The cyclical nature of seasons is one of the great realities of life in Montana. Four distinct and absolute quarters have dictated our lives here for centuries. The planting, the harvest, the hunt, the recreation; the fires in the forest, the fires in the hearth. That great universal equilibrium which brings us in the North to rest in warmth and now in cold. The solstice, the equinox, the orbit, immutable as time itself. In Montana, the seasons move us out of deep freeze into rebirth and sun and back again through that autumnal door. We now find ourselves in winter’s antechamber, slowly but certainly crossing the threshold from warmth to cold, light to dark, thawed to frost. And one event every year for over a century has signaled the emphatic punctuation to the end of another season.
Here we are again. For the 118th time. It’s Cat-Griz.
When the Bobcats and the Grizzlies kick off at high noon in Missoula on Saturday, more than a football game will be taking place. It’s a cultural phenomenon. All rivalries want to lay claim to being the biggest and best, the most fierce or most important. Those are subjective, shifting titles usually employed as mere assertions by strident fans looking for individual relevance. The reality is, none of that matters.
What makes all true rivalries great has nothing to do with size, scope or standing. What matters is the intensity of the participants and the import to the community. For Cat-Griz, the intensity is maximal, the import complete.
The Montana community, while spread thin, is tight knit, from the ranches in the East to the mountains in the West. Most who live here haven’t opted for the easy life, for conveniences over work, for money over fulfillment. That’s why in Montana, respect is the order of the day. If you live in this state you have a common bond with the rest about what matters, and what you’re willing to sacrifice, to live where you love. That fundamental respect, even while it underscores intense disagreement, is nowhere better expressed than in the Montana – Montana State football game.
Consider also the asymmetry that exists with this game at a national level. The Iron Bowl is played in Alabama but will be seen across the country. The Apple Cup, The Civil War, Ohio State-Michigan, even Harvard-Yale will have its national moment. The whole country will see and know and talk about those games. Not this one.
Montana vs Montana State is only seen, talked about, cared about by Montanans. This game means nothing outside our border and that’s why it means everything inside it. At some level Montanans understand and appreciate what the Iron Bowl is to Alabamans and the schools involved. Alabamans, however, have no clue of the significance of Cat-Griz. My guess is, most don’t even know it even exists. Therein lies the beauty. Of Montana, for Montana, to the exclusion of everyone, everywhere else.
Once a year a single communal event, full of fire and fury, vitriol and virulence, happens on a field where boys become men and two schools have their respective program’s course set for an entire year. The ‘Cats and The Griz, two teams with as much in common as they have at odds. An apt representation of Montana; of Montanans. And this game, like an accordion, has the spectacular ability to bring us together, only to inevitably push us back apart.
So now, fans across the state descend on Missoula in person or through their televisions or radios on a collision course with each other only to scatter back to the fields, forests and towns they came from. But no matter where, no matter what, this game is held in common. A tie that binds even as it separates and gives us one of the most unique rivalries in all of sports.
Even the teams in this year’s rendition express the similarity and distinction representative of our state. At times both teams have been exceptional, at others completely inept. A feast or famine Montana offense that averages 35 points per game despite not playing a game in which they scored in the 30s. A Montana State quarterback who is the biggest conundrum to ever step on a Treasure State football field. A kid that is the most spectacular playmaker in the Big Sky, maybe in the nation; and is also a bad quarterback. The worst passing offense in the conference (MSU) vs the worst pass blocking offense in the conference (UM). Maybe the best defensive line in the Big Sky against unquestionably the best linebacking corps. The two best rushing quarterbacks in the league; but only one who can throw, too. Neither team resembles the other at all, yet taken as a whole, both seem perfectly equal. And equal where it matters is exactly what they are: six wins in 10 games, needing a victory to stamp a winning record in Big Sky Conference play.
Others can break down the Xs and Os, the matchups that matter and who has the advantage. Here, let’s simply note, it’s been a long time since we’ve seen a rivalry matchup in which both teams enter with such elite strengths and such glaring deficiencies. They are mirror images in some respects, utterly disparate in others. And while they say styles make fights, in this game, it will be the fight that creates style Saturday.
A 121-year-old football clash that comes but once a year is the most widely experienced communal event in our state. It’s where Montanans turns to argue and laugh, to discuss and analyze, and to see on that field a piece of who we are. And this time it means the same thing it’s meant in every one of the 117 games that game before it.
Montana – Montana State – No. 118 – 11/17/18 – High Noon – WGS – Missoula, MT.
Ryan Tootell is the program director of ESPN Missoula and the lead co-host of Tootell and Nuanez, Western Montana’s only daily sports talk show live from 4-6 p.m. Monday through Friday on 102.9 FM. Photos by Brooks Nuanez.