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'I pray for moments like this': Montana's Junior Bergen saves best for when lights are brightest

North Dakota State at Montana
Posted at 5:25 PM, Dec 21, 2023

MISSOULA — Over the past few weeks on the Montana Grizzlies' playoff run to the FCS national championship game, the legend of Junior Bergen continues to explode.

The Billings product has electrified fans in Montana and beyond with punt and kickoff return touchdowns against Furman in the quarterfinals, then the encore performance of another punt return score against North Dakota State in the semifinals, the fifth of his career.

Not to mention, he caught another touchdown in the first overtime, and threw what ended up being the game-winning two-point conversion to Keelan White against the Bison that sent the Grizzlies to Frisco, Texas, to play for the title.

"Very special. You know, I'm super blessed," Bergen said. "I said it on Saturday that, you know, I've got the greatest team, greatest coaches, greatest community behind me, and I appreciate everybody for their support. And I just can't wait to keep going."

As Bergen's star shines brighter than ever, for him it's about trying to stay in the moment and enjoy it at the end of the day.

He's even watched classic Griz football games — including playoff games against South Dakota State and Appalachian State in 2009 — to try to picture himself experiencing what those former greats did in big moments.

"Just live in the moment. And I pray for moments like this. You know, I work for moments like this," Bergen said. "Since I was a young kid. And you know, it's just amazing to see these things kind of live out."

Since his days turning heads and showcasing his human highlight-reel ability at Billings Senior High, Bergen's growth and versatility were apparent immediately when he got to Montana.

After filling in at running back as a true freshman in 2021, the electric playmaker has grown as both a return man and a wide receiver the past two seasons, but in 2023, has seen his usage grow exponentially, and the results, have been fruitful.

In 2022, the ball wasn't thrown his way much; Bergen finished with 17 total catches on the season as UM's offense struggled.

This season, Bergen has reeled in 55 receptions for 766 yards and five touchdowns as the offense has hummed with him helping to lead the way.

"Like people say, you know, pressure busts pipes or pressure makes diamonds and you know, I just want the pressure to make diamonds over here," Bergen said with a laugh. "I don't have to bust any pipes. So I just try to make sure I stay on my toes and be ready to go each week."

Bergen's skill in the return game is especially impressive knowing in high school that wasn't his forte.

Sure, he did everything else like play quarterback, receiver, defensive back and more, but returning has been another gem found in his game. He's since become the greatest punt returner in UM history, and was a first team All-Big Sky selection at punt returner and wide receiver.

"I remember, my first game returning was the Brawl of the Wild 2021," Bergen said. "And I was pretty nervous and Drew Deck said, 'Man, imagine going out and returning one in one of these games.' And I was like, yeah, that's sweet.

"I've got to just live in the moment and just appreciate it for what it is and just go out there and do my best. The coaches believed in me and I've just got to go out and just do what I can do to help the team."

On this run, Bergen has also been thinking about his past teammates that were there as he was growing in the program.

In turn, with No. 2-seeded Montana (13-1) set to clash with top-seeded South Dakota State (4-0) on Jan. 7 in Frisco, Bergen wants to win it for them.

"It's sweet man. You know, you've got guys like, Pat (O'Connell) and Marcus Welnel, Jace Lewis, those guys who worked their tails off," Bergen said. "They didn't get this opportunity. And we're just kind of living it out for those guys and just trying to do what we can and try to win this thing."

Playing multiple positions in high school helped prepare Bergen for these moments.

In his words, "It's just football," and the semifinal against NDSU proved it with Bergen passing, running, receiving and returning in a big win.

"That was pretty special," Bergen said. "I don't remember a game I've ever had anything like that happen for me. You know, this place was rocking and I was just kind of feeding off the energy and we just knew something was going to present itself, and I just had to make sure I was ready for it. Whichever way it went."

He's a bona fide superstar now at Montana, and up next the lights are bright once again, as Bergen and the Griz march toward the national championship.

"It's been fun, man. It's been a blessing," Bergen said. "I keep saying that because it truly is. Not a lot of kids get to live in my shoes and a lot of pressure comes with that. But at the same time, you know, I wouldn't want it any other way. This is this is amazing. I'm so grateful for this opportunity.

"It's kind of hard to see it all because I'm so in the moment right now, but (I'm) just looking back on some of this stuff, it's been very special. I'll never forget these moments."