MISSOULA — Montana wide receiver Jerry Louie-McGee fills his days with team workouts, college classes, football practice and of course, Elmo and Mickey Mouse.
The fifth-year senior has been a father since the birth of his son, Zayden Joseph, to him and his girlfriend, Mariah Hamel, on Sept. 18, 2018, just after the start of his junior season.
Louie-McGee has had the balancing act of football and school with the life-changing aspect of raising a child for the better part of two seasons. It hasn’t always been an easy set of tasks, especially with the sleepless nights, but it’s been an impactful change.
“At the time, it’s something I really needed,” the Idaho native who grew up on the Coeur d’Alene Reservation said ahead of Montana’s game against the Idaho Vandals at 1 p.m. MT Saturday in Washington-Grizzly Stadium.
“I think it buckled me down. It’s not my time anymore. I run off of Zayden’s time or Mariah’s time. I have to do these things. I have to set a schedule. I have to do these things at the time. I can’t procrastinate.
“I think it straightened me up and it matured me. I probably needed that.”
The spark Louie-McGee has provided as a football player hasn’t been diminished with the added off-the-field responsibilities. He’s gone from being a walk-on to a record holder, breaking the school record for career receptions and tying the mark for punt return touchdowns this season.
The shifty 5-foot-9, 171-pounder has been such an electric punt returner that he earned the nickname “Mr. Electricity.” Now, the fan favorite at Washington-Grizzly Stadium has a dose of double electricity, playing not only for himself and his teammates but also for his own family.
“I do respect him for managing his time with all the different things that are pulling on him,” Montana coach Bobby Hauck said. “He doesn’t ever seem to be distracted, which shows a tremendous amount of maturity and willingness to focus on what’s important.”
'It's our strength'
Louie-McGee’s son is one of the most recent additions to the family that’s part of the Coeur d’Alene Tribe.
Family, culture and tribal identity are important parts of life for Louie-McGee. That’s why he can be seen with flowing hair bouncing up and down while he dodges tacklers on the field.
“Traditionally, we keep our long hair because it’s where everything is; it’s our strength,” Louie-McGee said. “Another reason why I keep it is because we have the choice to keep it now. Back in the day, there were boarding schools, and they’d cut natives' hair, made them speak English, didn’t let them speak their own language.
“I keep my long hair because what they went through is what we don’t have to go through anymore. My family, my brothers, we make the choice to do this because we have the choice to do it.”
Louie-McGee grew up living at his grandparents’ house alongside his immediate family, aunts, uncles and cousins on the reservation between Plummer, Idaho, and Tekoa, Washington. The family moved north to Worley, a town of about 250 people, when he was 8 years old.
He spent his childhood playing basketball and football in the sports-oriented family. His dad, Wade McGee, played behind running back Barry Sanders at Oklahoma State in 1988 before he left for Haskell Indian Junior College in Kansas, where he became an academic All-American.
It was at Haskell that Wade, a Cherokee Tribe member, met his future wife, Debbie Louie-McGee, a basketball player and Coeur d’Alene Tribe member. They’d move to Idaho, where Wade became the tribal sports coordinator.
Jerry got hooked on football at 6 years old when his dad first showed him videos of old-school running backs like Sanders and Walter Payton.
“As a kid, that’s all I could think about,” Louie-McGee said. “I used to watch those videos literally every single day. That’s what really inspired me.”
Louie-McGee started out playing 8-man football. A YouTube video from 2009 titled “the best running back” shows the sixth grader displaying the jukes Griz fans have come to know.
His family moved to Coeur d'Alene when he was 14 years old for better college exposure playing 11-man football and for a better education. His parents still drove back to the reservation to continue their jobs there, and his dad continued to coach him after the move to Lake City High School.
“My parents made a huge sacrifice,” Louie-McGee said. “I was way too fortunate and blessed to have them be willing to do that for my brothers and me.”
The move paid off. Louie-McGee got an opportunity at Montana. His older brother, Tucker, played football at Idaho State, and his younger brother, Kenny, played basketball at Wenatchee Valley Community College and Salish Kootenai College.
Even as they left the reservation, the culture and tribal identity continued. For Jerry, that meant keeping his long hair. He plans to raise his son the same way.
“My son will have his long hair,” Louie-McGee said. “I’ll try my best to keep him directed in the right way towards our traditional ways.”
'It's the best thing'
Louie-McGee’s son has seen him play every home game at Montana since attending the Grizzlies’ win over Sacramento State on Sept. 22, 2018, when he was 4 days old. He doesn’t understand what’s going on, but he’s been there like Louie-McGee’s grandparents, who have season tickets, and his girlfriend who he met at Montana, his parents and other family members.
They’ve been attending home games and occasional road games since Louie-McGee broke out as a redshirt freshman walk-on in 2016 under former head coach Bob Stitt. He returned a punt for a touchdown in his second career game and caught 21 passes the next week as he became a finalist for the Jerry Rice Award, given to the top FCS freshman.
Louie-McGee was an All-Big Sky honorable mention receiver in 2016 and 2017, and as a return specialist in 2017, the year in which he carded his second punt return touchdown.
It’s become commonplace for fans to chant “Jerry!” when he lines up to return a punt and tries to weave his way through traffic liked he learned from watching videos of Sanders.
“There’s nobody like Griz fans,” Louie-McGee said. “It’s crazy when I’m out there. I’m way too fortunate and lucky to have the fans. I would never have thought that would happen with me.”
After the early success, he had to undergo a transformation from a possession receiver catching bubble screens when Hauck took over after the 2017 season. Louie-McGee worked on improving his route running to become more of a downfield threat with better practice habits.
He earned second-team All-Big Sky honors as a punt returner in 2018 and honorable-mention status at receiver even though his production dipped in a different offense with a new head coach, coordinator and receiver coach, as well as a deeper group of receivers.
Perhaps it wasn’t a coincidence Louie-McGee’s adaptability at the position and continued walk-on mentality came around the same time he found out he’d soon be a father.
“He’s one of my favorite guys,” Hauck said, “because the fact that when he was a junior, he had to change his game completely and become a more complete football player, and all he did was work at it. He’s just gotten better through his last two years. He just started working harder in all facets of the game and just became a better player.”
This season, Louie-McGee broke the school’s career receptions record of 192 held by Raul Pacheco since 1998. He also returned his third punt for a touchdown, tying the Montana school record with Marc Mariani, an NFL All-Pro, and Levander Segars.
Louie-McGee touts himself as a team guy and prefers not to talk about himself individually. But he was in a bit of awe to see his name at the top of receptions list because he grew up knowing about Montana football and its history of quality wideouts. One thing for him and his senior class to still accomplish is playing in a playoff game.
“Being a Griz, it’s a lot more than just football. It’s sort of everything,” he said. “You carry the tradition and the pride of what Montana has. You know what comes with it. To be able to have that name on the jersey and represent the state of Montana, it’s a very humbling experience.
“Coming down to my last few games, I’m going to try to do the best I can to keep representing Montana well.”
As Louie-McGee looks to the future, it’s about providing the best life possible for his son.
One day, his son will be able to watch highlights of him electrifying the Montana crowd and breaking records. For now, it’s more Elmo and Mickey Mouse and playfully wrestling.
“Being a dad, it’s the best thing that’s ever happened to me,” Louie-McGee said. “I’ve never loved anything so much in my life. He means the world to me.”
Frank Gogola covers Griz football and prep sports for the Missoulian. Follow him on Twitter @FrankGogola or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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