MISSOULA -- Jared Samuelson always grew up wanting to be a Montana Grizzly.
Technically, he's done it twice.
Samuelson's story is a unique one but well known by now with Montana's men's basketball team. Coming out of Billings West High School, Samuelson spent two seasons with Montana from 2015-17, redshirting his first season before averaging 11.5 minutes, 5.1 points and 2.4 rebounds per game in 2016-17.
But Samuelson wanted to be around family so he opted to leave Missoula and go back to Billings where he played for two seasons and starred at Rocky Mountain College. In 2018-19, Samuelson was a third-team NAIA All-American after averaging 18.7 points and 7.6 rebounds per game and shot 52.3 percent from the floor.
After graduating from Rocky, Samuelson saw an opportunity to come back to Missoula for his final basketball season as a grad transfer. And after contacting Montana's coaching staff and seeing it could become a reality, they went ahead and made it happen.
Now 15 games into his final season on the college basketball court, Samuelson has begun to hit his stride with Montana. He missed the first four games due to a knee injury but has started the past three contests for the Griz and scored a career-high 21 points against Southern Utah last Thursday to guide Montana to a win.
"I mean it just feels good to wear a Griz jersey in general," Samuelson said. "My role has changed a little bit throughout the season with my knee injury and whatnot but even just wearing the Griz jersey throughout the whole year means a lot to me and I take a lot of pride wearing Montana across my chest so I've been enjoying these last few games and this last year.
"Some days I kind of wake up and go yeah I'm really wearing a Griz jersey again and I smile of course. It's just kind of a unique story."
Samuelson said frustration did set in a little bit when he went down with the injury. But now a vet, he knew he'd get back on the court, so focusing on his rehab, staying patient and grinding away was his primary goal.
Montana currently sits atop the Big Sky Conference standings with a 3-1 mark. In those four games, Samuelson has started three of them and averaged just over 22 minutes, 13 points and 3.7 rebounds per game. In those four games, he's shooting 22 for 37 (59.4 percent) from the field and 7 for 13 from deep.
Montana's matchup with Sac State on Dec. 30 was when Samuelson began to catch his rhythm. He knew it was just a matter of time and has since been rolling as a post threat for UM.
To see him get back on track has meant a lot not just to Samuelson, but his teammates and coaches as well.
"I think it's great for him more than anybody to finish what he started and to get a diploma that he can hang up from the University of Montana is huge considering his roots," Montana coach Travis DeCuire said. "And so for me, I'm just enjoying the moment with him."
"It's definitely special especially knowing that our families are really close and my mom and his parents are really close too," Montana senior guard Kendal Manuel added. "So for him to be able to be here where his dad played and all that it's big time and I know how special that is to him."
Samuelson's father, Shawn Samuelson, played for Montana from 1993-96 where he scored 1,293 points and grabbed 791 rebounds for his career.
Manuel, a fellow Billings native, played AAU basketball with Samuelson growing up so the two were friends alongside Missoula native and current Oregon State star Tres Tinkle. Manuel's perspective is unique in that he suited up against Tinkle and Samuelson in high school but has played alongside both in college.
"It's been big time," Manuel said. "So being able to play with Tres then coming back and being able to play with Jared now has been big time experiencing that with those guys at that level and then this level. It's been fun."
Naturally with that comes friendly trash talk. In 2015, Manuel led Billings Skyview to its first ever boys basketball state championship over Samuelson's Golden Bears when both were seniors, something that comes up every now and then.
"I always give him crap once in awhile," Manuel said with a laugh. "The other day he was actually saying something about, 'Oh, I wish I had a state championship,' and I was like, 'Ah, me too Jared.' He was like, 'I shouldn't have even said that.'"
Samuelson's role with Montana is different than his first time around. He's older and a veteran on an otherwise young Montana basketball roster. So he's been key in teaching and helping the younger group of Grizzlies as they begin their college careers while he finishes his.
Personally, a lot awaits Samuelson after his time with UM is over. He's an engaged man to fiance Kylie Nielsen and the couple have a daughter, Jordyn Samuelson. A country boy at heart, Samuelson spends a lot of time working on his grandparent's ranch out east by Broadus while Nielsen's family has a farm up by Nashua.
But his family and everyone surrounding him have been supportive and happy to see him back where he began, something he doesn't take for granted.
"They're pretty excited to see me wearing a Griz jersey (again) and pretty proud of it," Samuelson said. "They just tell me to keep a positive mindset and just enjoy the ride. It goes by quick and I'm already a fifth-year senior. Feels like yesterday I was a little freshman.
"It's pretty sweet to see all of the support that I've gotten in my decision to come back and play for the Griz again."
One thing that has stuck around between his two stints at Montana is Samuelson's nickname of the "Big Pony" which he earned when he started with Montana. Former Griz Aaron Misipeka-Ward gave Samuelson the nickname in his first go-around, saying Samuelson would "run graceful like a pony" so he would reference him as "Big Pony" from there on out.
Associate head coach Chris Cobb took a liking to the nickname and it just stuck with Samuelson from there. So when he has a highlight moment for Montana, social media sometimes becomes abuzz with fans and friends calling him by his nickname.
"I kind of like hearing that name I haven't heard it in a minute," Samuelson said with a laugh. "I just laughed. I didn't know what to think of it other than laugh. I thought it was a sweet nickname, pretty funny."