(Editor’s note: MTN Sports began recognizing some of the best football players in Montana history on July 2 with the launch of the #MTTop40. The series started with defensive backs and will run eight weeks, featuring one position each week, concluding with quarterbacks the week of Aug. 20-24 to coincide with Montana’s high school football season opener. We’ve wrapped up the defense, also profiling the defensive linemen and linebackers, and started the offense with the offensive linemen. Now, we feature the tight ends.)
Tight ends: No. 5 – Will Dissly, Bozeman.
No. 4 tight end – Joe Bignell, Deer Lodge
After a standout career at Deer Lodge and solid start to his tenure at Montana State, Joe Bignell put together one of the finest seasons in program history to help the Bobcats to the 1984 national championship.
Joe Bignell stat sheet
Bignell was a standout basketball and football player at Powell County High School in Deer Lodge in the 1970s. An all-state athlete, Bignell scored more than 1,500 career points and set the school’s single-game scoring record of 46 points on the hardwood, according to a 2004 article from the Montana Standard. On the gridiron, Bignell helped Deer Lodge reach unprecedented heights, leading the Wardens to the only championship appearance in program history – a 14-7 loss to Whitefish in the 1979 title game.
After graduating high school, Bignell played at Montana State, etching his name into the Bobcat record books. He started for three seasons, putting together two solid seasons in 1982 and 1983, but he exploded in 1984, catching 88 passes for 1,149 yards. Both marks are still program records. Bignell was just as good in the postseason, catching two touchdown passes in the Bobcats’ 31-14 win over Arkansas State and hauling in 10 passes for 130 yards in their 19-6 win over Louisiana Tech in the national championship game. Bignell, who was named an honorable mention all-American in 1984, was inducted in the MSU Hall of Fame in 2008. His 1984 season is still one of the best single seasons in program history, and Bignell ranks second in career receptions (169) and 10th in career receiving yards (1,598).
Bignell is part of a long family legacy at Montana State. His son, Mac, was the latest to add to the tradition. Mac Bignell originally walked on at MSU as an undersized linebacker, but finished his career as another great Bobcat. Mac Bignell finished his career with a program-record nine forced fumbles, five recovered fumbles (tied for fifth) and 49.5 tackles-for-loss (sixth).
… on Bignell:
Former Whitefish High School and Montana State assistant coach Dan Davies: “(Joe Bignell) was a guy that you had to know where he was all the time, whether it was on offense or defense. He was a leader as a junior on that Deer Lodge team. We actually played Glasgow in the semifinals, that game was in Whitefish. Got by them, and then we knew Joe Bignell was going to be a handful. Coached by Steve Okoniewski, another University of Montana, had a nice pro career, as well. He dominated on defense. You couldn’t run at him, you couldn’t run away from him. So aggressive, so smart on defense. Then of course, his offensive skills go without saying.
“His stature is probably where you have to start. He’s a huge guy, great big hands. He had even bigger heart. Played every down, never took a down off. Was a student of the game, easy to coach, wanted to get better. Teammates elected him a captain his senior year, and it’s much deserved. Sometimes when things get rocky with your football team, your captains are the people who kind of dig people up and get them on the right track. He was one of those guys that could do that.
“We featured the tight end (at Montana State). When he was a senior, he caught 88 balls. Kelly Bradley, the quarterback on that team. Joe was someone Kelly could count on, knew where he was going to be, knew he was going to catch it when he threw it to him, and he was going to catch the balls that weren’t right to them. He was a leader on that part. Devastating blocker. Once he got into you as a defender, it was really tough to get him off. Just smart route runner, not great speed by any means, but knew what he was doing out there. We had some, we used to call them Y options or tight end options, he would just go to the open spot. The quarterback was able to, they were able to communicate and have a real successful relationship. Catching 88 balls in one year, that’s remarkable.”