BILLINGS — Karen Moses and Sandra Wattula were sitting in Sandra’s house in Seattle, laughing and reminiscing about their family. From their late father, Bill, to their deceased uncle Milan and their brother Pete, fond memories came flooding back.
About the same time, their cousin Milana Lazetich was home in Bozeman, thinking of what memories she would recall about her father, Milan, who died when she was 6.
And Pete was bailing hay in Reno, Nev., with his two dogs, remembering his father and his own time as a standout athlete at Billings Senior and Stanford.
A special moment in a family's history will do that.
On Friday night, the family will come together in Billings, bringing all those memories, achievements and more to one place.
Bill, Milan and Pete Lazetich will be among a group of 13 inducted into the inaugural Montana Football Hall of Fame at the Billings Hotel and Convention Center.
Karen will represent Bill and Milana will represent Milan. For the family, it’s a time of celebration and remembrance.
“Our ability to reflect, or our opportunity to look back at chapters in life, both for my dad and Pete, it is nice to look back and to celebrate some of those times,” Moses said. “It’s nice to have recognition for dad, and for Pete, for us, on a personal level, it’s fun to have him come home.”
“It’s nice to feel the gratitude of the state of Montana and the appreciation they have for these folks that have dedicated a lot of their life to sports and it’s nice to see them recognized,” Sandra added.
Sandra, 68, will not make the trip because of recent foot surgery. The visit to Seattle by Karen, 62, gave the sisters a chance to catch up.
The Lazetich legacy is a powerful one in Montana. Bill and Milan were standouts at Anaconda High School in the late 1930s and early 1940s.
Bill went on to play at Montana, where he was a three-sport star. He had a short pro football career with the Cleveland Rams before joining the military during World War II. He then coached football and basketball at Senior, winning three state titles. He died at age 93 in 2009.
His son Pete was a standout at Senior, and played on two Rose Bowl champions at Stanford. Jim Plunkett was his teammate during the first victory, over Ohio State in 1971. Pete played pro football for five years with the San Diego Chargers and Philadelphia Eagles.
“Football got easier after I left high school in Montana,” Pete said. “They had some tough teams just at the high school level. Everybody is giving their all. My Billings Senior team had three guys that ultimately got drafted by the National Football League and our best record was 6-4.”
Pete said his family had an uncanny advantage for this Hall of Fame honor.
“It just means we had numbers,” he said, laughing. “But it’s a great honor and it just surely doesn’t happen that often. Three from the same family. If my sisters would’ve been eligible, they would’ve been in it, too.”
According to Pete, Bill was an impressively ambidextrous athlete dubbed “The Quadruple Threat.”
“He could kick with either foot. For the Grizzlies, he kicked off with his left foot, punted with his right foot. He could throw with either hand. If he was throwing a baseball, he threw left-handed, and if it was a football he’d throw right-handed,” he said. “When he was teaching at school, when he wrote on the chalkboard it was with his right hand, but when he was writing regularly it was with his left hand. Just a tremendous athlete.
“I think it’s great that they’re bringing in some of the old-timers like my dad and my uncle,” he added. “They’re the guys I looked up to.”
Karen said the family legacy was never something the family strove to create.
“It was so natural for our family to be in some form of competition, that we just thought it was something fun too, and a livelihood for our dad,” she said. “It was a big part of our lives, but the idea of a legacy wasn’t really a thought. For dad, it truly was about the participation, and being involved.
“And all of the life lessons sports give you. And never quit. Never, never quit. If you started something, you finished it. Be it piano lessons,” Sandra added, as Karen laughed. “Whatever it was, you stayed with it as long as the torture lasted.”
The most competitive member of the family, according to Sandra and Karen, wasn’t any of the three who are being inducted into the Hall of Fame. It was their mother, Daisy.
“She did not like to lose,” Karen said. “She never really played any sports.
“But in life, she just wanted to win,” Sandra added.
Karen said Daisy would watch football with Bill, and would purposely pick the other team. The competition would become intense during some games, and Daisy would have to finish the game in a different room. Karen calls the competition “friendly, but spirited.”
While specific memories stand out, what the sisters remember best is how easygoing the family could be.
“No matter what the situation, no matter or how bad, laughter and humor held us together. It was humor that was always undeniably there,” Sandra said. “Through thick and thin, there was that common thread of laughter.”
One example of this sense of humor was during that first Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif. Karen said Bill joked that they would just stay at the hotel because the television was so nice, rather than go to the game itself.
“He said ‘I’ll get a much better view, watching it from here,’” she said.
Bill’s brother Milan played one year at Montana before also enlisting for WWII. When he came back, he served as a deputy sheriff in Deer Lodge. From there, he went on to finish his collegiate career at the University of Michigan before also going pro, playing for the Cleveland/Los Angeles Rams. He died at age 47 in 1969.
For Milana, it’s a chance to reflect on her father’s impact on Montana football.
“I’m very honored and proud,” she said. “For it to have been such a long time ago, and people to still remember, it really means a lot.”
Milana, 53, like Karen and Sandra, is surprised but flattered at the way their fathers are remembered. This was exemplified when Milana visited the Antiques Roadshow in Billings a few years ago with a friend and brought some items from her dad’s playing days, including a scrapbook and a championship necklace from 1945.
“The sports lady who was looking at everything goes ‘So is Lazetich a big name in sports?’ and my friend goes ‘Yes, definitely’” she said. “And I thought maybe that was just kind of her being from Billings and knowing Bill. But apparently, it’s a little more widespread than I thought.”
“He was certainly the best football player of the bunch,” Pete said. “He was a man’s man.”
Milana has been thinking a lot about what she will say about her father at the ceremony. One story especially makes her laugh.
“He played in the days before face-masks, and leather helmets, and hardly any padding at all,” she said. “He had broken his nose about 13 or 14 times, and when I was a kid, I used to sit on his lap, and you could kind of twang it back and forth.”
Milan was also an impressive musician, she said. A country music fanatic, he would break out his guitar and play at family gatherings.
“He liked to have a good time. Christmas at our house was always a party,” Milana said. “My dad would be playing the guitar. My aunt would be playing the piano. They would sing and have a good time. He was well loved.”
“He was a beauty, I tell ya,” Pete added. "As time goes on, it really means a bunch. (I) have memories of a lot of good people and a lot of good family. And it's special because I think Montana is a special place."