BOZEMAN, Montana — The Montana State Bobcats collectively endure the elements as the season progresses. MSU practices in the mornings in an effort to allow players to focus on academics in the afternoons and evenings.
Engaging in physical contact when the thermometer reads temperatures below freezing is sometimes an arduous task. Practicing in the biting wind that is somewhat commonplace in the Gallatin Valley is cumbersome for all Montana State’s players and coaches.
But the challenges of staying warm and avoiding boredom are accentuated for Tristan Bailey and his fellow specialists. The Montana State senior kicker only has three guaranteed games left in his Bobcat career. And he refuses to let biting cold affect his mood.
“I want to make sure I have fun no matter what,” Bailey said just a few hours after finishing a practice in which the gage read 19 degrees. “I refuse on a day like this where it’s cold to be grumpy or grouchy and not want to be out there. I want to embrace every second of it because this is really the only guaranteed time I have. I want to embrace everything I can right now.”
Bailey’s football path has led him from Colorado Springs, Colorado to Laramie, Wyoming to Coffeyville, Kanas to Bozeman, Montana. For much of his time, he remembers being overwhelmed by the demand for excellence his position requires and the pressure, both from within himself and from those around him.
As Bailey marches toward the inevitable end of his college career, he has made a concerted effort to be more mindful about everything he does. He is trying to enjoy his teammates, particularly the time spent with fellow senior specialist, punter Jered Padmos.
Bailey is also trying to embrace every moment within the scope of football games. For years, Bailey would anxiously watch his team’s offense move up and down the field, constantly calculating what his potential upcoming kick might be.
About six weeks ago, Bailey started seeing Montana State sports psychologist Aaron Grosonink. He has learned how to meditate and live in the present moment, which has helped him find true joy in every aspect of his final season of college football.
“I started working on all that stuff about six weeks ago and I noticed a big change not only with football but with life in general and with school and everything else,” Bailey said. “I haven’t had too many opportunities but it has helped me stay calmer throughout the games and know that I’m ready to go whenever and each moment is going to be the best moment for me.”
Bailey, who grew up playing soccer and didn’t take up football until his junior year of high school, heard from coaches and kicking specialists the broad concept of building mental strength. But no one ever gave a detailed map on how to conquer it.
Bailey’s natural talent helped him earn playing time as a freshman for the Wyoming Cowboys. His leg strength has helped him hit three field goals of 47 yards or longer during his two seasons with Montana State.
This season, Bailey’s opportunities have been sporadic in their prevalence or lack there of. The team needed all three of his field goals, including a go-ahead 47-yarder, to get past Western Illinois in a 23-14 win in Macomb, Illinois. He attempted just two field goals over the next four games.
Bailey has been put in tough situations throughout the season, lining up for four field goals of more than 45 yards. Twice before kicking those kicks, MSU committed false starts, pushing the presumed kick back five yards. Bailey has missed one kick inside 40 yards but has missed four of his six tries from farther than 40, every one of them farther than 45 yards.
Overall, Bailey is 7-of-12 this season and has made all 36 of his extra-point tries. He has 57 total points during his senior season.
“I used to be so worried about where are they at on the field, how long is the kick and then all of a sudden, it’s a false start, we get pushed back five yards…I used to think about that so much and that’s how I would prepare, which would make it so I wasn’t as steady and ready to go,” Bailey said. “Now the big change is I don’t pay attention to where they are at. When they are in field goal range, I know that I have to go perform no matter where we are at.
Montana State special teams coordinator B.J. Robertson has spent more time with Bailey than any Bobcat coach. He credits his kicker’s unorthodox journey from kicking at 7,000 feet in Laramie to the whipping wind of the Kansas plains to the brutal elements of Bozeman for making him tough. He also has noticed a change in Bailey’s overall demeanor since the kicker started focusing on himself and the present.
“One of the nice things that the administration added was a sports psychologist to staff and Tristan has really taken advantage of that,” Robertson said. “The kicking game is like a golf swing. He’s made note of that and I’ve seen it the last month or so.
“I’ve really noticed a difference in his demeanor and how he approaches each kick. He concentrates on the moment and nothing more. I’m really proud of him for always challenging himself and looking for every way to get better whether it’s the mental part or the physical part.”
Bailey did not come off the sideline against Northern Arizona or Sacramento State or last week against Southern Utah. Yet he has made it a priority to be a part of the fabric of the Bobcat team.
“I’ve gone through a little adversity from being at different schools and I know I’m mentally tough in that sense but it came down to figuring out what I can do this year to make sure I’m the best I can be for the team. I want to be my best because I know we have a great opportunity to do more in the postseason and I want to be the best I can be for everybody else on the team.”
Montana State’s season-opening 26-23 win over Western Illinois proved to be pivotal in MSU earning its first playoff berth since 2014. Bailey had a career day that day, hitting all four of his field goal attempts, including a career-long 50-yarder right before halftime and a 47-yarder that proved to be the final difference.
As a junior, Bailey made the first eight field goals of his Bobcat career, helping put the inconsistencies of head coach Jeff Choate’s first two years at placekicker in the rearview. But he missed three of his last four field goals last season.
He started his senior year 2-of-4 before again banging three of three attempts at Western Illinois.
“Tristan has made most of the kicks we expected him to make,” Choate said. “We’ve asked him to kick some long ones so his numbers maybe aren’t as good as they could be otherwise.
“He has done exactly what we have asked.”
Bailey struggled to convert in a high stress environment as a true freshman walk-on at Wyoming in 2015. He credits Wyoming head coach Craig Bohl, a special teams guru, for his ability to make every situation “mentally tolling” and for instilling in Bailey to always want to do his best.
“But I never lived in the moment,” the kicker said, reflecting on a rookie season that saw him miss six of his eight field goal attempts. “I never really appreciated everything. I was so focused on doing my best that I didn’t appreciate what I had around me.
“That’s the biggest thing I’ve learned: to go on and worry about living in the moment, appreciating every person I have here, every coach I’ve had, all the teammates and brothers I have. I know now that they trust me to do the best for them and I know they will do the best for me.”
Wyoming was Bailey’s second choice coming out of Rampart High in Colorado Springs where he drilled 16 field goals in his first two years playing football, including a career-long 53-yarder. Both Bailey’s parents attended Colorado State and that’s where he intended to go. But Jim McElwain, coincidentally MSU’s offensive coordinator in the late 1990s, went from CSU to become the head coach at Florida. Bailey’s recruitment fell through.
Bailey, who trained in high school with former Denver Broncos All-Pro kicker David Treadwell, also had interest from Colorado. He decided to accept a preferred walk-on offer from the Cowboys. After missing the first four field goal attempts of his Cowboy career, Bailey decided Wyoming “wasn’t the place for me.”
He attended classes at Colorado State in 2016 but missed football. In 2017, Bailey landed at Coffeyville College, a junior college in the Jayhawk League most recently made famous (or infamous) by the Netflix series “Last Chance U.”
“It was a humbling experience for me,” Bailey said when asked about junior college. “I grew up in a pretty good city and had a really good education going in and you get put in a situation where I was just not used to it. You see these kids that were coming from broken homes and they don’t really understand how school works as well. It was just a really humbling experience for me and I learned a lot about how to understand other cultures and backgrounds and grow as a man, appreciate everyone for an individual.”
During his one season in Coffeyville, Bailey hit 11-of-17 field goals and all 34 of his PAT tries. That helped earn him a spot competing with former All-Big Sky kicker Luke Daly and incumbent Gabe Peppenger at Montana State.
Daly’s career ended abruptly due to injury and unrest within the program. Peppenger hit 5-of-8 field goals in 2017 but only hit one of his four attempts from beyond 30 yards. Bailey won the job before last season, Peppenger left the program and eventually landed at Montana and Bailey has been MSU’s starting kicker for the last two years.
With about a month left of guaranteed time on the gridiron, Bailey is focusing on the present while planning for the future. He will earn his degree in business management in December. He plans on moving back to Colorado Springs to “train as hard as he can to make sure I have no regrets.”
In high school, Bailey learned from renowned kicking coach Bob Lucchesi, a former Missouri standout who has access to the Air Force Academy’s indoor practice facility during the winter months in Colorado Springs.
Bailey plans to train with Lucchesi again. He also has resources in terms of advice from the Carlson brothers. Daniel Carlson infamously missed three field goals in a single game for the Minnesota Vikings last season before being cut and is now with the Oakland Raiders. Anders Carlson kicks at Auburn, like his brother did.
And Bailey hopes to participate in Gary Zauner’s specialist combine, an opportunity with the man Robertson calls “the gatekeeper of the NFL specialists.”
“Tristan is still somewhat of a novice guy who really didn’t pick it up until his junior year of high school,” Robertson said. “And his road bounced him around a little bit. The fact that he has been able to call Montana State home the last two year has helped him. He takes care of his business. He’s a professional when it comes to taking care of the things he can control. I’m excited for him and his opportunities.”
Before Bailey can pursue his own individual opportunities, he will first concentrate on living in the moment as MSU chases its second straight playoff berth. The Bobcats sit at 6-3 entering Saturday’s matchup at Northern Colorado, likely needing at least two wins to earn a spot in the 24-team FCS playoff field. Bailey is trying to soak it all in.
“The second I first got here, I’ve felt the brotherhood right away,” Bailey said. “That was the first thing I felt on my visit and why I chose it here. No matter what offers I had, I knew this was the place I wanted to be and the place I wanted to finish my career.
“I can’t thank everyone else on the staff, the coaches in believing in me, the training staff for working on us, the strength and conditioning staff is wonderful. But the biggest thing is feeling that brotherhood and that’s the thing I have felt like I have had and that I’ve been looking for. And I finally found it.”
Photos by Brooks Nuanez. All Rights Reserved.