Marc Mariani

Marc Mariani checks in at No. 1 on Missoulian columnist Bill Speltz's list of all-time favorite Montana Grizzlies to watch.

MISSOULIAN FILE

My first decade at the Missoulian has been a wild, wonderful ride.

Granted, it's not exactly 10 years. There was that one-month sabbatical in 2014 involving a sports editor job in southern California and some silly decision-making on my part.

Hey, a little crazy can be a good thing. Priceless perspective was my reward, followed by a second chance at the most captivating job I've ever held.

Recently an old friend posed a poignant sports question on Facebook: Who are your top five all-time favorite pro athletes to watch? By the time you're done answering you might learn something about yourself.

Remember now, we're not talking about the greatest ever. You know the way sports writers turn into accountants and lawyers when making best-ever lists, barfing up stats and historical anecdotes to look smart.

We're just talking pure entertainment value. My all-time list includes John McEnroe, Brett Favre, Sugar Ray Leonard, Larry Bird and Reggie Jackson. I guess it tells me I enjoy rude brats, gun-slinging divas, showmen, slow white guys with basketball imagination and cocky baseball players.

I'll take it a step farther and challenge everyone out there to list your five all-time favorite Montana Grizzly athletes to watch.

My list is probably going to look different than yours because my sample size is 10 years. I couldn't get many Montana games on cable in the Midwest in the 80s and 90s.

That means Dave Dickenson, Shannon (Cate) Schweyen and Micheal Ray Richardson are not on my list. Maybe that's a good thing because it makes for more of a challenge.

For me there's no ex-Grizzly quite like the little man from Havre, former football walk-on Marc Mariani. And not because I watched the wide receiver break Montana's single-season school record for receiving yards or career record for receiving touchdowns.

It's the way he returned punts and kickoffs. He looked as if he was riding a motor scooter and everyone else was hoofing it. My mind drifts back to that afternoon in 2008 when the Grizzlies exploded out of the tunnel in old-school copper jerseys and Mariani made Montana State look like middle-schoolers with a 75-yard punt return in the first quarter.

Grizzlies 35, Cats 3. It was a terrific springboard to the FCS championship game in Chattanooga, where I saw Mariani make the greatest diving catch by a college player I've ever seen.

The quarterback that season is second on my list of the most entertaining Grizzlies I've watched. You won't see his name atop any list of all-time Montana stat leaders, but Cole Bergquist was clutch.

To fully appreciate what this Houdini in cleats was able to do, you have to take into consideration the meat-and-potatoes offense he directed. Time after time the Grizzlies would run on first and second down and Bergquist would bail them out — either with his right arm or his legs — on third-and-7.

Anyone remember that overcast day in Washington-Grizzly Stadium when he delivered a do-or-die fourth-down pass over the middle to a diving Ryan Bagley with under 2 minutes left? Remember how it foiled Eastern Washington's upset bid?

It wasn't just Bergquist's wins that were impressive. It was his courage.

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I was on the sidelines for that FCS title game against Richmond on Dec. 19, 2008. Bergquist played in pain most of the way after taking a vicious shot to the thigh in the first quarter from defensive end (and future NFL player) Lawrence Sidbury. It resulted in a bruise the size of South Dakota but Cole still managed to throw for 267 yards.

Rounding out my list of all-time favorite Montana athletes to watch are Mandy Morales, Will Cherry and, in a show of love for the so-called secondary sports, former Griz tennis No. 1 Carl Kuschke.

I saw Cherry outplay future NBA first-round draft pick Damian Lillard one day in a Montana win over Weber State at Dahlberg Arena. That's all I need to write about him.

Morales did things for the Lady Griz I haven't seen since, driving the lane with a smooth style that made her appear to be in slow motion. The Billings native played from 2005 to 2009 and finished as the second-leading scorer in team history despite foot problems that plagued her entire college career.

For me Kuschke was the perfect example of all that is good in mid-major athletics. An honor student majoring in finance, he didn't fit the prototype of a No. 1 college tennis player with his small stature. He made up for it with heart and rare competitive fire.

Carl wasn't on the Grizzly team that finally broke through and earned an NCAA tournament bid in 2014. But you better believe he helped set a foundation with his leadership, making all his teammates feel important from the seniors down to the walk-on freshmen.

I know because my son was one of those walk-on freshmen. His brief but memorable experience as a Grizzly is one of many reasons the Maroon & Silver will forever hold a special place in my heart, whether I'm here another 10 years or 10 days.

Email Bill Speltz at bill.speltz@406mtsports.com or follow him on Twitter at @billspeltz.

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