(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, tight ends, wide receivers and running backs. This week we focus on quarterbacks, two each day — one from the modern era and one who played pre-1980s.)
Quarterbacks: No. 5 — Paul Petrino, Helena Capital and Bob O’Billovich, Butte; No. 4 — Brock Osweiler, Kalispell Flathead and John Leister, Great Falls CMR; No. 3 — Tyler Emmert, Helena Capital and Ty Paine, Billings Senior; No. 2 — Ryan Leaf, Great Falls CMR and Gary Fox, Billings West.
No. 1 quarterbacks – Dave Dickenson, Great Falls CMR and Bill Kelly, Missoula County
The No. 1 quarterbacks in Montana history will soon be the only athletes in Treasure State history inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame. Missoula’s William “Wild Bill” Kelly was enshrined in 1969, while former Great Falls CMR star Dave Dickenson will be honored this December.
Dave Dickenson stat sheet
Listed at 5-foot-11, a generous mark according to his coaches, and weighing less than 175 pounds, Dave Dickenson didn’t look the part of a football player. But an exceptional knowledge of the game and drive to win would help him become the greatest quarterback in Montana history.
Dickenson had a magical prep career at Great Falls CMR, going 23-0 as a starter and winning Class AA state championships in 1989 and 1990, each against rival Great Falls High. The Rustlers edged the Bison 16-12 in the first title bout, with CMR earning a 38-7 victory during Dickenson’s senior year. He totaled 84 touchdowns as the starting quarterback, 61 passing and 23 rushing, while being named Montana’s Gatorade player of the year, first-team all-state and offensive MVP and high school all-American. Dickenson’s No. 15 jersey was retired at Great Falls CMR, the only player with that honor. He finished his prep career with 5,104 passing yards, according to the Montana High School Association, with 2,892 in the 1990 season. His 64 percent completion percentage is No. 3 all-time according to the MHSA, while his 3,331 total offensive yards from his senior season are ranked 10th. Dickenson was also an all-state golfer and a two-year starter on the Rustlers’ basketball team.
Dickenson chose to walk on at the University of Montana, redshirting his first season in Missoula. He became the starter his sophomore season and led the Grizzlies to the 1993 NCAA Division I-AA (now FCS) playoffs. His junior and senior seasons were two of the best in history. In 1994, Dickenson completed 272 of 392 passes for 3,550 yards and 27 touchdowns, averaging 322.7 yards per game, while rushing for three more scores. He again guided the Grizzlies to the national playoffs, but suffered an ankle injury and didn’t play in the semifinal game against Youngstown State, a 28-9 UM defeat. Dickenson re-wrote the UM, Big Sky Conference and FCS record books his senior season in 1995. He set a then-program record with 558 yards in a win at the University of Idaho, including 43 completions, a UM record that stood until Brady Gustafson’s 47 completions against Cal Poly in 2016. Dickenson added a 90-yard touchdown pass against Boise State, also a program record at the time, one of his six in the game, and was responsible for 41 offensive touchdowns. Dickenson was 431-624, with 51 touchdowns and 5,676 yards, with his 379.6 passing yards per game a Big Sky Conference record. Montana defeated Marshall 22-20 in the 1995 national championship game, with Dickenson throwing for 281 yards and two touchdowns, earning the Walter Payton award as the best I-AA player in the nation.
He was thrice all-conference, league MVP and all-American, and Dickenson’s name can be found 68 times in the University of Montana’s football record book, with his 11,080 passing yards atop the program’s career list. His 166.3 passing efficiency was third in FCS history and his 9.2 yards per attempt were a national record. Dickenson also finished his career with 7.9 percent of his completed passes ending in touchdowns, also an FCS national record. He was also an academic all-American. The Big Sky Conference tabbed him the No. 1 athlete in the first 50 years of the league.
The Calgary Stampeders brought Dickenson to the Canadian Football League, where he competed from 1997-2000, earning CFL MVP honors in 2000 with 4,636 passing yards and 36 touchdowns, adding five rushing touchdowns, while leading the Stampeders to a 12-5-1 record. He spent the following two seasons in the NFL, with the San Diego Chargers in 2001 and stops in Seattle, Miami and Detroit in 2002, before returning to the CFL with the British Columbia Lions. He set league records for highest completion percentage (74) and quarterback rating (118.8) in the 2005 season. He netted an MVP honor in the 2006 Grey Cup, a 25-14 victory, and retired from playing after the 2008 season.
Dickenson remained in football, joining the Stampeders as a running backs coach in 2009, then taking over the quarterbacks the following season. He was Calgary’s offensive coordinator from 2011-2015 and has been the program’s head coach since 2016, with a CFL record 28 wins in his first two seasons. Calgary has appeared in the past two Grey Cups, with Dickenson earning coach of the year honors in 2016.
Dave Dickenson is a member of the Great Falls CMR, Montana High School Association, Grizzly Sports, Montana Football and Canadian Football League Halls of Fame. He will be inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in December.
… on Dickenson
Former Great Falls CMR football coach Jack Johnson: “Dave, he lived a block from where we live, so Kelly and Mark, they were friends, so we knew Dave and watched him grow up. I knew when I watched him as a third grader that he was going to be a quarterback. We watched him play hockey, he just played everything, every sport, hockey, baseball, basketball, football, bowling, heck of a bowler, tennis. He was just a natural. Dave, more than anything else, he had the ability to inspire people. He made everyone around him better, just because of his presence. Obviously he was a great athlete on top of that, too.
“I think Dave, I don’t think I taught him any of these things, we didn’t (at CMR), but he had the ability to know who to throw it to and when to throw it, when to get it out of his hand. He was very accurate. He didn’t have the strongest arm in the world, but that was the most important thing, he knew who the heck to throw it to and he got it out of his hand. He was accurate, he didn’t miss many throws. And he was very competitive, very, very competitive. I don’t care what he was doing, he was a winner. He was just special. (Former Montana Grizzly coach) Don Read told me Dave Dickenson watched less film than any quarterback he had ever coached. He just had a God-given ability to know who to throw it to, even though he didn’t watch much film.
“I’m not surprised by any of (his success). That was just Dave. He was just a winner from the time he was little until now. He’s just a special person.”
Former Great Falls High football coach Dale Pohle: “I think of Dave and I think, we played his junior and senior year in the state championship against him. I thought we had as good of a team as Russell did, but Dave was, he was the key that won the games for them. He could change the play, he could do stuff and he was really heady in the game of football, maybe the smartest kid I’ve ever seen that had a photographic memory or whatever. He was tuned in all the time. Dave was Dave. I wish he would have had a little bit better chance down there in San Diego, he wasn’t bad. But he seems to be doing OK in the coaching end of it, being in the last two Gray Cups. It’s all upstairs with him. He is smart.
“Don Read told me one time, ‘When we had the walk-through for the national championship, Dave wasn’t there, he was up, because he was going to be pre-med, studying that stuff there,’ and I said, ‘Wow.’ He said, ‘He knew all that. That was the last thing I was worried about going in to the game. He put his books away, came out and won the game for us.’ That tells it in a hurry doesn’t it?”
Former Montana Grizzly offensive coordinator Mick Dennehy: “He was so special. Obviously he didn’t have the physical, statistical measurements that everyone looks at as being able to play. He was so much smarter. … We would have our coaches meetings and we would bring the kids in to look over the game plan. David would come in and we would look at film. We would say, ‘OK, what don’t you like?’ and he would say, ‘Well, I don’t like this. I don’t like that.’ It was almost exactly what we had on paper to begin with. He just had that it factor and I mean, it was there from the first day he stepped on campus.
“I think he single-handedly forced people in the Big Sky Conference to look at who they recruited. At the University of Montana, from the time I was there until I left, we didn’t start a quarterback that was not an undefeated state champion quarterback in high school because there’s carryover there. I don’t think David lost a (high school) game his last two years. I think that forced teams like Eastern Washington to say, ‘Hey, we don’t need that big, huge dude at quarterback throwing the football. We need a guy that has some mobility, a guy that’s smart.’ He was a different dude, man.”
Former Sidney football coach Mike Gear: “He’s a guy that I thought got more out of his physical abilities than anyone, because he wasn’t that tall and he wasn’t that fast. He just had the intelligence and that sixth sense of where to go, when to go there and he definitely made the most out of the abilities that he had.
“You love to see those types of guys be successful. They’re actually the guys you love to coach. Coaches will say, ‘I wish we had 10 of him,’ or whatever. That’s the kind of guy he was. You would take a whole squad of full of those guys because they just want to win and they’re going to do whatever it takes to get it done.”
Bill Kelly stat sheet
William Kelly, better known as “Wild Bill” Kelly, became a football legend in Missoula in the 1920s. A two-time all-state quarterback at Missoula County High School, Kelly led the program to its first state football championship, a 3-0 win over Great Falls in 1921. He was a member of the Spartans’ 1922 state basketball championship, as well.
According to Bob Townsley’s nomination letter in the Montana Football Hall of Fame, Kelly was set to attend Notre Dame, but was convinced to remain in Missoula at the University of Montana.
Kelly played football, basketball and baseball from 1924-1926, lettering in each. He went 2-0 against the rival Montana State Bobcats, scoring four touchdowns in a 29-7 victory in 1925. The following season, he threw for one scored, rushed for another and also returned a punt for a touchdown, while intercepting three passes on defense. Kelly still holds the UM record for longest run from scrimmage, 88 yards against Carroll College in 1925, the same season he earned Walter Camp all-American and all-Pacific Coast Conference honors. He also scored 26 points against Whitman in a 1926 contest, tied for No. 2 in UM single-game history according to the Griz record book. Per Townsley, Kelly was a first-team all-PCC selection twice and was invited to the East-West Shrine Game, where his 80-yard touchdown pass, the winning score, in the 1927 game. He also intercepted a pass in the contest. In 1971 he was named the all-time quarterback in Shrine Game history.
On Oct. 14, 1927, Kelly was the starting quarterback for the New York Yankees, scoring two touchdowns in a 19-8 win over the Buffalo Bisons. He spent four seasons on the professional fields, with the Yankees, Frankford Yellow Jackets and Brooklyn Dodgers.
Kelly died in November of 1931, reportedly collapsing while attending a football game in New York. He was 26.
William Kelly was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1969, the Grizzly Sports Hall of Fame in 1993 and the Montana Football Hall of Fame in 2017.