Brody’s travels: Canadian made Montana his goal early

2011-09-03T05:00:00Z Brody’s travels: Canadian made Montana his goal earlyBy FRITZ NEIGHBOR of the Missoulian missoulian.com
September 03, 2011 5:00 am  • 

Former Eastern Washington quarterback Todd Bernett talked about it, the British Columbia Lions quarterback embodied it, and by the time Brody McKnight was a senior in high school he was sure of it: He was going to be a Griz.

He hadn't seen a Big Sky Conference game or Washington-Grizzly Stadium, but he knew.

"His high school coach (Bernett) had played at Eastern Washington," recalls Jenny McKnight, Brody's mom. "He talked about Big Sky, Big Sky, Big Sky, and how the best place to play was Montana."

This was at Vancouver College Prep in British Columbia, where McKnight graduated in 2007. It didn't hurt that Dave Dickenson, who quarterbacked the Lions to the 2006 Grey Cup, had been a Griz star.

A football player from the eighth grade on - he played corner as well as kicker - McKnight soon found more history. Kris Heppner, Chris Snyder and Dan Carpenter were the last three in a long line of excellent UM kickers. The last two set national scoring records.

So McKnight, named the top kicking prospect in Canada by AP Canadian Gridiron, sent out some tape. Soon, he got a call ... from Carroll College.

The NAIA power in Helena wasn't what McKnight had in mind, but the Saints kept calling and calling until eventually, McKnight said he'd come visit.

And on the way to Helena he had to hit Missoula.

"I told my parents, ‘I want to stop at the University of Montana, just to check it out,' " he said. "The stadium was undergoing construction, and I'm thinking, ‘Man, Carpenter's graduating ... it's a great opportunity.' "

But Montana hadn't called. Carroll had. Soon it was time to go. What happened next surprised his parents.

"We're standing by the big Jumbotron, looking through the fence," said Jenny. "And Brody kept standing there. I was really choked up. He said, ‘I want to play here.' "

McKnight has the same sharp image of that moment, which is odd because Purdue is quite a ways from Big Sky Country. Yet the Big 10 school called up McKnight not long after he committed to Carroll, and that is how his journey to UM went through West Lafayette, Ind.

"It was literally out of nowhere," said McKnight of walking on for the Boilermakers. "I was like, ‘Hmmm. Big 10 school.' They told me I could come and have a chance to play right away, but we don't have a scholarship for you."

McKnight decommitted to Carroll and headed for Indiana.

"I'm in camp, kicking well," McKnight said. "But it turns out this other kid went from line-driving the ball to just bombing it."

Chris Summers, who'd hit just 8 of 20 field goals in 2006, went 18 for 22 in 2007. McKnight traveled with the team, but by the end of September the die was cast: Summers went 4 for 4 against Notre Dame in front of a packed house that included McKnight's parents.

"This guy next to us kept saying, ‘Money in the bank,' " Jenny said. "We went back on the recruiting trail."

In the spring of 2008 a family friend - Miami Dolphins scout Mike Murphy - suggested McKnight try Montana again. Murphy's Dolphins had just signed Carpenter. The job was open.

McKnight got his hands on some practice tape from Purdue and sent it; this time Griz assistant Mike Hudson and head coach Bobby Hauck called.

They were honest: There was no scholarship, but he'd have a chance to earn one, if he won the job.

"There were no false promises," Jenny said.

Idaho State called as well, offering a scholarship. But McKnight's mind was set.

"No," he told his parents. "Let's do Montana."

***

In the fourth game of 2008, McKnight hammered through a 42-yard field goal as time expired to lift Montana past Central Washington, 38-35, and soon the kicking job was his.

In 2009, he pulled the Grizzlies out of a historic upset by hitting a 33-yarder, again as time expired, to beat winless Idaho State, 12-10.

Then there was last year's game at Portland State, when Montana won 23-21 on a 25-yard field goal.

Seems like McKnight would be better suited wearing "00" than the 83 he has on his jersey. Maybe the number represents his top-end heart rate, even when things aren't going well for the Griz.

"I think the best thing to do in those situations is remain calm," he said. "And know that our coaches have instilled that work ethic in us, and that it will reveal itself on the field.

"If you just know that then you'll do better in those kinds of situations."

Anyway, none of those three game-winners are McKnight's favorite. That came in Montana's second game in 2008, against UC Davis.

"I had a partially torn quad," said McKnight. "I was kicking 30-yarders all week, and that was kind of my range. Then in the game Coach Hauck turns around and goes, ‘Field goal!'

"I looked up and it was a 46-yarder. I've got this big wrap on my leg and I'm like, ‘Oh, boy.' "

But McKnight, hopped up on adrenaline, hit it.

"That one really sticks with me," he said. "That was just a great feeling."

***

This will sound made up, but McKnight's first name was nearly "Montana."

"It was a couple days before I was born and it was down to Brody and Montana and the other name was Chris," he said. "I know. Chris, right?"

Jenny said her husband, Kelly, helped decide in favor of Brody. Two syllables were plenty.

"Our daughter (Kelsey) has a two-syllable name," she added. "It's kind of a silly criterion, but it seemed to work."

It's another reason, perhaps, that McKnight was destined to wear maroon and silver.

Whatever the case, he's been a good fit. He has hit 38 of 59 field goals for the Griz - both numbers rank fourth in UM history - and scored 271 points.

He's fit in, smiling through chants of "USA! USA!" from his teammates while booming kicks and, when called upon, punts. He took over the punting duties when Sean Wren slumped last season and for his efforts was named co-MVP for the Grizzlies. The other co-MVP was Chase Reynolds.

Such respect cuts both ways. In 2009, McKnight politely refused when Hauck asked him to carry the American flag out of the tunnel before one game.

"I didn't know if guys would feel comfortable with it," said McKnight, smiling. "I'm Canadian, but I have the utmost respect for this country, and I didn't know if that was in their best interest."

Jenny McKnight saw it differently. This is, she reasoned, the Land of Opportunity. Her son had gotten the one he'd always hoped for, in American football.

A year later, at Pflugrad's asking, McKnight led the team out of the tunnel holding the Stars and Stripes aloft. He hadn't told his parents.

"I thought I'd surprise them," he said.

Then he did.

Fritz Neighbor can be reached at 523-5247 or at fneighbor@missoulian.com.

 

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