BILLINGS -- No. 9 is one of the fiercest players on Billings West High’s football core of dominant defense. And there’s a good chance Riley Bergeson's core toughness comes from his late grandpa, longtime Billings Senior football coach Pat Dolan.
“I was like a kid that used to sit in my basement and play with Legos and GI Joes and Nerf guns all day," Bergeson recalled to MTN Sports after a recent playoff win. "And then he got me out throwing the ball and I started to really, really love it.”
Dolan wound up coaching Bergeson during his eighth-grade year at Ben Steele Middle School.
“He put me at the safety position and so I’ve just kind of stayed there the rest of my life," Bergeson said.
Now a junior at West, Bergeson plays both sides of the ball -- extremely well. But truth is, no matter where he lines up he’s typically in some degree of pain.
“I was born with hip deformities, so I had overgrowth on both my femurs and they ended up tearing both labrum in my hips," he said.
Bears head football coach Rob Stanton vividly recalls the first time he saw Bergeson, who's loathe to complain or give in to pain.
“I distinctly remember him at Bozeman in track and I was his hurdles coach," Stanton said. "Riley’s not going to complain, and he finally looks at me and says, ‘I can’t go.’”
He couldn’t go because the bone-on-bone feeling was just too much.
So, last season as a sophomore, Bergeson combined pain medications with cortisone shots to get through the football season. But immediately after the playoff elimination, at age 16, he faced two hip surgeries.
“I have three pins in my left pelvis and four in my right to reattach my labrum to my femur,” Bergeson said of the surgical result.
“You’ve got bone on bone, and they really had to shave that bone down, not on one hip, but two. I mean, that’s pretty impressive to come back like that," Stanton said in amazement. "You’re that young and have two pretty significant surgeries, and he’s out here balling right now.”
Bergeson absolutely is balling as he helps lead a Bears defense allowing just less than eight points per game.
"But this time it won’t be so bad because they’re just shaving off bone. They won’t fix any torn labrum this time," Bergeson said.
That's right: 'This time' as in more surgeries on deck. Bergeson has to endure two more starting less than a month from now, which will run his hip surgery total to four -- by age 17.
“They discovered that they didn’t take enough bone off (last time), so I’m grinding away even more cartilage (now),” he said with a wry smile. "They say I'll probably need hip replacements by age 30."
For now, he stops at the same corner gas station nearly every night after practice and pays for six bags of ice. He then drives home and dumps them into the tub for the bone-chilling opposite of what a bath should feel like.
“I go a half hour and normally watch an episode of Jeopardy or something or do homework, because it keeps my mind off the cold," he said.
"I feel like this gets deeper," he said when asked why he endures heart-stopping ice baths instead of ice packs. "Not only does it help my hips but all the sore muscles in my legs from working out and running and practicing."
And the feeling after 30 minutes in the tub?
"Nothing. I can't feel anything, really," he said. "My legs are stiff, I can't bend my joints. It takes a while to get up, actually."
Here’s the thing: Bergeson hails from outstanding athletic genes. His mom, Heather Dolan, was a state champion track and field speedster at Billings Senior who also captured a title in volleyball. She signed on for both at Montana State. Bergeson's dad, Robb, won multiple state golf championships at West, played collegiately at the University of Washington and owns a Montana State Am trophy.
Riley could’ve gone the golf route, which likely would have been a little easier on his hips.
“You know, I try to get out (to play) with him because I know he loves it, and I love playing with him, but I’m not too good,” Riley confessed about his golf game with zero hint of regret.
For that, Stanton is thankful.
“I’m glad he picked football instead of golf," the smiling coach said. "He can golf the rest of his life.”
In the meantime, West preps for Friday's 7 p.m. Class AA semifinal against defending state champion Bozeman. Bergeson will continue to deliver heavy hits and play through the pain and the Advil and the ice because, he said, "my teammates, these seniors, are counting on me."