BELT – Jeff Graham is one of the most social people in all of Montana.
The Belt football coach’s digital Rolodex contains the phone numbers and email addresses of a who’s who of Montana sports figures. He has more than 1,100 contacts in his cellphone’s address book – and that’s after a recent cleansing that deleted the numbers Graham no longer needed.
But one of Graham’s best friends is right there on the Belt sideline with him, helping the Huskies to an undefeated start to the season.
Nolan Urick – the “Nolanator” as Graham calls him – is the first student Graham met when he moved to Belt in 2007. The two instantly became friends, and the relationship has budded into one of the most important ones in the gregarious coach’s life.
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Urick is on the autism spectrum.
“He’s just been a part of the team,” Graham said. “The energy he brings is awesome. He’s always excited and happy to be there. He loves road trips, loves bus trips. He’s always my roommate. When we go to Fairview or Drummond or wherever we’re heading, he’s always my roommate. He keeps things light. It’s kind of nice; he keeps things light when you’re getting nervous for a game. He always kind of calms us down.”
Urick, now 24, was diagnosed with autism when he was a toddler, just shy of 3 years old. His parents noticed his language was slow developing – he would only speak words rather than piece together sentences.
He took special education classes before transitioning to regular classes at Belt. But sports have always been his passion. Nolan’s mom, Lisa, said he knows everything when it comes to the National Football League, but he doesn’t appreciate any good-natured ribbing when it comes to his beloved New England Patriots.
Perhaps the only team he loves more than the Patriots is the Huskies.
“There’s nobody who loves Belt as much as him and brings energy as much as he does,” Graham said, “so we’re happy he’s with us every day.”
Urick describes his role with the team as the head manager and the special teams coordinator. He fills up water bottles, helps with special teams alignments and snaps to the quarterbacks during drills. He’s also the ball guy at home games.
He wears his love and passion for helping the Huskies at practice on his sweatshirt sleeve, but it wasn’t that long ago he was one of the players on the field.
“The best part was making a tackle at Sunburst when I was a senior,” Urick recalled of his playing days, before Graham reminded him of another Hallmark moment.
“My first rushing touchdown at Big Sandy,” Urick remembered. “This happened in 2009 in my last away game, which was at Big Sandy. We got beat by the Pioneers. I think it was the play that we haven’t tried, which was a sweep play. We tried that play twice, and then it worked.”
On the first attempt, a Big Sandy defender tackled Urick just beyond the line of scrimmage. It took some convincing to get him to carry the ball again, but on his second attempt, Urick ran around the right edge and broke away from the Pioneer defense for a long touchdown.
He performed one of his usual celebrations – which have recently included Aaron Rodgers’ “discount double-check” celebration and Cam Newton’s superman pose – to cap a moment he’ll never forget.
As much as Urick likes to celebrate, he’s subdued compared to Graham’s energy on the sideline. Graham’s antics – always good-natured but frequently over-the-top – are the stuff of jokes across northcentral Montana.
“I think it’s quite crazy,” Urick said. “I think, Coach Graham, because he gets so hyper, calls me ‘Buster’ and that stuff all the time. He likes to freak me out.”
Both Graham and Urick have had plenty to celebrate this season. Belt is 4-0 and tied atop the Northern C 8-Man football standings with Great Falls Central. The Huskies play Centerville this weekend.
“It’s going great,” Urick said. “We’re 4-0. We got to get ready for Centerville this (Friday) and see how we do against them.”
“He has the conferences scouted; he knows who’s pretty good, so he keeps us posted,” Graham said. “He keeps us grounded. He tells the boys they need to be good every single weekend. He doesn’t let them look too far ahead.”
The team isn’t allowed to look past Centerville, but Urick has his eye on Sunday when he’ll head to Havre for the Special Olympics state bowling tournament. He already earned two gold medals earlier this year in track, and he’ll be playing basketball for the third consecutive year in November.
Graham will likely be there supporting and cheering on one of his best friends.
The other 1,100 can wait.