much rather have gone to a ’Cat-Griz game,” he said.

“It’s part of that normalcy I think people are craving, but it’s not just a football game. It’s life,” he added. “It’s challenging. While the ’Cat-Griz game is something that’s missed, this is pretty historic.”

For now, the Bobcats are scheduled to at last take on Montana in Missoula on March 27.

Ioane stressed his team will be ready. But that doesn’t take away from his desire to be scheming up a plan to beat the Grizzlies yet again this week.

“Saturday is going to come, and I’m going to have that feeling in my gut that this should be ’Cat-Griz Saturday,” he said, “and I’d love to be making that walk into that stadium and getting prepared to go to battle again.”

MSU athletic director Leon Costello hasn’t recently visited his family in the Midwest during Thanksgiving. In the past, prepping for the Grizzlies matchup, the FCS playoffs or basketball games would be in the way.

Now, he misses those obligations. He’s tried to watch college football on television this year, but he couldn’t. It felt empty. And he knows that emotion will be amplified the day ’Cat-Griz was supposed to take place.

“There’s just nothing,” he said, “that takes the place of that game.”

Colton Pool can be reached at cpool@dailychronicle.com or 406-582-2690. Follow him on Twitter @CPoolReporter.

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