At the foot of northwest Montana's snow-capped Rocky Mountains and under an impossibly blue sky, the Glacier Knights are ignoring heart murmurs and herniated discs (and one hernia), fighting through pain and exhaustion and doing their best to exorcise the legacy of Ryan Leaf. It's a fitting day for redemption: April 24, the first day of the 2004 NFL draft, six years almost to the day after the San Diego Chargers made Leaf—the Big Sky state's most highly touted football product ever—the No. 2 pick. Leaf quickly turned into one of the biggest busts in NFL history; his fragile emotional state and questionable work habits prompted his early exit from the league. In Montana, his washout made for statewide shame.
" Ryan Leaf embarrassed all of us," says Ron LaTray, founder-coach-safety of the Knights, newcomers to the semipro Rocky Mountain Football League. "He was a joke. I know this: He couldn't play for us."
Indeed, even as the Knights are being pounded on their home field at Columbia Falls High by the bigger, faster, more experienced Great Falls Gladiators, squabbles constantly erupt among LaTray's players, desperate for one more crack at their in-state rivals. Midway through the fourth quarter, Glacier's stud tailback, Clyde Athey—who in a league of 175-pound linemen is the rare Knight who fills out his uniform—pleads to reenter a game he just left with an excruciating right hamstring pull. "But you're hurt," an onlooker says. To which Athey, his face twisted in pain, replies, "So?"
It's a telling moment, indicative of the sort of man and place that supports this obscure offshoot of the nation's most popular sport. While semipro football bears similarities to its higher-profile NFL and college cousins-same rules, same violence, same astronomical rate of injury—the comparisons end there. The semipro game offers no fame, opportunity or financial reward; not only do players not get paid (the suggestion elicits raucous postgame laughter from Knights players over their beers at Fatt Boys, a watering hole in nearby Kalispell), they often have to cover the expenses that contributions and team-sponsor deals do not. Still, the sport thrives. The 16 teams in the seven-year-old RMFL (including a third Montana franchise, the Helena Titans, based in the state capital) are among the more than 650 outfits in 11-man leagues sprinkled throughout the country, the largest being the 102-team, nationwide North American Football League.
But the sport has perhaps its snuggest fit in Montana, first settled by Irish miners lured by prospects of a big score and cattlemen drawn to the Treasure State's verdant, limitless grasslands. Those hearty souls brought with them the entwined frontier virtues of pugnacity and territoriality, which have been passed down to their Montana descendants through football. In one of only eight states without a professional or Division I-A gridiron team, high school football reigns; local fans pack grandstands in such droves on Friday nights that latecomers are often left to ring the field, four and five rows deep. Thus do the state's burgs call upon their testosterone-raging teens to settle their modern versions of border disputes: by suiting up and throwing down.
In a state where the rougher elements of old-style justice still hover on the periphery, where boys are raised tough and often have too much time on their hands, football is a calming influence. For the Knights, the clubs and saloons of nearby Whitefish are verboten on Friday nights, and several players say they avoid bar brawls lest they lose a spot on the team due to incarceratory concerns. (When one player guesses that as many as half of the Knights' 30-odd players have spent nights in jail, several more at practice the day before the Great Falls game find that estimate somewhat conservative.) The sport is also a safer outlet than other local diversions, which for LaTray and Athey have included fencing with cattle prods and being willingly shocked by a boss's new taser gun. A taser gun? "Hey, this is Montana, man," Athey says, then, in unison with LaTray, "Everybody's got gun."
"Everything boys do here is focused on football," says LaTray. "If you wrestle, you wrestle to train for football. If you box, you do it to train for football. I did the rodeo, because I figured if I could handle getting killed by a bull, I could handle football."
The 27-year-old LaTray is a semipro archetype. He played high school ball in Chinook, Mont., where as a 160-pound sledgehammer of a safety he breathed the sport. However, a protracted bout of walking pneumonia during his senior year led to a heart ailment that caused him to have a mild stroke when, in his final high school game, he suffered his third broken collarbone of the season. Still, he tried to reenter the game. "I wouldn't let them take my pads off," he says. The next fall he attended Crown College in St. Bonifacius, Minn., with hopes of playing, but left after one semester. In the end, "I was devastated," he says.
He returned to Montana, working odd jobs until, in 1998, he heard about an RMFL team that was being formed in Butte, more than 250 miles from his home in Havre. No matter: He was willing to relocate solely to play semipro ball. When that team never came together, he looked into creating a team of his own. "By March 2003, I decided to do it," LaTray says. To wrangle prospective players, he posted 50 fliers throughout the Flathead Valley, a sleepy slice of Montana bordered on three sides by the majestic Rockies running north into nearby Glacier National Park and then Canada, and to the south by gargantuan Flathead Lake. A curious 18 arrived at a soccer field for the team's first workout, on July 20, 2003. The Knights have skipped practice only twice since, even training on Easter, LaTray proudly boasts. While nearly 100 players have come and gone, those that remain are kindred spirits: carpenters and car dealers, masons and chiropractors, gym owners and concrete mixers and a pizza deliveryman who swings by practices during his runs; former high school stars and former roughnecks, with children and bills and no rationale for being so gleefully self-abusive.
In freezing winds, the sloppy, penalty-marred game concludes. Great Falls prevails, 21-0, though the Gladiators' errors cost them at least three more touchdowns. Still, one day after former NFL safety Pat Tillman's death in Afghanistan has rocked the country, the effort by both teams seems a tribute to those lucky enough to still have playing days ahead. "Ultimately, no one ever wants to stop playing football," says league commissioner Jared Neumeier as he tosses passes with LaTray in the day's dying light. "Even if it means only practicing, just to get a jersey and stand on the sideline and say to your girl that you play football, you'll gladly do it."