(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.)
No. 3 tight end – Brian Salonen, Great Falls High
With a family lineage on the basketball floor at Montana State, Brian Salonen spurned tradition to become an all-American tight end at Montana.
Brian Salonen stat sheet
Salonen attended Great Falls High, earning all-state football honors at both tight end and linebacker. He was also an all-state and all-American basketball player for the Bison in the late 1970s. His father, Bill, was a two-time all-conference basketball player at Montana State and eventual inductee to the Bobcats’ Hall of Fame.
Brian Salonen flipped the tables, though, and committed to play college football at the University of Montana, where he would become the best tight end in program history. He broke into the lineup as a true freshman in 1980 and was a second-team all-conference selection in both 1981 and 1982, but he had a fantastic senior season, earning first-team all-Big Sky honors to go along with all-America recognition from three different publications. In that 1983 season, Salonen caught 68 passes for 832 yards. By the conclusion of his college career, he totaled 150 receptions for 1,882 yards and 12 touchdowns, which were all school records at the time. Salonen was the Grizzlies’ 1983 team MVP, and he was selected to play in the 1984 East-West Shrine Game.
The Dallas Cowboys selected Salonen in the 10th round of the 1984 NFL Draft. He made the team as a third-string tight end and appeared in 32 games, mostly on special teams, over the next two seasons. He was placed on Injured Reserve in 1986, effectively ending his NFL career.
Salonen was inducted into the Grizzly Sports Hall of Fame in 1993 and the Montana Football Hall of Fame in 2016.
… on Salonen:
Former Great Falls High coach Mick Delaney: “I coached Brian in high school, I never coached him at the University of Montana. I think one thing was probably his heritage. His dad was a tremendous athlete, his uncle was a tremendous athlete. Brian had great work ethic. He was one of those young men who did what he was asked to do, and then did even more than that. Very intelligent and very talent, but he probably wasn’t the greatest athlete in the world. But he worked hard enough to make himself the best athlete at the University of Montana at the time that he was playing and consequently got him into the NFL.
“Not a single standout moment. Just knowing Brian and watching the way that he worked every day, even as a freshman and a sophomore in high school. He just had that determination and commitment that he was going to make himself a real special guy. No single event, just a day-by-day commitment to excellent work ethic. Very, very intelligent, as I said. He studied the game and knew the game, and this helped him, I think, be very successful.
“When you saw how he practiced every single day, he came out and practiced like this was going to be his last practice. One of those guys that you actually had to tell occasionally to slow down a little bit, and that very seldom ever happens. His drive and his personality and his commitment to wanting to be an NFL football player, I think showed every day by the way that he conducted himself both on and off the field. Brian’s a special guy off the field, too. He had a foundation going for a good number years up in Great Falls, I believe it was for diabetes if I’m not mistaken, which his mother has had a real struggle with through his life. But he did as much off the field as he did on the field. Was an excellent student. I guess you would say he was the all-around all-American boy.”