MISSOULA — The conditions were anything but perfect for the 1998 meeting between Montana and Montana State's football teams.
And in a wet and muddy stadium on a cold November day, Dallas Neil and the Montana Grizzlies gave UM fans another thrilling performance in the storied rivalry between the two schools.
Neil, a Great Falls native and graduate of Great Falls High, remembers distinctly one of the disadvantages to that day with its poor conditions.
"It was cold and muddy and the weather was definitely an impact for the game and speed was at our advantage and we couldn’t use speed in that game because it was just too slippery," Neil said.
Former Griz QB Brian Ah Yat also remembers his thoughts during the game and the challenges he faced.
"It was a mud bowl, I remember diving in the mud at the end of the game," Ah Yat said with a big laugh. "That was an interesting game, it was just raining a lot, it was muddy, the conditions were horrible. I remember thinking why are we throwing the ball so much I can hardly grip it."
As it did the year prior in 1997 in Bozeman, the 1998 clash between the two rivals in Missoula came down to the wire as the Bobcats knocked on the door of breaking their losing streak to the Griz. At that point, MSU had lost 12 straight to UM.
But when up 21-20 late in the game, a costly Bobcat turnover gave Montana the ball back. Then with just over five minutes to play, Neil and Ah Yat connected on one of the most iconic moments in Griz football history.
Ah Yat rolled to his left and found Neil, who broke a tackle on the left side of the field, kept his toes inbounds, and scurried up the sideline before diving into the end zone for what was ultimately the game-winning score.
"So I remember jumping to go over the goal line and you kind of get up and you’re like did I make it and then you look up at the crowd and Monte’s grabbing me and you’re like I guess I made it," Neil recalled. "It was exhilarating, it was definitely a high moment to build up to that point and then actually have that victory and to continue that streak and that legacy.
"I was so thankful because I wanted the ball so bad. I wanted to have an opportunity to help us win and sometimes you don't get that opportunity. And so when Ah Yat threw me the ball and I got a chance to have a chance to go to the end zone, I didn't know if I would make it but I was giving it everything I had to get as close as I possibly could. I do remember when we were down and you always had this thing in the back of your head that was like this matters. We're going to be talking about this for 20, 30 years."
Even when trailing late in the game, Neil said the confidence within the team was that this was UM's to win.
"We would bring in former players and they would talk about how they overcame things for that week of Cat week and so there was this confidence that you took into that game that it’s like, 'We're winning,'" Neil said. "And we had that behind us. Everybody knew we were going to find a way to win."
But as time has passed, Neil -- who spent time in the NFL with the Atlanta Falcons and New York Jets and now resides in Arizona after owning The Source gym in Missoula for 10 years -- said the game offered him a different perspective as well when looking back, specifically when he walked by the family of his high school teammate Rob Compson, who played for the Bobcats as the team's starting quarterback in that game.
Neil said he went up and embraced the family afterwards. Their tears and emotions after losing that game stuck with Neil as he knows just how bittersweet the rivalry match-up can be when faced against those he knew his entire life.
"I think seeing the tears of the people that you loved on the other side," Neil said. "It was no longer, ‘I can’t wait to beat you,' it was more like there’s just so much legacy in this game and it means so much that it hurts as much as it feels good to win. And so yeah you just felt both things at the same time."
Grizzly Gridiron Classics
Missoula MTN affiliate KPAX is airing 12 classic Montana Griz football games on its new streaming app.
Each week, KPAX will air a different Griz game coupled with features and more from those who starred in those contests. This week we caught up with Neil to talk about that historic game in 1998 against Montana State.
Grizzly Gridiron Classics will air on Fridays at 6:30 p.m. Mountain Time and again on Saturdays and Sundays at noon and 6:30 p.m. Mountain Time on the streaming app.