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,
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 a 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
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."
In other words, Ryan Leaf need never apply.
For more about sports in Montana and the other 49 states, go to
This is the 42nd in SI's 50th anniversary series on the 50
states. Next week: Nevada
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY DALE C. SPARTAS LET'S HEAR IT In the RMFL fans are sparse but spirits are high.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY DALE C. SPARTAS MOUNTAIN MEN The first-year Knights (in black) play their home games at Columbia Falls High, in the shadow of the Rockies.
TWO COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY DALE C. SPARTAS SIGNED UP LaTray (above) is a player-coach; Athey (with family) is his bruising ballcarrier.
The Knights are kindred spirits: carpenters and car dealers,
masons and chiropractors, gym owners and concrete mixers, all
crazy about football.