FORT BENTON -- When Fort Benton hosts the Flint Creek co-op of Drummond-Philipsburg on Saturday in the 8-Man football semifinals, it will be the first time that Longhorns coach Jory Thompson and Titans coach Mike Cutler have faced each other on opposing sidelines.
But their shared history goes much further back.
“I won’t lie, both of us were kind of looking at the potential of this game happening and looking forward to that,” Cutler said. “We both have senior sons, and absolutely there's been some good-natured ribbing in text messages back and forth this week.”
Thompson and Cutler were teammates at the University of Montana Western in the early 1990s. Cutler spent two years at running back before missing a year with injury but returned to the field at a new position: linebacker.
Thompson was the Montana Shrine Game defensive MVP out of Kalispell Flathead in 1991 and was an up-and-coming linebacker in 1993 when Cutler made his return.
“Cutler was a hell of a player, for sure,” Thompson said. “He was a great linebacker in college, super tough guy. And I sat behind him when I was a sophomore and he started, and then my next two years I played after he left. But he was a great player.”
Their position coach at the time? A young student assistant named Jeff Choate, who is now the head coach at Montana State.
Before beginning his coaching career, Choate played linebacker for Western coach Mick Dennehy from 1988-91 and butted heads with Cutler at practice.
“The one thing I remember about Mike Cutler was when we would do crossover tackling drills when he started out as a running back, I’d count, I'd go, ‘OK, Mike's third in line.’ And I cut in line to make sure I could be third in line so I can get a piece of Mike Cutler," Choate said.
Choate and Cutler both suffered career-altering off-the-field injuries around the same time.
“I had a car accident that took me out and he had shattered his foot in a ranching accident. We both came back at the same time. We were kind of rehabbing,” Choate said. “Mike wasn't quite the same with his mobility, so they moved him to linebacker. And by that time I had gone through another surgery and I was a student coach, so here's my nemesis old Mike Cutler, and he ended up having to listen to me coach him.”
Though they had gone at each other in practice for years, the mutual respect they developed carried over into their new dynamic as player and coach.
“I had so much respect for Jeff and I respected the role that he was in. And his coaching ability speaks for itself,” Cutler said. “You know, you could tell that right from the get-go.”
Then Thompson came along in 1992 and the linebacker room got even more talented and competitive.
“Jory was actually the first guy that I ever remember recruiting,” Choate said. “He was an All-American wrestler and an All-American football player. And I think if he was an inch taller or a slight bit faster he would have been playing for the Bobcats or the (University of Montana) Grizzlies.”
The left Choate with a tough decision.
“I can remember starting Jory over Mike, and and there was bad feelings about that,” Choate laughed.
Thompson’s time as a sophomore starter lasted three games before Cutler took over. A personal foul early in the season didn’t help his case.
“For whatever reason, I came out and he went in and then he got two tackles on the same play: one tackle during the game and one tackle after the whistle,” Cutler said. “He was so excited. And then he never saw the field again.”
Thompson laughs when the memory is brought up.
“Apparently when you make two tackles on one play on one guy, you only get credit for one in the stats,” he said. “I respect the heck out of Mike Cutler, but when you're 19 years old and you start three games as a sophomore, and then they decide to start the senior over you, I thought that was a pretty poor decision. But now at 48 years old, I can see in hindsight that was a good decision.”
Years later, they met on the field once again in the Montana Western alumni game.
“The last play of football I ever played with pads on, Jory broke three ribs of mine,” Cutler laughed. “We were the alumni and we were playing Western and they had a good running back. I stood him up and Jory came to clean up the pile, but he speared me instead of the running back.”
Cutler laughed again.
“I never played football in Montana again, so one way or another I got to get him back," he said.
In a way the football careers and lives of Cutler and Thompson have mirrored each other. Both were inducted in the Montana Western Hall of Fame. Both went into education and became successful coaches and school superintendents in small, tight-knit communities.
And both have senior sons who start on their respective teams and have signed to play college football next fall.
Kade Cutler is a star senior quarterback at Flint Creek who will play for Choate at Montana State, and Jace Thompson is an all-state linebacker and running back who will suit up for Montana Tech.
Saturday’s matchup between the undefeated Fort Benton Longhorns and the undefeated Flint Creek Titans will mark a new chapter in the shared history of Jory Thompson and Mike Cutler, one that’s built from mutual respect and a healthy dose of competition.
“Obviously the Titans have won two of the last three championships,” Thompson said. “And this is his swan song, Mike’s announced he's going to retire. So I'd love nothing more than to send him out with a loss.”
The two old friends have been wishing each other luck in their games all season, but not this week.
“I don't know that him and I will talk again until after the game,” Cutler said. “For about 48 minutes I don't care one bit about him. In fact, I hate him.”
And you can bet there will be at least one NCAA Division I football coach paying close attention.
“I have a little bit of torn allegiances this week,” Choate said. “Those are two guys that I've stayed in touch with and I’m really proud of what they're doing -- not because of what they've been able to accomplish in terms of wins and losses, but because I know what kind of men they are, and I know what they do for the young men they coach. I wish it was in the state championship game instead of the semis, but somebody has got to win and somebody has got to lose.”
Saturday’s 8-Man semifinal kicks off at 1 p.m. in Fort Benton. The winner will face either Shelby or Scobey in the 8-Man championship.