The #MTTop40, MTN Sports’ list profiling some of Montana’s best football players, started on July 2 with the defensive backs. We then moved through the defensive line and linebackers before tackling the offense, where we’ve featured the linemen, tight ends, wide receivers and, this week, running backs.
Montana has produced numerous all-Americans at the tailback position, with many advancing to fine careers in the National Football League. Steve Kracher led Columbia Falls to its first Class A state championship appearance before starring at Montana State, while Great Falls High’s Kerry Porter rushed for 1,000 yards at Washington State, one of only 12 1,000-yard seasons in program history. Kalispell Flathead’s Lex Hilliard became a bruising running back for the Montana Grizzlies, where his name can be found in the UM record book nearly 40 times. Don Hass, the “Iron Tumbleweed” from Glendive is one of only four Montana State Bobcats to have their jersey retired, while Chase Reynolds turned his stellar 8-Man career into a record-setting one with the Montana Grizzlies before holding a steady career in the NFL.
There are certainly numerous other running backs that deserve recognition, including a handful from the Frontier Conference — all-Americans like Montana Tech’s Nolan Saraceni and NAIA national player of the year Chance Demarais of Carroll College — which brings us to the #MTTop40 honorable mention running backs.
Outside of the offensive and defensive lines, running back is arguably Montana’s deepest position. The Treasure State has produced terrific college players like Steve Kracher of Columbia Falls. Kerry Porter of Great Falls High and Lex Hilliard of Kalispell Flathead both served short professional stints after standout college careers. Don Hass is one of the best players to ever suit up at Montana State, and Chase Reynolds dominated at both the high school and collegiate levels before a solid NFL career.
There have been plenty of other running backs, though — guys like Chance Demarais, Cody Kirk and Roy Robinson — who have found success in high school, college and/or the NFL.
#MTTop40 running back honorable mentions
Chance Demarais, Malta
Demarais rushed for more than 3,754 yards and 52 touchdowns during an all-state career at Malta, helping the Mustangs to the 2006 Class B state championship. He was just as dominant at Carroll College, earning NAIA player of the year honors during his junior season in 2011.
Andrew Grinde, Great Falls CMR
Montana’s 2014 Gatorade football player of the year, Grinde was one of the top recruits in Montana after rushing for 2,180 yards, a Class AA single-season record, and 20 touchdowns, while adding 489 receiving yards and three more scores his junior season. He finished his prep career with nearly 4,500 yards rushing, also a Class AA record, and 43 rushing touchdowns. He committed to Yale, rushing for 45 yards and a touchdown in his debut, before stepping away to focus on academics in the fall of 2017.
Don Heater, Thompson Falls
Heater became one of the most decorated athletes in Montana Tech history, earning Frontier Conference player of the year honors and all-American recognition. He rushed for 1,797 yards and 25 touchdowns in 1971 to lead the NAIA. He spent one season in the NFL with the St. Louis Cardinals.
Delmar Jones, Helena High
Jones was a record-setting tailback at Helena High before turning in a Hall of Fame career at Montana State. He rushed for 2,819 career yards, the fifth-most in Bobcat history, and 22 touchdowns, the eighth-most.
Cody Kirk, Frenchtown
After rushing for more than 1,900 his senior season at Frenchtown, Kirk eventually broke out at Montana State in 2011, rushing for 1,351 yards and 14 touchdowns. Kirk finished his MSU career with 3,422 yards, the second-most all-time at MSU, and a program-record 47 touchdowns. (Editor’s note: Kirk’s yardage his senior season at Frenchtown has been updated after a note from Class A statistician Brian Reed.)
Tom Lester, Butte Central
A three-sport star at Butte Central in the 1950s, helping the Maroons to four consecutive championship appearances from 1952-55 on the gridiron. He played college football at Marquette University before the school dropped the program in 1960. Lester returned to Montana, where he was a coach, teacher and administrator.
Milt Popovich, Butte
Popovich was a three-sport athlete at Butte High in the 1930s, twice earning all-state honors in football. He played football and ran track at the University of Montana, earning all-conference and all-American honors before a five-year career with the NFL’s Chicago Cardinals.
Dan Rambo, Libby
Rambo, while playing at Carroll College, led the NAIA in rushing with 1,065 yards in just seven games, edging Jackson State’s Walter Payton, who rushed for 1,029 yards. After stints playing professional football, Rambo has worked as a scout, director and general manager in the NFL and CFL.
Roy Robinson, Glasgow
A dual-sport star, Robinson excelled in track and football at both Glasgow and the University of Montana. He set the UM high hurdles record of 14.24 seconds in 1970 and was an all-conference and all-district player in football in 1969. Robinson played in the CFL for six seasons.
Nolan Saraceni, Billings Senior
After an all-state career at Billings Senior that saw him lead Class AA in rushing (1,291 yards) and all-purpose yards (1,781) despite playing just eight games, Saraceni had a Hall of Fame career at Montana Tech. He was a two-time NAIA all-American, rushing for 3,487 yards and 42 touchdowns in his Oredigger career.
Rob Schulte, Great Falls High
Schulte set Great Falls High records for single-season (1,757) and career (3,140) rushing yards, according to the Great Falls Tribune, to become the program’s only Gatorade player of the year in 2003. Schulte moved to receiver at the University of Montana, catching 60 passes during his career.