CHOTEAU – On Sept. 14 in a game against Great Falls Central, Choteau senior Pete Henderson came out wearing No. 12 instead of his usual No. 2. He was honoring the number one last time in a game before it was retired forever.
No. 12 belonged to former Bulldogs football player JJ Werdal. Werdal played a key part of Choteau’s defense for four years before graduating back in 2015.
“Pete has always been a scrappy athlete. He’s just a fighter. He reminds me a lot of JJ in the way he pursues his athletics,” said Choteau football coach Lucas Gunderson. “He’s a wrestler, he plays running back and linebacker just like JJ did. He just reminded me of a lot of the spirit that JJ had on the field.”
“One thing I like about JJ Werdal is that he was kind of like me,” said Henderson, who’s a senior. “He wasn’t super big or anything, but he had heart and he played hard, so I kind of looked up to JJ in that aspect of it.”
Werdal was even better at another sport, wrestling. He placed at state all four years, and Choteau won the state tournament his senior year. He went 40-4 that season. Werdal became a state champion himself in the 130-pound weight class in his sophomore year in 2013, joining his brother Cole, who also won a state wrestling title that year, and his other older brother Jesse, who also has a Choteau state title under his belt. All three brothers are on the school’s wall of fame, right next to each other.
“He was so headstrong. He might have been 5-foot-6 and 135 pounds, but he believed that he was a 7-foot tall guy that was 300 pounds and just a beast,” said Jesse Werdal. “JJ truly believed that he was the best. He didn’t do it in a cocky way that would irritate people, he did it in his own way. Everything was (mental) with JJ.”
“He wanted it,” said Rick Werdal, JJ’s father.
“I think it was looking up to his brothers,” added Jennifer Werdal, JJ’s mother. “When Jesse won state his senior year, you could tell that was something (JJ) wanted to do. All of our boys, they just have a hard work ethic and you’re not going to get anywhere unless you work hard and put your heart into it. You work hard.”
Even though he had scholarship offers to wrestle in college, JJ turned them down and instead secured various construction jobs after school. Then on the Fourth of July this past summer, Werdal was involved in a one-vehicle rollover on U.S. Highway 287. He would not survive. JJ Werdal was just 21 years old.
“He made our family complete. He was just full of life and happy-go-lucky,” said Jennifer Werdal. “He was always happy and fearless and just lived life to the fullest, always.”
“He was a good kid. He was very outgoing and a lot of fun to hang out with,” said Cole Werdal. “He was always happy and just not really a care in the world with anything. Just went through life as easy as possible, fun to be around.”
“The smile JJ had on his face all the time, the way he lived life was great. There won’t be a kid that’s as happy-go-lucky to be that tough and to be so headstrong,” said Jesse Werdal. “I know when I have kids and do that, I hope that there’s more of JJ in them than me, because he was a good person and he lived life.”
So on that Sept. 14 evening in Choteau, the home-town crowd truly said goodbye to No. 12 for the Bulldogs. Werdal was an inspiration to Henderson and all that were lucky to know him.
“I just know JJ as hard-hitting and hustling, doing everything like that. I think everyone is going to remember JJ like that,” said Henderson. “When they think of JJ they’re going to think of just a great guy who was ready to work. They’re going to want to do the same thing JJ did.”
JJ Werdal’s legacy will live on in Choteau, and his memory will never be forgotten.
The Werdal family would like to thank the Choteau community and the whole Treasure State for their support shown to them through this difficult time.