KALISPELL — Grady Bennett isn’t one to get too emotional.
But on the weekend of July 14, Bennett couldn’t fight back the tears, happy ones, nearly two miles high in one of Montana’s most fascinating locations.
“Holland Peak is the tallest peak in the Swan Range, it’s 9,400 feet. It’s a pretty brutal hike, you gain almost 6,000 vertical (feet) in five miles and you’re really sore for about a week afterwards,” Bennett said. “But my middle daughter (Briahna) was proposed to on Saturday on the top of Holland Peak by her longtime boyfriend (Derrington Gillespie). My wife and I got to be there and film it. I love going up Holland Peak anyways, and my middle daughter does. So it was her birthday, she wanted to hike Holland Peak, and her boyfriend did a great job of proposing to her. We filmed it and it was a really special moment. My middle daughter getting engaged on the top of the world, definitely the highlight of my summer.”
Even days later, the joy and pride remained in Bennett’s voice, and the large smile on his face did all the talking for him. Bennett, a former Kalispell football star himself who wound up starting at quarterback for the Montana Grizzlies, hopes to keep the excitement of July rolling into August, when his Kalispell Glacier football program reports for the 2018 season.
Last fall was an odd year for the Wolfpack. A 4-5 overall record saw an eight-year playoff streak snapped. Glacier missed the Class AA postseason for just the third time in program history, despite six athletes signing with college athletic programs (Drew Turner, Max Morris, Jackson Pepe and Cody Hartsoch to the Montana Grizzlies; Mark Estes to the Montana State Bobcats and Philip Rhodes to Whitworth University).
Bennett admits losing such a loaded class presents challenges, but likes the direction of the program under another future-college athlete.
“Evan Todd stepped in for us (at quarterback) last year. We started 0-4 and it was rough and it was tough, because we hadn’t experienced that for quite a while. We had such a great run for eight years, so what a rough start for us,” said Bennett. “But Evan stepped in and really turned things around for us at quarterback. He’s going to be the guy that guides us this year. He’s done a great job and has grown in every way — as a quarterback, physically, mentally — so as a leader, I’m excited about him leading our offense and getting us going.
“We’re going to be a much different team. We lost some really good players, and we’ve had a run of them, those really good players, Division I players. We’re not going to have that team this year, but the guys realize that. They’re honest about it, they know they’re going to have to play together, play for each other. It’s going to be a different experience for all of us, but a good one. I’m looking forward to the challenge.”
This fall may be different, but Bennett quickly admitted that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
“Exactly. That’s why we love sports. Everybody starts the season, especially football in the fall, with those hopes and dreams of contending for a title. There’s always that anticipation and excitement when you get two-a-days going, and that’s why we love it, that’s why we watch, because we can’t wait to see,” he said. “The thing about Class AA is, I think in those first two, three weeks, you see right away who is going to be the contenders and who is going to be the pretenders. It always sorts itself out pretty early. From there, you start to say, ‘OK, here we go.’ It makes it really exciting.”
As two-a-days loom (high school football practices begin Friday, Aug. 10) Bennett sees the potential for parity across the Class AA football landscape. He believes Todd and the Wolfpack can contend for a postseason trip, which would be the program’s ninth in 12 years of existence, but points to the two-time defending state champions as the preseason favorites entering the fall.
“I think you still have to go with Billings Senior just because of what they’ve established. Now, kind of like we did in our run there, the kids just expect it. You look at their schedule and kind of what they have going, they just expect to keep doing it. All that tradition and those things, you have to put them up there,” Bennett said of the Broncs, who defeated his Wolfpack in the 2016 championship. “I think Helena High is always really talented. I think Dane Oliver has done a really great job with Missoula Sentinel. They’ve been just taking step after step after step, and I think with the talent they have, they’re ready to be a real, true contender. I’ve heard great things about Billings West, I’ve heard they have a loaded roster. Helena Capital is always going to be good.”
“I don’t know, it’s so hard,” he continued. “I think Class AA, the one thing I always tell people, you have to play, and this is why I love it, you have to play every Friday night. If you don’t show up and play on a Friday night, you’re going to lose. It doesn’t matter who it is. That’s why I love AA is because you have to bring it, you have to prepare every week and you have to bring your best every Friday night. That makes it fun. That makes a great league.”
As the final two weeks of summer rush by, Bennett can’t help but dream of leading the Wolfpack to their second Class AA title on Nov. 16, though, admittedly, not even that could match the elation of July 14, when he was already on top of the world.