MISSOULA, Montana — It’s 7 a.m. on the first day of Jerry Louie-McGee’s career as a Montana Grizzly. And he’s late.
Because of a glitch in his eligibility, the wide receiver from Coeur d’Alene by way of tiny Worley, Idaho did not get to participate in fall camp in 2015 in Missoula. He could not join the Griz until school began several weeks after Montana opened its first fall camp under head coach Bob Stitt.
On the first day he reported to the University of Montana campus, Louie-McGee did not know where to go. He showed up to where he thought the football weight room was — Montana would not open its glistening Champions Center for two more years — but the door was locked.
According to former Montana wide receivers coach Mike Ferriter, Louie-McGee sat outside the locked door, missing his lift. Under Stitt, if you missed a workout or a class, the entire team endured punishment.
“Stitt is there the next day looking at the list and he says, ‘Ok, everyone is running for…Jerry Louie-McGee?” Ferriter remembered. “He was like, ‘Who is Jerry Louie-McGee?’
“Everyone has to run for him and everybody is mad. None of the guys on the team know who Jerry is. Jerry telling this story is the funniest because guys were yelling at him, he’s scared, he feels terrible. That was a low point (laughs).
“Then a few weeks later, we ran 40s. Nobody ever wondered who Jerry Louie-McGee was ever again.”
Ferriter doesn’t quite remember what Louie-McGee ran the 40-yard dash in during UM’s first testing session. But he remembers the watch read under 4.5 seconds and it was one of, if not the fastest time, of any player on the roster.
Not bad for a walk-on who grew up in a town of 250 people on the heart of the Coeur d’Alene Indian Reservation.
“I think Jerry knows his skill set and who he is and I think once he got to Montana, he started looking around and believed he could do it,” said Ferriter, a standout wide receiver at Montana between 2004 and 2008 who coached the Griz wide receivers from 2015 and 2017 and is now is in his second season as the offensive coordinator at Idaho State. Ferriter’s first full-time coaching position came on Mike Kramer’s staff at Idaho State between 2012 and 2015. He identified Louie-McGee during his senior year at Lake City High School in 2014 while Ferriter still coached in Pocatello.
During his first fall competing on Montana’s scout team, Louie-McGee “ran circles around our best defensive players,” Ferriter said. At that moment, inside the Griz football program, the coaches and players began to realize Louie-McGee’s talents.
During his redshirt freshman season in 2016, Louie-McGee wasted no time putting the rest of the Big Sky Conference and the rest of the FCS on notice. In his second career outing as a Grizzlies, the explosively fast, lightning-quick magician showed his elite improvisation skills and field vision during an 81-yard punt return for a touchdown that proved to be the game-winner in UM’s 20-14 win at Northern Iowa.
The following week, Louie-McGee caught 21 passes for 155 yards and two touchdowns in a 42-41 loss at Cal Poly. The reception total broke Joe Douglass’s record, a mark that had stood for exactly two decades.
Thus the legend of Jerry Louie-McGee was born. And that legend has continued to grow.
Last week, the 5-foot-9, 171-pounder caught six passes for 66 yards in UM’s 35-3 loss at Oregon. Louie-McGee caught three passes on UM’s lone scoring drive, pushing his total to the top of the UM record books. He now has 196 career receptions, four more than Raul Pacheco caught between 1995 and 1998.
“It’s really cool coming here as a walk-on, getting my shot and just hoping to get some snaps or be able to help the team the best I can,” Louie-McGee said on Monday during UM’s weekly press conference. “But being able to have my name at a place like this that has some pretty awesome historical accomplishments…Montana football, living in Coeur d’Alene, you know the standards and what it holds.”
Louie-McGee finished his first year as a starter with 83 receptions, the sixth-best single-season total in UM history. The inside receiver position he operated in Stitt’s spread offense caught an abundance of bubble screens, adding to his lofty reception total.
“It’s pretty tough catching all those bubbles the first two years,” Louie-McGee joked on Monday.
In a program filled with memorable and, sometimes, mythical figures, Louie-McGee stands alone for his ability to ignite UM’s traditionally raucous Washington-Grizzly Stadium. When Louie-McGee took a punt 74 yards for a score in the third quarter of UM’s 61-17 win over North Alabama two weeks ago, he tied LeVander Segars (2001-2004) and Marc Mariani (2005-2009) for the most punt returns for scores in school history. Each have three punt return TDs. And that return sent the home fans into bedlam.
“I told him it’s been two long years!,” said UM junior wide receiver Sammy Akem, referencing Louie-McGee’s drought between a 48-yard punt return TD against Northern Arizona in 2017 and the whirling, winding return against UNA. “If anybody has been to a Griz game, everybody knows the best thing about going to a Griz game is seeing Jerry Louie-McGee run a punt return back. Seeing him do that again, it was just great. We all LOVED it.”
In his career, Louie-Mcgee is averaging 11.8 yards per punt return. He has five returns of more than 45 yards and two of more than 70, each that went for six.
Following the memorable return against UNI, teams began making an effort to limit Louie-McGee, mostly kicking the ball out of bounds rather than risking kicking to Montana’s whirling dervish.
“He is an absolute nightmare to game plan for in the return game because you truly don’t know what he is going to do,” Montana State special teams coordinator B.J. Robertson said last fall.
Ferriter was a redshirt during Segars’ senior year in 2004. Ferriter played three seasons alongside Mariani. And he recruited Louie-McGee first to Idaho State, then to Montana when Ferriter returned to his alma mater before the 2015 season.
“I don’t know how you compare those three and contrast them (Segars, Mariani, Louie-McGee) because they all have a little different skill set and they each have a few things they do better than the others,” Ferriter said. “But I think they are all freaky athletes with unique skill sets who are unbelievably exciting to watch.
“The thing about Jerry is he’s going to cost you here or there, switching fields, might get tackled for minus five but he’s going to do it next time and he might take one 70 for at touchdown. That makes him one of a kind.”
Many of his fellow offensive starters have a front row seat to watch Louie-McGee’s punt return talents, including senior quarterback Dalton Sneed. Every time Louie-McGee lines up to field a punt and Washington-Griz chants “JERRY! JERRY”, Sneed makes sure to get a good look at the upcoming action.
“He’s such a quiet guy, so to himself and he just puts his nose to the grind stone but then you watch him perform and he’s so unreal,” Sneed said. “The punt returns, the way he makes people miss…you see moves and you think, ‘Oh he’s going to go this way’ and he just fools everybody. Nobody knows where he is going. He is a total wild card.”
That unorthodox nature and ability to make decisions and change direction on the fly is what makes Louie-McGee so unique. It is also what makes him one of the most beloved players Montana football history. And it also provided a challenge for his coaches initially.
“He was very interesting to me as a coach because you can’t reign that in,” Ferriter said. “You have to hone it in, give him the basics of what we want to do but if you force him to do things a certain way, you take away maybe the best thing that he is which is a little bit ad lib.
“He uses his natural athleticism and instinct so well. He has phenomenal instincts so to me, you just have to let him play.”
Ferriter remembers conducting meetings with Montana’s wide receivers and watching film. Louie-McGee would flash on the screen running backward for negative yards or stopping on a dime, leaping into the air and doing a full 360 before landing on his feet and accelerating a different direction.
“I used to tell the rest of the receivers in meetings, ‘Jerry, you can do this but everybody else, you cannot,” Ferriter said with a chuckle. “You have to treat him differently. You have to let Jerry be Jerry.”
Jerry being Jerry has been a growing process that has seen the former gadget player develop into a complete receiver. That development has, ironically, come with a dip in production because of a change in offensive system and the rise of players like Akem, fellow junior Samori Toure and potentially explosive sophomore Gabe Sulser. But that growth impressed his head coach regardless of statistics.
“There are a lot of things that are fun coaching Jerry,” UM second-year head coach Bobby Hauck said. “He’s exciting to watch play. What you all don’t see is how hard he works in the weight room and on the practice field.
“The thing that I’ve appreciated probably most about him is how much he’s improved his practice habits and how much he’s improved his game in the broad sense. It’s not just punt returning and catching the bubble screen. He’s become a way more complete football player. He’s bigger and stronger. I think he’s faster. The work he’s put in has made him an even better player.”
In 2017, defenses around the league started to figure out how to take away the simplistic element of the Y receiver that Louie-McGee played in Stitt’s offense. His numbers took a dip. He caught 50 passes for 645 yards and three touchdowns.
Following the 2017 season, Montana elected to not renew Stitt’s contract. Enter Hauck, a veteran head coach that led Montana to 80 wins and seven straight Big Sky titles in seven seasons between 2003 and 2009. With a new, more sophisticated offense, a new coordinator in Timm Rosenbach and a new position coach in Brent Pease, Louie-McGee had to go back to work.
“Coming here as a walk-on, I knew I had nothing to lose,” he said in a one-on-one with Skyline Sports on Wednesday following practice. “I knew I was going to go all out and go for it. I think that is what has always stuck with me. I have always had that walk-on mentality to keep going for it and never settle for anything. Every time I step on the field, I always have something to prove.”
Last season, Louie-McGee caught 42 passes for 451 yards and two scores. He already has half that many catches for 185 yards this season.
“Route running has been one of my biggest improvements and just knowing the game in general,” Louie-McGee said. “I have learned how to break it down piece by piece instead of in a broad sense. I think as a whole, offensively and Coach Hauck being a great special teams coach, he has broken it down even better to know schemes and what I need to do.
Throughout his career at Montana, Louie-McGee has navigated a personal journey of growth spurred on by the foundation of his unwaveringly supportive family. His parents, siblings, grandparents and cousins can be found waiting for him on the Washington-Griz turf after almost every home game in Missoula.
And last fall, Louie-McGee and Mariah Hamel welcomed their son Zayden into their family. On Wednesday, Zayden celebrated his first birthday.
“It was crazy, Sac State last season, we had our baby and he was four days old and we had him here at the game, crazy atmosphere and now he’s a one-year-old and he’s coming to games, he’s already locked in, big Griz fan,” Louie-McGee told Riley Corcoran, the Voice of the Griz, following Wednesday’s practice. “It’s pretty cool, an awesome ride. He means everything to me and his mom.”
“People ask what I’m watching and I’m like, ‘I’m not really watching any NetFlix right now except maybe Sesame Street and Mickey Mouse.’ But I know all the songs,” he added with a laugh.
His son is the latest addition to the family unit that has helped provide him with the confidence needed to go from walk-on to record-setter. Native American culture centers upon family and Louie-McGee’s clan is no different.
“I would not be able to do any of this or be where I am today without my family,” Louie-McGee told Skyline Sports. “They mean the world to me. Being able to be here and see them after games means everything to me. It’s awesome to have the fans and the atmosphere in general but to be able to have my family here means the world.”
That family, specifically his father Wade McGee and his uncle Jimmy Warne, introduced Louie-McGee to football when he was six years old. Wade played at Oklahoma State when Barry Sanders and Thurman Thomas were dominating the college football world. Wade ended up suffering an injury and finishing his playing career at Haskell Indian Nations University in Kansas. Warne played at Arizona State before spending a few seasons in the NFL.
“In Indian country, basketball is huge and everybody loves it,” Louie-McGee said. “My first passion has always been football.”
That love of the game and constant drive to improve has helped Louie-McGee reach this point. The Griz have not participated in the postseason during Louie-McGee’s playing career, which remains a driving factor. The Griz host Monmouth on Saturday before embarking on the final Big Sky Conference slate of Louie-McGee’s career.
McGee already has one hallowed record with his reception total. He could get another one if he is able to take another punt to the house.
But Louie-McGee isn’t focused on any of that. He is just trying to soak up his last months as a Griz.
“The atmosphere, the standards this place holds and the people, they treated us so well, that’s what sticks with me,” Louie-McGee said. “The legacy this place holds is unique and special. I just hope we can leave a legacy as well.”
Photos by Brooks Nuanez or noted. All Rights Reserved.