A Moveable Montana
Finding a Big Sky State of Mind at Griz/Cat Satellite Parties
Illustrations by Bob Zingmark
Washington, D.C.: Beltway Bonding
Story By Sanjay Talwani
Vegas: Hold the Gold Lamé
Story by Paddy MacDonald
Washington, D.C.: Beltway Bonding
story By Sanjay Talwani
I planned to be early to the Griz-Cat satellite party, but when I arrive—in plenty of time for the disastrous opening kickoff return—there’s hardly a seat in the place. “I had no idea there were this many people from Montana,” a non-Montanan tells me. “Not just in D.C. I mean anywhere.” An estimated 140 souls—more than the population of some Montana towns—turn up for this year’s shocking, once-unimaginable second straight victory by the Cats.
On my way to Joe Theisman’s Restaurant in Alexandria, Virginia, just a few miles from downtown Washington, D.C., I see others moving lemming-like toward the establishment, wearing Grizzly sweatshirts like mine. Once in the big, bright room of wood tables and bar—more like the Depot or the Iron Horse than like Al and Vic’s or Red’s—it’s a blur of maroon and silver, blue and gold, and familiar-seeming faces. People who look healthy even with decent-sized beer guts. People whose faces still carry a Montana sort of openness, not the airs typical of a Washington crowd. And for a bunch of young professional-looking types mingling at a bar inside the Capital Beltway, most seem relaxed.
Navigating to a spot at a table, I wind up among people with different levels of connection to Montana. I spent about ten years in the state, including a bout with journalism school at UM and stints with the Whitefish Pilot and the Great Falls Tribune. I’m married to a Montana native and two-time offender at UM. Among us are longtime Washingtonians, people who left Montana half a century ago and still make it to this game, chatting it up with those who grew up in a much-changed Montana and only left it in the past year or two. It’s a party where most people already seem to know many others and most people aren't staying at one table. It’s a rare atmosphere where it’s okay to start up a conversation with just about anybody.
Here, when people say they’re from Manhattan or Harlem, no one thinks of New York. With this crowd, Great Falls is a major city, not a pair of towns in Virginia and Maryland. And although at this game, the wounded cries began with the disaster on the opening kickoff, most folks are thrilled just to be among a crowd that isn’t terrified by a half-inch of snow.
“For me, it’s just great to be around Montanans,” says National Guardsman Lieutenant Tracy “Trak” Swanson of Fort Belknap, now stationed in Virginia. He’s at the game with his wife and two-year-old daughter, Abigail Montana Swanson. “I feel like I’m back home for two or three hours,” he says.
The folks here have plenty in common beyond Montana: They’ve moved, transferred, or been stationed to a place that could hardly be more different than many of their former haunts. One Griz pointed out that suburban Fairfax County, Virginia, where he now lives, has more people than all Montana. Most here have left family, friends, good skiing, and low population density for a different world and its opportunities. Said one transplant: “There aren’t too many jobs in international development in Missoula.”
Many of us work in government, the military, law, or communication. But for all our relative success (most I talked to claimed they had jobs), the turnout at Griz-Cat demonstrates that hundreds of hearts remain in the Rockies and the prairies.
We of the Montana diaspora chuckle when friends back home whine about traffic or parking, just as they get to laugh at us when we talk about Washington winters.
I must confess: when I lived in Montana, I wasn’t a big football fan. But since moving away I’ve caught three games in three Novembers. I’ve found old friends I didn’t know were in the area. I’ve heard gossip about people I’d barely thought about for years. I’ve run into people I knew from different parts of our lives, several jobs and pounds ago.
Although it’s a war on the field, here the two sides have a lot more in common with each other than with the rest of the big city.
Mike Stone displays the bond between the schools, wearing both Griz and Bobcat logos. He’s sent a kid to each school and earned degrees himself from each. He’s also an Army Reserve colonel and Assistant Secretary of Defense for Reserve Affairs.
“I’m just having a good time,” he says.
Whenever former Montanans meet somewhere outside the state, much of the conversation revolves around upcoming trips and moves back, for the holidays or for good. Stone’s a step ahead of most—in six years, he says, he’s moving to Bigfork. He already has the house.
To judge by the growing attendance at the Griz-Cat game, more and more of us are landing in Washington. Dawn Dohrmann, who gave me the 140 figure cited earlier, organizes the broadcast for the Montana Society, which, like the game crowd, consists of those who claim some association or other with the state. Joe Theisman’s Bar is working out well enough to probably be the venue for the foreseeable future. It’s big enough and staff members get into the spirit themselves, donning Cat and Griz clothes.
The Montana Society is independent from any Montana school, although it works closely with the alumni associations of both UM and MSU for events like this one. Still, this game is more a reunion of a state than of two universities. Several people here attended neither school, and well-known Montanans can sometimes be spotted—U.S. Senator Conrad Burns and former Governor Marc Racicot among them.
But beyond our Montana affiliations, the people chewing on wings and bacon-bleu cheeseburgers while draining beers also share the experience of living and working in Washington. We’ve all made something of a transition from one special place to another. The result is an environment where one doesn’t feel odd about mingling with strangers—even those from the other school. Meet someone new here and likely as not he or she was a student of the professor who used to hunt with the cousin of a guy you once sold a truck to.
We all share the experience of having our fellow workaday Washingtonians ask, bewildered and envious, why it was we ever left Montana. (Though others wonder how we could stand it for even a minute.) Once in Washington, I met a man from Helena, successful and wealthy, who admonished me, in a nearly desperate voice, to leave Washington as soon as I possibly could and return to Montana. The longer you stay, he said, the harder it will be to return, the harder it will be to remember what it was you valued.
But for most watching the game in the bar, that still leaves them plenty of time. Watching the game today is a pair that attended high school in Billings a few years ago. Cory Kambak then went to MSU and transferred to American University; Eli Patten transferred from UM to George Washington University. Reunited in Washington, they have a friend along who has no connection to Montana but believed his buddies when they told him the game would be a good time.
These guys seem pretty happy with life in the city. As they cheer for opposing teams, they don’t seem especially troubled by being away from Montana, although they allow that they miss the mountains. I see, in any case, that they’re keeping up with old friends: During some high-drama moment in the game, one grabs his cell phone and calls his buddy who is attending the game in Bozeman so they can experience the moment together, although it’s unclear what they’re able to say or hear over the din.
Last year’s shocker brought repeatedly loud howls from both sides and increasing amusement from restaurant staff and non-partisans. When a key late play went against the Griz and appeared to seal their fate in 2002, cheers and shouts from the Bobcats gave way to a shocked silence. That’s when a UMer summed it up by bellowing a single, one-word obscenity. This year I hear someone shout, “If this happens two years in a row I’m going to &*%#ing kill myself.”
The jaws of defeat are flexing and a person strikes up a conversation with a serious fan during a key down at one’s peril. At the games, the schools cheer from opposite sides of the field. Here, there’s cheering and cursing at the same table. The rivals are side-by-side and offering plenty of ribbing (One joke: How do you get an MSU grad to leave your porch? Pay him for the pizza.).
How serious do Griz take their football? One Montana friend, on assignment in Washington this fall, dropped by to use my computer and Internet connection several Saturdays running after he discovered that Griz games could be seen on it in live, streaming video. (The picture was small and low-quality and sometimes the video froze and the audio description continued on; sometimes the connection was lost altogether, but it provided enough information to follow the game.)
Today, as we lurch toward another loss to the Cats, I realize that Andy Larson, who has been sitting nearby for much of the game, used to be one of the players receiving the cheers; he kicked the winning field goal with 39 seconds left against Marshall University in 1995 (and its now-pro quarterback, Chad Pennington), winning the Grizzlies their first national championship and changing forever the way football is seen in Montana.
This year, he’s watching the game slip away, pondering with many others the tough reality of losing twice in a row after a sixteen-year winning streak, and how, apparently, not all’s perfect with the football program.
Larson wishes he could be at the game; he catches the local showing every year and is glad he can. Despite living and working in the Washington area, his allegiance is clear. At this game, as old contacts are renewed and we realize how many Washingtonians among us are really Montanans, he holds his toddler up toward the television and makes sure she understands that she’s watching Griz football.
Sanjay Talwani attended UM’s School of Journalism in 1996 and 1997 and now works for the U.S. Senate. He and his wife, Danna Jackson ’93, J.D. ’96, live in Alexandria, Virginia, less than a mile from Joe Thiesman’s Restaurant.
Vegas: Hold the Gold Lamé
Story by Paddy MacDonald
One-armed bandits and video poker machines, arranged in groupings like sofas in a doctor’s office, set a come-hither tone in the Las Vegas airport. The aura of easy money—pulsing lights, spinning drums, tumbling coins—beckons as we disembark our plane.
Nah, I think, as I march past temptation. No gambling for me. I’m not here to squander my retirement account playing “Betty Boop” and seven-card hold ’em. My mission is to attend the Griz-Cat satellite party, watch UM stomp its bete noire, Montana State University, and record the snazzy, decadent, uniquely Las Vegas ambience I’m certain to find.
But that’s not what happened.
First of all, Las Vegas has cleaned up its act. Somewhat. In my memories, Sin City throbs with excess and vice: sharkskin-suited men sporting pinkie rings toss handfuls of dice and peel thousand-dollar bills from thick wads of cash; diamond-brooched women with lacquered beehives wave ivory cigarette holders as they scratch their blackjack cards on green felt tables, signaling for another hit. Showgirls, mobsters, movie stars. All that jazz.
At first glance, the throngs of people I see mobbing the streets and casinos are mostly young families: stroller-pushing fathers in Dockers and baseball caps check their cigarette-pack-sized personal computers for e-mail messages; their hip-hugger-clad wives, with red leather baby bags slung over one shoulder and fleece-clad infants nestled against the other, talk into cell phones while eyeing boutique store windows crammed with Dolce & Gabbana gowns and Prada stilettos.
I move further up the Strip, which appears to be less baby-intensive.
Within seconds the ambience changes. Shifty-eyed men thrust flyers into my hands, Jerry Seinfeld tells jokes from a plasma-screen billboard, and five-story fountains sway to Debussy as impassive, stone-faced sphinxes gaze over my head. Multi-colored volcanoes erupt, gondoliers sing, and sirens blare.
Now you’re talking!
Welcome to Vegas, I tell myself, taking note of the two women walking ahead of me clad in matching black satin jackets, sipping from their “Yard O’ Margueritas,” a popular Vegas libation, second only to “Yard O’ Beer.” I’m slightly disappointed when I notice that the gold lamé script across the women’s backs reads “Lumbertown Cloggers from Muskegan, MI.”
An hour before game time, I hail a taxi and head for the Torrey Pines Pub, site of the Griz-Cat party. Blinking at the raw, steel-blue sky, I emerge from the cab and pay the driver. Picture a middle-aged woman—a middle-aged, left-handed woman—with her broken left arm in a brace, hauling a black leather, wheeled duffel bag stuffed with plastic footballs, several dozen Grizzly-logo lanyards, and three boxes of ten-ounce,“family-sized” Hershey bars with Monte, UM’s mascot, on the labels.
I pull tentatively on the pub’s latch and the heavy oak door seems to blast open—ka-blam!—on the adrenalin-pumping, fever-rousing power of “Let’s Get Ready to Rumble.”
Forward motion presents a problem. Torrey Pines Pub rocks—crammed to the support beams with an in-your-face, full-court body-press of UM alums, MSU alums, Montanans, Montana wannabes, and their parents, children, in-laws, cousins, and friends. I’m awash in a roiling, teeming, maroon-and-grey tsunami of grizzly bear T-shirts, UM baseball caps, pompoms, pennants, banners, beads, bomber jackets, and Go Griz! sweatshirts. Through the dim, smoke-shrouded interior light I also notice small clusters of blue-and-gold flotsam. Poor babies.
Torrey Pines consists of two rooms—one small and quiet, the other large and noisy. I assume the small, quiet room to be Bobcat territory, and the bigger, rowdy room Griz country, but upon closer inspection, I conclude that the smaller room holds, regardless of loyalties, the early-birds and the serious eaters. They watch the game while dining at festively-decorated tables that groan under the weight of cheeseburgers the size of waffle irons, huge, piping bowls of chili, and whole broiled chickens. The larger room, ringed with TV screens, houses the finger-food-eaters, who juggle quesadillas, buffalo wings, and baskets of garlic fries.
Hmm. My eyes, raking the rooms, cannot locate so much as one lousy sequin or feather boa. No lamé. No lounge lizards, parlor snakes, rhinestone cowboys, or cigar-chomping bookies.
As I shuffle through the exuberant fans, lugging my suitcase—which by now is as big a pain-in-the-neck a recalcitrant basset hound—I realize that I’d give my kingdom, had I one, for a barstool, or my first-born male child for a flat writing surface. Also, I’m feeling rather like a Jughead, as I discover that I may be the only one in the entire bar not wearing logo.
No sooner am I acclimated than it’s kick-off time, followed seconds later by a ninety-yard Bobcat touchdown. “Bo-o-o-o-o-o-o-o!” holler the majority of bar patrons, en masse, shock and outrage contorting their faces—while Bobcat fans pump their blue-and-gold-clad arms and wave their MSU pennants.
A self-possessed man behind the bar draws a beer with one eye on the screen. Freeze frame in mid-pour; he sets the glass down and grabs a hand mike.
“Fuh-her-r-r-r-r-r-r-rst duh-ho-w-w-w-w-w-wn!” the man booms, sounding astonishingly similar to UM’s regular game announcer, Peter Christian—and the racket crescendos. He flips a dial and the clamor cranks up another notch as “Cotton-eyed Joe,” that ubiquitous Texas two-step, blasts from multiple wall speakers.
This guy controls the crowd’s mood swings, sound decibels, and energy level, wielding his music and microphone like a cattle prod. This guy is The Man, the Honcho, the Wizard of Oz back there behind the bar. Who is this guy?
“Bobby Bonner,” he says, gripping my hand. “I own the place.”
Neither an alumnus nor a Montanan, Bonner first secured the satellite coordinates for the UM/MSU clash more than ten years ago at the request of two Montana ex-patriots, Pete Marinkovich and Dave Kearns.
“That first year we had five fans watching the game,” Bonner says. Recognizing the lucrative business potential, Bonner expanded his Griz game coverage to include the entire season and now snags an average of seventy fans each Saturday. Earlier this year, Bonner organized a bus trip to the Northern Arizona game. Thirty Griz supporters made the 250-mile trek to Flagstaff. “And we still had another thirty watching the game here at the bar,” Bonner says.
The charismatic, good-humored Philadelphia native has gone beyond the pale to create a chunk of Montana here in mid-desert. Grizzly memorabilia—including a piece of the goal post from the 2001 national championship—rest behind the bar, and photos and posters, along with a neon “Home of the Grizzlies” beer sign, cover the walls.
Bonner has made special trips to Missoula, observing and soaking in the UM stadium atmosphere, which he recreates every week for the fans via his Peter Christian take-off and recorded Griz-fan favorites like “Who Let the Dogs Out?”
I spot familiar faces across the room: Ed Wells, a Missoula restauranteur, and his wife, Evonne, an attorney. In town to celebrate their sixteenth wedding anniversary, the Wellses booked a Town Car, a fountain-view room at Bellagio, dinner for two at Agua, a tony new eatery, and third-row center tickets for “Mystique,” one of Las Vegas’s most sought-after shows. And yet . . . here they are at Torrey Pines. I have to ask why.
They both look at me as though I’ve burned a synapse. “We’re here,” Evonne explains, in a voice reserved for small children—or narcolepsy victims—“because it’s the Griz-Cat game. I haven’t missed it since I was nineteen.” Ed pipes in: “We came right from the airport.”
I’m dealing with some major fans here. Time to break out the booty. My intention is to dole out the trinkets strategically, using them as bargaining power: one Grizzly football for a highly quotable bon mot. Two Monte Hershey bars for a Captain’s chair and some fightin’ room. Half a dozen lanyards for a couple of those Cajun catfish bites I keep noticing everywhere, and so on.
But that’s not what happened.
A young man—not an unattractive one, by the way—sees what I’m doing and sidles up.
“I’m Lars Schindler,” he says, smiling. “Schindler, as in ‘the list.’”
Not only is Lars good-looking in a blond, blue-eyed, young-guy sort of way, but he also has a certain ethereal quality, that je ne sais quoi—in other words, he actually peels those baby blues away from the TV screen for a few blessed seconds and focuses on me. Talks to me. Of his own free will!
Alas, he has an agenda—and after all, who among us doesn’t?
“I’m a totally random Grizzly fan,” he says. “Load me up, girlfriend.” Lars’ moxie and charm pay off. He walks away with a Trifecta—Monte Bar, lanyard, and Grizzly football.
A pass is called back. “A-a-a-a-a-a-a-aw!” The ref blasts his whistle. “Bo-o-o-o-o-o-o-o!” The tight end hesitates. “Ru-u-u-u-n, you idiot!” The wide receiver fumbles. “Throw the bum out!” United, intense, and focused, the fans out-strategize the coach, out-pass the quarterback, and out-sack the tackle.
Nonetheless, at halftime we’re down 13-10.
“Muh-hi-i-i-i-i-i-i-ike Thuh-ho-o-o-o-olt!” Bonner bellows during the halftime raffle drawing, and a tall, pony-tailed fellow bounds up to the bar and collects his prize—a beer cooler.
Two men hunch together at the bar, discussing the relative merits of Montana Tech versus UM. Others circulate the room, hunting down old friends. “I just ran into my Sentinel High School football coach,” says Ed Wells. “We played rugby together twenty years ago,” says Ian Christopherson, a Las Vegas attorney, gesturing toward Pat Tresch. “Yeah, Bobby’s got it down,” Tresch says, of the bar owner. “But he doesn’t serve brains and eggs yet.”
Damn the luck . . . .
Darren Cate, a Las Vegas financial consultant, asks for news about his parents’ old college friends. “What’s Milt Datsopoulos doing these days?” he asks. Today? Same thing you are, bud. Watching the game.
A long, skinny table faces the largest TV screen. Seated are Griz fans Bernie and Dick Beighle, on their way home to Montana from an Arizona vacation; Greg Garrison and his father, Chuck—both local businessmen; and Polly Jorgenson and Katherine Lightner, Las Vegas-area school teachers.
“We got here at seven forty-five to get these seats,” Polly says.
“He’s got a hurt foot!” hollers Katherine, shaking a fist at the screen. “Take’im out!” A woman behind me nudges my arm and gestures toward a round-top table. “See that guy sitting over there?” she says, sotto voce. “He knows Monte.”
“Well, actually,” I say, “I’ve met Monte myself. Sort of.” The woman is unimpressed. “No,” she says. “You don’t understand. That guy’s a friend of Monte’s. Monte sent him here with footballs.” Footballs, big deal, I’m thinking. I’ve got a whole suitcase full of ’em.
“Signed footballs,” the woman adds, then, as if she’s proved her point, turns back to the game, now in its second half. I sneak a look at Monte’s friend, sitting there, all smug, with his footballs. Oh, excuse me. Signed footballs.
My attention shifts to the nearest television screen, where I see trouble in paradise. The Bobcats have a 20-10 lead.
“Uh-oh,” says Evonne Wells. “Things are gonna get hostile.”
But that’s not what happened.
Out here in desert country, the fans seem satisfied just to be, for a while, Montanans. Out here, winning or losing may just be secondary.
“It’s a little piece of home,” Polly Jorgensen says. “People just like us,” adds a tiny blonde woman standing next to Lars Schindler.
“Look! We got a whole wall of Anacondans here,” says Pete Marinkovich, who started it all eleven years ago.
A final whistle ends the game and the Griz lose 27-20. The fans are dignified and civil as they gather up jackets and purses. That is, except for the Bobcat prancing through the bar wearing a hat he made out of a rolled-up paper placemat and a blue-and-gold pompom—a peculiar amalgam of chef’s toque and Shriner’s fez. “Po-o-or Grizzlies,” he sings, headgear teetering as he navigates the room.
No one even trips him.
“It seems sort of mean that we have to lose,” Bonner says, shaking his head as he swipes a rag across the bar top. Mean. Hmm. I guess it is a little mean, come to think of it. As I head for the door, a rosy-cheeked young fellow waves a plastic football in my face.
“Will you sign this for me?” he asks.
You betcha. I grab his proffered felt pen and sign with a flourish. The fellow examines the ball, then raises his eyes.
“Jeepers. Thanks, Monte,” he breathes.
It was nothing, kid. Nothing at all.
Paddy O’Connell MacDonald, M.A.’81, is a writer and editor for UM’s University Relations and a frequent contributor to the Montanan.
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