When dreams reach the brink of reality, it can be a humbling experience. It is especially true if uncertainty still swirls around those life-long aspirations coming true. Just ask Brady Gustafson.
The towering gunslinger just completed his career with the Montana Grizzlies after a career filled with both meteoric rises and rapid falls. The 6-foot-7, 230-pounder has always been able to spin it, dating back to his days as the Class AA Offensive Player of the Year at Billings West.
But Gustafson has had to simultaneously prove doubters wrong and fight off the hype of the 24-hour a day news cycle. And now, this weekend, Gustafson’s lifelong dream of becoming an NFL quarterback will likely come to fruition.
“It’s so weird being in this spot because you have no idea what to actually expect but it’s also so exciting to be in this situation,” Gustafson said on Tuesday while in Missoula counting down the days to this weekend’s NFL Draft. “You ask me a couple of years ago and I never would’ve thought I’d be where I am now. I’m thankful and excited. Right now, I really don’t have any stressers because it’s out of my hands. So much of my future is dependent on this weekend but it’s out of my control so I will just stay positive. I’m certainly excited to watch this weekend.”
Coming out of high school, Gustafson favored the Montana State Bobcats over the Montana Grizzlies. But former MSU offensive coordinator Tim Cramsey’s triple-option spread offense favored dual-threat quarterbacks like Dakota Prukop much more than statuesque signal callers like Gustafson.
Former Montana head coach Mick Delaney loved Gustafson’s height, arm strength and intangibles. He seemed like a perfect fit for Delaney’s pro-style offense. But after redshirting, then sitting behind Jordan Johnson for two seasons, Delaney retired just as it seemed Gustafson would get his turn under center.
UM hired Bob Stitt, a well-renown offensive mind known for his up-tempo, adjustment-heavy offense that predicated cerebral signal callers making frequent changes at the line of scrimmage.
Gustafson showed skills in all of the above at an elite level during his first college start, which doubled as Stitt’s debut at the helm. Gustafson threw for 434 yards and three touchdowns in Montana’s 38-35 win over four-time defending national champion North Dakota State.
UM would lose it’s next two games, including a loss at Liberty in which Gustafson suffered a broken leg that would cost him the next two months. He returned to lead the Griz to resounding wins over rivals Eastern Washington and Montana State and into the FCS playoffs.
By last off-season, the hype machine had kicked into overdrive. Sportswriters from across the country became intent on pinning Gustafson with the label as the “next Carson Wentz”, the 6-foot-5 former NDSU field general who rose to become the No. 2 selection in last season’s NFL Draft.
“To be honest with you, I have no reaction to any of that hype,” Gustafson said last July during the Big Sky Kickoff media days in Park City, Utah. “I don’t know if people are trying to get some hot takes or what but I’m just worried about this team and 2016 and focusing on the team aspect of it.”
That focus paid off during the first half of Gustafson’s senior year. He led Montana to a 5-1 start, the lone loss a 42-41 defeat at Cal Poly in which Gustafson broke UM’s single-game record for completions with 47. The Griz climbed as high as No. 6 in the FCS polls and sat at No. 10 after a 68-7 destruction of Sac State in which Gustafson tossed four of his 25 touchdowns.
It all came crashing down thereafter. Turnovers plagued Gustafson and the Griz offense and the Griz defense gave up too many big plays in a 45-34 loss at Northern Arizona. Gustafson suffered an injury in a 35-16 loss at Eastern Washington that would cost him the next two starts. UM went 1-1 in his absence, then fell 24-17 in the final game of Gustafson’s career to the rival Bobcats in Missoula. Four losses in five outings, including three straight with Gustafson at the controls, cost Montana a playoff spot for just the third time since 1993.
The late-season slide helped calm the hyperbole surrounding Montana’s talented quarterback. In October, many were talking about him as a potential second-day pick. After a decent showing at the NFLPA all-star game and a surprising display of athleticism at Montana’s pro day last month, most agree that Gustafson will likely be a sixth or seventh round pick or an undrafted free agent signee. The process in re-proving his stock has been interesting for the analytical thinker.
“It’s kind of been like a beauty pageant,” Gustafson said. “You kind of get dressed up. You show how pretty you are. At the end of the day, this is about playing football. Having gone through these last couple of months, it’s been interesting to see all the other things that play into this decision that teams are making.”
From January 2 until the first week of March, Gustafson lived in the Franklin township of Somerset, New Jersey, training and honing his athletic testing skills. His agent, Connecticut-based Joe Linta, specializes in finding diamonds in the rough and helping lead them to the NFL. Gustafson showed better athleticism than most expected, running 4.9 seconds in the 40-yard dash, notching a 34-inch vertical and a nine-foot broad jump and running good times in the short shuttle and 3-cone drill.
“I don’t really think anyone is expecting me to be a burner or anything,” Gustafson said with a laugh. “Looking at the results we put up online, the numbers the scouts got, I was pretty pleased. I PRd in quite a few events. It’s nice to put everything together when it really matters.
“But those are irrelevant now and that’s nice knowing I won’t ever have to do a 40 or a 5-10-5 or any of that stuff.”
A Griz being drafted would be the 49th in program history, including the 12th since 2004 alone. Montana has consistently produced NFL-caliber defensive linemen, from 2007 Buck Buchanan Award winner Kroy Biermann (5th round by Atlanta Falcons) to 2015 Buck winner Tyrone Holmes, a sixth-round pick last spring.
Helena native Caleb Kidder could be the next to hear his name called and will certainly find himself in an NFL training camp even if he’s not drafted. Kidder increased his chances on UM’s pro day, running a 4.71 in the 40 and putting up 30 reps on the bench press at 6-foot-5 and 269 pounds.
The former Montana Gatorade Player of the Year also has position versatility, earning All-Big Sky honors as a defensive tackle in 2014 and 2015 before shifting to defensive end as a senior in Jason Semore’s first year as the Griz defensive coordinator. Some scouts have even suggested he has potential as an offensive lineman. He was a first-team all-state lineman for three years in high school.
Kidder could play defensive end in either a 4-3 or 3-4 scheme and could also move to standup outside linebacker in a 3-4. He worked out for the Kansas City Chiefs and Seattle Seahawks through a battery of drills challenging Kidder to move in space during UM’s pro day. He also had a confirmed meeting with the Green Bay Packers leading up to the draft. The Chiefs have a need on the defensive line and run a 3-4 scheme.
“I feel like that’s the type of player I am, is being versatile,” Kidder told Derek Buerkle of MTN Sports television following his pro day. “So if they want me to do linebacker drills, I’ll do linebacker drills. If they want me to do d-line drills, I’ll do that too.”
Yamen Sanders, a former transfer from Arizona who spent his last two seasons as an intimidating if not inconsistent performer at safety for Montana, showed his raw talent in front of the eight scouts in Missoula. At 6-foot-4, 215 pounds of ripped muscle, Sanders ran a 4.56 in the 40, notched a 42-inch vertical and a 10-4 broad jump and pumped out 24 reps on the bench.
Cornerback J.R. Nelson gave his stock a shot in the arm at UM’s pro day. The 6-foot-1, 187-pounder ran a 4.47 in the 40 and notched a 38-inch vertical, both top level numbers for available corners. It’s unlikely he is drafted considering Nelson missed UM’s first six games because of a suspension because of a failed drug test. But he will find himself in a training camp soon.
As is usually the case, all eyes will be on the quarterback this weekend though. And that’s something Gustafson is used to. The spotlight in Missoula is bright even if the state of Montana does not yet have one million residents. Griz football players are scrutinized celebrities, the examination even more intense given the slew of controversy the program has endured this decade.
“Through college, living here in Missoula, everyone has their eye on you,” Gustafson said. “I sort of stand out because of my height (laughs). Wherever you go, you get looks, people know who you are. I think that’s for sure what it’s like at the next level. I can only hope that what I’ve gone through and all my experiences here have prepared me for the next level.”
Since his pro day, Gustafson has spent his time throwing “a couple times a week”, working out to say in shape, golfing when he can and playing video games when he can’t do something active. He is back in Billings to consume this weekend’s draft coverage like he has since he was a kid. He hopes this last month of down time is his last until spring rolls around next year and he’s preparing for his second NFL season.
“More than anything, I just want an opportunity,” Gustafson said. “This has been something I’ve wanted to do my whole life. Now that we are actually here, I’m honored. Even if my name doesn’t get called, it won’t be the end of the world. Hopefully, I have some options after the draft. I’m just really excited to see how the events unfold. I’ve watched the draft my whole life since I was a kid. It will be interesting to see how the next couple days play out.”
Photos by Brooks Nuanez and Jason Bacaj. All Rights Reserved.