(Editor's note: University of Montana athletics release)
MISSOULA — Later this summer, former Montana linebacker and NFL hopeful Marcus Welnel and his fiancé Lexi are getting married and beginning their post-graduate lives together.
Like most people would, he’s chosen an officiant for the wedding that he knows well. Someone he trusts to represent his family and someone that upholds the values they hold dear.
Separately, but in many ways equally, Welnel has also chosen a teammate to be the next in a long line of Grizzly greats to wear the No. 37 jersey. A jersey that represents the Montana football family and its values. The spirit of Montana. Hard work, dedication, and toughness.
On Wednesday, Welnel announced Levi Janacaro, a Missoula native, fellow linebacker, and future officiant at his wedding, is his choice to be the 17th player in program history to wear No. 37, passing on one of the great Grizzly traditions.
“It’s such a big decision, there are a lot of things that go into making it, and there are a lot of guys that could have worn it, but I really feel like Levi exemplifies what 37 means to me,” said Welnel.
“He’s hard-working, has really worked for everything he’s earned, and he’s just an awesome guy. He’s awesome in the community, and I think he’ll represent the number really well.”
Janacaro, a prep standout at Missoula Big Sky, was one of coach Bobby Hauck’s first recruiting commitments when he returned to Montana in 2018. He’s now set to enter his redshirt-senior year, likely to emerge as a full-time starter this fall after four seasons of working his way up the depth chart on special teams to become an All-Big Sky Honorable Mention in 2022.
He had a breakout season that year, totaling 87 tackles, the third most on the team and a top-10 total in the Big Sky, as a primary backup at linebacker, with starts in five games as an injury fill. He’s also a two-time Academic All-Big Sky performer in the classroom, maintaining a 3.4 GPA while having already earned a degree in management and information systems and working toward a master’s in business administration.
He’s a true Montana underdog story, a lightly-recruited local on a partial scholarship who now embodies the traditions and values of the team he watched and players he idolized growing up.
Now that he’s been entrusted to wear the same number as hometown Grizzly greats before him like Jordan Tripp and Zack Wagenmann, he says he feels the weight of what that all means.
“It feels really cool, and it’s just a blessing. Knowing all the guys that have worn that number before when I was growing up a Griz fan, always watching games and looking for that number, to be able to bear that responsibility is an honor,” said Janacaro.
“But along with that, it is a responsibility. People congratulate me, but really, the work is just beginning. It was a lot of work to get to this point, but now I feel like I’ve got to step it up a notch.”
Welnel asked Janacaro to be the officiant at his wedding long before he asked him to carry on the 37 tradition.
It wasn’t until late last week that the outgoing senior and All-Big Sky ‘backer from Helena made the choice to entrust both his nuptials and the jersey to his friend and teammate.
So, when Welnel called to ask if just the two of them could sit down and go over wedding plans, Janacaro, who is considering a career in the ministry, got nervous because hadn’t had time to do much prep for the ceremony.
“He started to ask me about how much I've done, and we were going over the details. I was like, honestly, Mark, I really haven't done a whole lot because of spring ball, and he said that that was fine,” said Janacaro.
“Then we just sat and BS’d for 45 minutes, and I was thinking, really? He called me down here for this? We could have done this on a text or something.”
That’s when Welnel sprung it on him.
“Hey, Levi, I didn't bring you here to talk about wedding stuff,” he said, remembering the moment. “I could see his mood change, and it was pretty special.”
First, there was confusion, then surprise, then the magnitude of the moment began to sink in.
“He said I'm not sure if you figured it out yet, but we're not here to talk about the wedding. And I said, alright, what the heck are we talking about? And he looked at me, and it clicked. I was like, Oh…” laughed Janacaro.
“Then he said ‘I want you to wear it.’ I kind of felt like I was going to puke. I got a knot in my stomach. It was surreal. I'm not really an emotional guy, but it was cool.”
The No. 37 tradition began in 1983 when Plentywood native Kraig Paulson passed his number to another promising player from Montana, Tim Hauck of Big Timber. Paulson was known for his hard-nosed play and workman-like mentality. Hauck went on to a long career playing and coaching in the NFL before returning to UM to coach.
Since then, it has evolved to reflect that, representing hard work, dedication to the team, and tough play on the gridiron … The “Spirit of Montana.”
As a kid who grew up cheering on his idols in Washington-Grizzly Stadium each Saturday in his hometown, hoping one day for a shot to play for his favorite team, Janacaro says the work it will take to live up to those expectations is not lost on him.
Now he just has to go prove it. Every. Day.
“To me, 37 is given to a player that embodies what being a Montana kid playing for the Griz is all about,” said Janacaro.
“It’s not always the most talented guy, but a hard worker who’s going to do their best to lead the team, do things the right way, and set an example of how it should be done. Not cutting any corners or taking the shortcut, but just making sure that you show up every day to do the hard work and love every minute of it.”
The tradition is in good hands.