BILLINGS — Though he wasn’t the most physically gifted or talented football player, John Edwards will always hold a special place in Montana history.
He helped lead Billings West High School to the program’s first state championship in 1997. Upon graduating from West in 1998, Edwards continued his career at the University of Montana, where he ultimately quarterbacked the Grizzlies to the 2001 national championship.
Edwards passed for 6,704 yards and 46 touchdowns and ran for 16 more TDs during his Griz career. More than stats, though, Edwards was known for his toughness and winning makeup. UM went 48-9 during Edwards’ four-year career from 1999-2002. He was 27-4 as the starting quarterback.
Edwards received his law degree from the University of Montana in 2008 and is now practicing at Edwards, Frickle & Culver Law Firm in Billings. He recently sat down with MTN Sports to reminisce about his playing days, family vacations and fatherhood in this week’s Sunday Conversation.
MTN Sports: It’s been 16 years since you graduated college. Where’s the time gone?
John Edwards: “Sometimes it feels like it was just last week, and other times, you’re reminded how long ago it actually was. One of those things that helps you do it, I’ve got an 11-year-old daughter. Sometimes you think, ‘It’s hard to believe that I’ve got an 11-year-old daughter.’ But it flies, time flies, and having those little girls does the same.”
MTN Sports: Because the further away it gets, the less people are going to want to talk about it, so how much do you reminisce about that time at Montana and winning that national championship?
Edwards: “Only when people bring it up. We do, like I was telling you earlier, once year a group of about 15 of us from that national championship team get together somewhere in the United States. We do less reminiscing about the game and more acting like we did when it was 2001. It’s a blast and still fun to make sure we make those connections.”
MTN Sports: When you guys that won that 2001 national championship, I’m sure at the time you didn’t know that that was going to be the last one. What’s it been like to be able to put your name right there next to Dave Dickenson as a quarterback to win a national title?
Edwards: “Very cool. That’s one thing — I grew up idolizing Dave and was always compared, not negatively, but I always had to say, ‘I’m not Dave Dickenson,’ because I wasn’t. Certainly wasn’t the same caliber of quarterback that Dave is and was. When he was honored at the university this last year, I was over at the game, and it was fun to catch up with him. That’s something that the two of us actually talked about, said, ‘Here we are. It’s pretty cool. We’re both from Montana, and we’re still the only two guys that have ever won one.’ We definitely, we talk about it and laugh about it, but only in that context.”
MTN Sports: I was reading some of the old articles from back then just to kind of refresh my memory, and it seemed like every quote, whether it was from you or coach Joe Glenn, was, ‘He’s not Dave Dickenson.’ What was it like to kind of have to follow in the legend’s footsteps?
Edwards: “I never thought of it like that, to be honest with you. The comparisons were always there, and I always did, truly feel, I certainly never put up the stats that Dave did. But we were a totally different football team than they were then. We had a different coach, and we had a different way of going about things. We won a national championship on really strong defense, a great offensive line, running back in Yohance Humphrey and not turning the ball over, and that was my job. Don’t do anything flashy, just make sure you take care of the football and get victories. I think we, at least in my time there, ended up 27-4 in total, so the philosophy worked.”
MTN Sports: This last summer, we did a series where we looked at some of the best players ever to come out of Montana, talked to former Billings West coach Paul Klaboe about you a little bit. He said, ‘Not the most physically gifted, but that guy is the toughest football player I’ve ever been around.’ When people throw around words — tough, winner — what’s it mean to hear people talk about you in those terms, instead of just talking about being a talented guy out there?
Edwards: “I think knowing that I wasn’t Dave Dickenson and I wasn’t the most gifted quarterback in the world — I didn’t play quarterback until I was a freshman in high school. That’s the way I always prepared myself, was, ‘I better work harder than everybody else, and I better put everything on the line all the time to make sure you get a victory.’ I think that is exactly how I succeeded in getting to where I was in terms of football, is not being afraid of that, and making sure that I was the first one to show up and the last one to leave and work as hard or harder than everybody else and gain your teammates’ respect, and I think I always did that.”
MTN Sports: National title with the Griz, high school state championship at Billings West, first one in program history. Which one means more to you?
Edwards: “You would have to say the college national championship, just for the simple fact that it gets rarer every step you go. Lucky enough to get one at Billings West, which was a blast for coach Klaboe. He had been there a long time and gotten close a couple times but never could get over the bubble. That’s what it needed to turn: West High has won a lot of them since. There’s been a lot of good players. Andrew Selle and guys who have gone on to have great careers at Montana and other colleges, to include the Bobcats. Both of them mean a lot. Just the fact that one more level is a little bit more exclusive was pretty cool.”
MTN Sports: Do you get to watch West at all now that you’re back here in Billings? They won another title this past fall.
Edwards: “We do as much as we can. A very good friend of mine has a son now who’s a freshman at West, so I saw more freshman games than I did varsity, and I plan on watching a lot more. Riley Bergeson is the kid’s name, and he’s going to be a standout for them. It’s fun to have a connection now again. As things move on and you lose those connections, it’s a little bit more difficult to stay in touch. I’ve got a son who plays flag football, so that’s focus No. 1, and that, too.”
MTN Sports: What’s it like being a father?
Edwards: “It’s phenomenal. Every step is rewarding, difficult, and it’s a blast. I love every minute of it, while it’s challenging. Every stage you think, ‘Oh, I’m going to miss this one,’ but every one gets better.”
MTN Sports: When we talk football players, that’s not who you guys are anymore. Who’s John Edwards, who’s Johnny Montana now?
Edwards: “That’s one thing I did realize pretty quick during college football, that I wasn’t going to have a pro career and I wasn’t going to make a living at it. I turned my focus to make sure that I had at least the minimum requirements to get into law school, which I finally did and went to law school. My dad’s an attorney and has been for 40-plus years, I work with my brother, who’s also an attorney here in this office. You’ve got to realize that that’s your next step in life and go for it. One thing that football’s always helped me with is to realize the effort you need to put in to get there. No matter what kind of, whether it’s high school athletics or college athletics, it teaches you those fundamental skills you need to work hard, show up on time, do what you’re told, and it’ll benefit you in life, for sure.”
MTN Sports: Football is kind of under attack right now with concussions, CTE and everything else that goes along with a physical game. When you talk about it, you talk about everything else that it brought to you other than just the game. How important was football to you and still young people that play it now, how important is football to kind of develop those characteristics that lead to successful lives?
Edwards: “Absolutely, and it’s not necessarily related just to football. I think any activity that it is, whether it be dance for girls and boys or soccer or whatever extracurricular activity it may be, those skills are embedded in each one of them. In terms of the issues with football and whether there’s dangers involved, yeah, certainly those still exist. But I think today’s football is much different even from when I was, like you say, 16 years ago removed. It’s a different game, and they’re protecting the players a lot more, and they should. There’s protocols, things like that are much more stringent than they were then, nevertheless 30 years ago and what it was like. They need to do that for the game, it’s a great game, but they’re doing the right things, I think.”
MTN Sports: Any aches and pains that you’re starting to feel the effects of?
Edwards: “Oh yeah, I felt those from Day 1 and have had surgeries to correct it and all of those things. It’s part of the game.”
MTN Sports: You don’t watch West much, going to start watching them more. How about the Griz? How much do you watch those guys?
Edwards: “It was fun. I got an opportunity to do color for a couple years when it was really easy to. Either my kids were really young and they would go with us or my wife and I would go and they were fun weekend trips to Missoula. As any father figures out pretty soon, that comes to a grinding halt. Our weekends now are filled with dance or whatever the soup du jour sport is of the weekend. Catch them on TV when you can, get over to one game and just enjoy the experience, but the priorities in life have definitely taken over.”
MTN Sports: Cat-Griz, do you still watch that one?
Edwards: “Absolutely. It’s been tough to watch the last couple years. This year I didn’t get to watch it. I was actually on a trip and watching it on my phone as the thing was going back and forth, and I called a friend of mine, Casey Ryan, who was in the stadium, and he’s kind of giving me the play-by-play as thing goes down. I thought he was absolutely BSing when he was verbally telling me how this thing went down and obviously wasn’t. I know it’s devastating for those players and it was tough on the program, but give the Cats all the credit in the world. When it comes down to winning the big one, they’re doing it. Leave it to coach Bobby (Hauck) to get them back, and I certainly believe he’s obviously got the ability to do that.”
MTN Sports: That was one more thing I wanted to ask: What was your reaction when they brought coach Hauck back?
Edwards: “Excited. I think coach Hauck brings a level of toughness, discipline. The way he’s come back, he’s handled it extremely professionally. I know I join a lot of the Grizzly fans around Montana and everywhere else that are certainly excited to have him back.”
MTN Sports: You’re obviously a Grizzly now. You grew up a Montana State fan. To see the rivalry just continue to grow like it has and have the added fire of coach Jeff Choate and coach Bobby Hauck, I know you’re not as involved now, but just to see this thing keep escalating and escalating and now have both programs being fairly successful and have these high goals, only good for Montana, right?
Edwards: “Absolutely. I mean, it’s awesome. To think about it where, even where the Big Sky Conference was when I was there, I think we shared or won the Big Sky title every year that I was there. And then go back to Dickenson and all that era, there was a lot in a row. There was a huge discrepancy within the Big Sky, and that doesn’t exist anymore, let alone Montana and Montana State. Now they’re both competitors every year, but all the other schools around the Big Sky are competitors, too. It’s a good brand of football and it’s fun to watch. In terms of for Montanans, we’re all Montanans first and love to see them both succeed. One Saturday a year you want the Grizzlies to beat the Bobcats, but other than that you want them to be successful.”
MTN Sports: Last question for me, non-football one: Best non-football memory other than your wedding, births of your children?
Edwards: “I would say, I’m lucky enough to spend parts of my summer on Swan Lake with my entire family to include my brother and his and my old man and our kids. That’s kind of our place to go. That’s where my memories are and will be, since I was a little boy and hopefully all the way until I’m an old man.”