MISSOULA — Brian Ah Yat set a number of records as a three-year starter at quarterback for the Montana Grizzlies. But before all of that, he was a sophomore thrown into the fire in 1996, and with that opportunity, Ah Yat took full advantage of it.
The beginning of that season went by quickly for Ah Yat as he adjusted to life as the heir apparent to Grizzly great Dave Dickenson. The year prior in 1995, Dickenson and the Grizzlies went on to win the school's first football national championship with a win over Marshall.
Still, with those pressures coming into the year, Ah Yat and Grizzlies started the season 5-0 in 1996 before heading to Cheney to take on Eastern Washington in a pivotal game of ranked opponents. Then Division I-AA football, Montana was ranked at No. 2 in the country while EWU was No. 20.
It was there that Ah Yat underwent his first true test after the Grizzlies blew out their first five opponents, including a 35-14 win over Oregon State to begin the year.
"It was just kind of a blur in the beginning but that game in particular I remember it being a struggle early on," Ah Yat told MTN Sports about the EWU game.
But Ah Yat adjusted quickly in a back-and-forth contest between the two. He went on to throw for 560 yards, a single-game Griz passing yards record that still stands to this day. He completed 32 of his 48 passes on the day.
He found Joe Douglass for all four of his touchdowns, including the game-winner in the final seconds. Ironically, Ah Yat doesn't recall all of the passing yards, instead remembering the mistake he made before that final touchdown even more.
"My first memory was the interception late in the game," he said with a laugh. "It’s funny that you remember those types of things but I remember it was a corner route in the back of the end zone and I was supposed to read the cornerback and I didn’t do that. I threw the interception and that was a late one in the game. I think it was a chance for us to go up and I really thought I blew it at that point."
Ah Yat also remembered the game-winner well, crediting Douglass for his performance. Douglass finished with 14 receptions for 279 yards. His yardage total also was a single-game Grizzly record until Samori Toure broke that against Southeastern Louisiana in 2019.
"He really carried us to that victory," Ah Yat said of Douglass. "Him and our defense. I remember that play I threw to Joe. We were in an empty set and they brought a linebacker off of the weak side, which I should have noticed in my pre-snap read. I barely escaped him and I was able to throw the ball and I just saw Joe pop open. I didn't see it that clearly, I just flew it out there and Joe did the rest. He turned it up the sideline and scored, he was amazing that game."
While Montana played from behind for most of the game, Blaine McElmurry's pick-6 in the third quarter gave Montana its first lead of the game at 28-24.
Montana went on to win 34-30 and eventually went undefeated before taking on Marshall again in the national championship, where they ultimately lost. For Ah Yat, settling in as Dickenson's successor went as well as he could imagine after he won the starting job.
"Learning from those mistakes and being able to come out with a win in that game really helped and then I think the next week when we played Northern Arizona (which was ranked No. 6 in the country) that we came out and we had a really good game," Ah Yat said. "After that game I kind of felt like, yeah I do belong here."
"I got to visit with Josh Paffhausen, a good friend of mine, and we were in a tight battle (to be quarterback in 1996). We talked about that and either one of us could have played but we were short at receivers and Josh being the incredible athlete that he is, he filled in those shoes and made a team move (in switching to receiver) and me being able to get in there was amazing."
Ah Yat left UM with a number of records and career marks. He threw 42 touchdown passes in 1996, a single-season record for UM, and also owns the longest touchdown pass in a game for Montana with a 93-yard score in 1997 versus Portland State. On the all-time career list, Ah Yat ranks second in passing yards (9,315) and touchdowns (89). He's also one of just five Griz quarterbacks to ever throw six touchdowns in one game, which he did against Stephen F. Austin in 1998 as a senior.
"Those are special but even more special was the camaraderie and just playing with a great group of guys," Ah Yat said. "Just being part of a great tradition at Montana, those are, to me, more special, and being privileged to be able to play at the Univeresity of Montana."
Ah Yat even remembers his first year in 1995 when seeing the snow on the practice field made him wonder how they'd ever to play in those conditions. But he credited former UM head coaches Don Read and Mick Dennehy, as well as then-offensive coordinator Brent Pease -- who is currently Montana's assistant head coach and the wide receivers coach -- as his biggest believers during his time with the Grizzlies.
After completing his playing career at Montana, Ah Yat spent time in the Canadian Football League.
He currently works at a radiology facility and is a quarterbacks coach for his son's football team at Kamehameha High School in Honolulu, Hawaii. Ah Yat and his family also ran a bakery company that was inspired by the Great Harvest Bread Co. in Montana for a number of years. Ah Yat and his son were recently back in Montana for the Grizzlies QB camp where he also competed in a local golf tournament.
But for a young kid thrown into the fire so quickly, Ah Yat grew into a star at Montana, something he credits his teammates for helping with.
"I think it was our senior class (in 1996). It was such an amazing senior class that brought me in and gave me the confidence and really made it easy for me to jump right in there," Ah Yat said. "We just kind of followed their way and that's what led to a special season."
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 Ah Yat to talk about that historic game in 1996 against Eastern Washington.
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.