MISSOULA — Zack Wagenmann invited Caleb Kidder for one last workout before leaving for NFL training camp. It was supposed to be a sweaty session. It turned into a sentimental moment as Wagenmann passed on one of Montana’s most hallowed traditions.
Wagenmann, the 2014 Big Sky Conference Defensive Most Outstanding Player, wore Montana’s storied No. 37 jersey last season. He broke the school record for sacks and tackles for loss in his career while wearing the jersey as a senior. Now he’s an Arizona Cardinal.
Before he left his hometown of Missoula, Wagenmann called up Kidder, a hulking junior Grizzly defensive tackle from Helena Capital, and told him to meet at Washington-Grizzly Stadium. After some running, Wagenmann began to speak Kidder on a personal level. He praised Kidder’s toughness and perseverance; traits that have helped him fight through an injured wrist that has cost him most of the last two seasons. He acknowledged his formidable potential and his Montana roots. Wagenmann told Kidder he’s the perfect man to pass along a tradition.
“When we were at the stadium, Wags kind of broke it down for me,” Kidder said on a Thursday morning in early August before Montana’s third fall camp practice. “He told me his perception of the number, the tradition behind it, what it means to him and why he thought it fit me best.
“Then he told me he was giving No. 37 to me. Wow, what a really humbling moment.”
Wagenmann, who could not be reached for this article as he grinds through his first NFL training camp, presumably had two choices for who would be Montana’s 12th “Designated Hitter”. Kraig Paulson, a fullback from Plentywood who would go on to coordinate the defense for seven Montana Big Sky Conference title teams, started the No. 37 tradition when he gave the number to safety Tim Hauck, a Big Timber product who played 13 seasons in the NFL. Since Hauck, the number has been worn by a defensive player who was born in Montana. Because of these stipulations, it seemed Kidder and senior defensive end Derek Crittenden, a Whitefish product, were the primary choices.
Crittenden will wear his usual No. 47 this year. He had no hard feelings about not receiving the honor.
“I love Wags and Kidder like brothers and I respect Kidder as a football player and I love him as a dude,” Crittenden said. “He’s a good Montana boy, a hard-working kid and a great football player. He’ll wear the number well.”
Crittenden got a pretty humbling consolation prize last week himself. The 6-foot-3, 240-pounder was voted captain by his teammates. Montana will have just two captains this season. Crittenden will lead the defense with Jamaal Jones coaching the offense.
“To see that my teammates respected me like that, I can’t tell you the kind of honor that is,” Crittendon said. “I love these guys, I believe in these guys and I respect all these guys so that was a special feeling.”
“It was like a milestone, man,” added Jones, a former Washington transfer who caught a team-best 67 passes last season. “When I came here, I had that goal and I reached it. It was good getting to that point because it made it feel like all my hard work paid off. All my time spent trying to hone my craft paid off. It was good to get that respect from the guys.”
Football teams customarily have three or four captains. Montana is under the new direction of Bob Stitt, who spent the last 15 seasons at Division II Colorado School of Mines.
“Everybody expected four and when we voted, they said it would be two so two it was,” Crittendon said. “It’s more pressure in that there is only two but that kind of makes everybody on the team a leader. In a way, it kind of distributes the leadership more because Coach Stitt expects more out of everyone on the team.”
Kidder, the 2011 Montana Gatorade Player of the Year after leading Helena Capital to the Class AA state title, played right away as a true freshman. In 2013, Kidder broke into the rotation and notched 40 tackles and six tackles for loss. But his wrist started to give out on him late in the season. The injury lingered to the point where he had surgery last season and missed all but the first game.
Now he’ll be expected to be a star on a defensive line that loses Wagenmann and first-team All-Big Sky nose tackle Tonga Takai, along with two-year starter Trevor Rehm. Kidder acknowledges the pressure behind his off-season as he becomes the fourth Helena player to don the famous number.
“The pressure is in the back of my mind but when I come out here, I just want to get better with my teammates,” Kidder said. “My wrist, it’s been forever, it’s been two years since it’s been ok so I’ve had low days and high days. But I’m on top of the world right now.”
Kidder is the second Bruin to wear the jersey. Linebacker Jason Crebo (1994-1997) wore it before him. Defensive end Andy Petek (1998-2000) and defensive end Ryan Fetherston (2011) were the Helena High Bengals to wear the jersey.
The latest former Bruin to wear the jersey is just the second defensive tackle to do it. Carson Bender, an injury-plagued Deer Lodge product, wore the jersey from 2008-2010. Like Bender, Kidder is as physically formidable as they come. The mammoth said he is now up around 285 pounds on his 6-foot-5 frame.
“You watch him in practice, you see how he carries himself, you shake his hand and you realize that if he can stay healthy — and I believe he can because of the work he’s done — I’ve been here awhile now and I’ve seen the ones who’ve moved on and to me, he’s a Sunday guy,” ,” Montana third-year defensive coordinator and 12th-year assistant Ty Gregorak said. “He’s a monster. He’s huge. He’s a specimen.”
Fetherston and Wagenmann are the only players to wear the jersey for one season. That would’ve been the case if Crittenden would’ve been the chose recipient.
“Caleb got it and Derek was voted captain, so that’s a win-win,” Gregorak said. “I’m so glad we have a guy who gets to represent it for more than one year. That’s not how it has to be and the current guy wearing it gets the choice and will choose the best player regardless of age. But I’m glad to see it getting repped for more than one year.”
Despite the coaching change sparked by Mick Delaney’s retirement, Montana’s defensive staff retained a few key cogs. Gregorak, who first came to Missoula to coach linebackers for Paulson and Bobby Hauck in 2003, was retained, as was Legi Suiaunoa, who’s worked for the last four years with the Grizzlies’ defensive line.
Suiaunoa came in when Crittenden did and one year before Kidder signed. To watch the pair grow has brought him great satisfaction.
“Those guys, being with those guys since they stepped foot on campus, I’m proud of those guys,” Suiaunoa said. “I think it’s a great honor and one of the best traditions we have here at Montana. And to be a captain and to wear the legacy number is something for them that neither one will take lightly.”
|Player||Pos.||Hometown||Years with jersey|
|Tim Hauck||DB||Big Timber||1987-1989|
|Loren Utterback||LB||Fort Benton||2004-2007|
|Carson Bender||DT||Deer Lodge||2008-2010|