Bignells' big weekend / Brothers, cousins to vie for state titles
Hall rancher and former Montana State University football player Joe Bignell is headed to Sheridan on Saturday to cheer on his two sons, Parker and Nate, who are members of the Drummond team playing in the state Class C championship. This weekend, Bignell's nephew will be on the sidelines for the Bobcats in Bozeman, and other family members will represent high school teams in Hysham and Helena.
Photo by LINDA THOMPSON/Missoulian

Joe Bignell knows big football weekends.

A rancher in Hall these days, Big Joe tore through the record books in his playing days at Deer Lodge and Montana State.

He played in one state championship game for the Wardens, and won the 1984 Division I-AA national title with the Bobcats.

But even he's never seen a Bignell weekend like this one.

Bignell's sons, sophomore Parker and freshman Nate, are part of the legend-building Drummond team that goes to Sheridan on Saturday to play for its fourth state Class C championship in five years.

They are just two of Samuel "Butch" Bignell's six great-grandsons on teams playing in three of the five state high school title games Friday night and Saturday.

A seventh, Joe's nephew Clay Bignell, is redshirting in his first year at MSU. He'll be on the sideline in Bozeman on Saturday for the 107th Grizzly-Bobcat Brawl of the Wild.

Butch Bignell's bloodlines branch even further into title game territory: His great-grand-nephew is Levi Coughlin, who scored two fourth-quarter touchdowns for Drummond last week in a semifinal win at Wibaux.

The Bignell championship game rundown:

Brian Bignell, a senior defensive lineman, will play in his third Class AA title game Friday night when his Helena Capital Bruins host Billings Senior. His cousin, junior Carter Bignell, is also on the Capital squad.

Joe's two sons and their cousin, freshman Tyrell Bignell, will suit up for Drummond in the eight-man title clash in Sheridan.

Reid Fleming, whose grandmother Betty Lou was Butch Bignell's daughter, is a junior running back for Augusta. The Elks travel to Hysham for the six-man championship Saturday.

Brian Bignell figures to be the busiest of the bunch. A second-team all-state defensive end for Class AA champion Capital last year, the 6-foot-2, 205-pound Bignell has piqued the interest of recruiters from both MSU and UM.

Fleming, a 5-8 fullback and outside linebacker, scored three touchdowns in Augusta's 66-26 semifinal win over North Star. But with a relief man ready to take his spot late in the game, Fleming blew out a knee. He'll make the trip to Hysham on crutches.

Drummond's Bignells are sophomores and freshmen on Jim Oberweiser's senior-dominated Trojan team. Most of their football was played on the JV team this season. Parker Bignell, a 6-2 sophomore, is Coughlin's backup at offensive end.

Brian Bignell crosses the Continental Divide each day to get to school in Helena from Avon, where he and Clay grew up. His father Jim is Joe's older brother, as is John, who also ranches near Avon. Carter, a reserve as a junior for Capital, is John and Tana's son.

Jim, John and Joe Bignell were among seven kids who kept the family ranch going after their father, Sam, died in a tractor accident in 1969. The family moved into Deer Lodge when their mother, Lue, remarried but spent weekends and summers on the ranch.

It was a family of competitive athletes.

"That's one way I got out of work," Joe joked. "We always packed a football along. We'd be working on a fence and start throwing the football and pretty soon we were in a heavy game."

His brothers played football for Deer Lodge but made bigger marks in rodeo, capturing a team-roping title on the Montana Pro Rodeo circuit.

Joe was the biggest of the three - 6-foot-4 by his junior year in high school. And he was athletic, scoring more than 1,500 points in his prep basketball career.

He kicked a field goal in overtime to beat Conrad in the 1979 Class A football semifinals. That propelled the Wardens, 0-8 the previous season, into the state championship game in their first year under coach Steve Okoniewski.

Sandwiched by two defenders, Bignell hauled in an alley-oop pass from quarterback Jimmy Hendricks and kicked the extra point for Deer Lodge's only points in a 14-7 loss at Whitefish.

The Wardens returned to Whitefish for the semifinals in Bignell's senior year and lost again. But his big-game experience wasn't over.

Some of his better performances as a tight end for the Bobcats came in four games against the Grizzlies.

"I think growing up I was always a Bobcat fan, and I had to battle my classmates all the time over who was better," Bignell explained. "I just knew the importance of that game. I seemed to be able to raise my play up because of that excitement."

As a senior at MSU in 1984, he and quarterback Kelly Bradley led the Bobcats back from a halftime deficit in Missoula to beat the Grizzlies 34-24. Bignell caught a school-record 13 passes in the game and scored a touchdown on a plunge specially designed for him, called "Big Special."

"I remember them blitzing a lot, and I was usually the hot read when they blitzed," he said. "That's why I got so many catches."

Still, his best was yet to come.

The Bobcats bounced back from a one-win season in 1983 to march all the way to the I-AA championship game in '84. There Bignell caught 10 passes, two for Montana State's only touchdowns, and the Bobcats dumped Louisiana Tech 19-6 in Charleston, S.C.

It was his last game in a football uniform. Now his sons, Parker and Nate, get their first chance to pull on the pads in a championship atmosphere.

"They're excited," Joe said the other day. "I was just talking to Parker. He's disappointed he didn't get in last week, but I tried to explain the importance of getting (the older players) ready. I said, 'Your job's during the week, not during the game.' "

His sons don't turn fencing jobs into football games, Bignell said. "They try to, but I don't let them, at least as much as we did."

But they still play lots of ball.

"We're always throwing the football around. They've probably caught a million balls by now," Joe said. "One of them knocked out a couple of church windows playing football."

Dad's the quarterback in the backyard games.

"My favorite saying is, 'You've got to catch the ball, son,' " Bignell said with a laugh.

Some day their chances may come, though championship games are nothing to take for granted - even in Drummond.

Win or lose in Hysham, Helena, Bozeman or Sheridan, the Bignell clans will talk about this weekend for a long time.

Reporter Kim Briggeman can be reached at 523-5266 or at

Butch's boys

Here are the six great-grandsons of the late Samuel "Butch" Bignell, as well as his great-grand-nephew Levi Coughlin, who'll be involved in state championship football games Friday and Saturday (parents and hometowns in parentheses).

Helena Capital (AA)

- Brian Bignell, senior nose guard (Jim and Carrie, Avon)

- Carter Bignell, junior safety (John and Tana, Avon)

Drummond (C)

- Levi Coughlin, junior end (Gene and Lynn, Helmville)

- Parker Bignell, sophomore end (Joe and Patti, Hall)

- Nate Bignell, freshman end (Joe and Patti, Hall)

- Tyrell Bignell, freshman back (Sam and Lisa, Helmville)

Augusta (six-man)

- Reid Fleming, junior back (Larry and Kathy)

Note: Larry Fleming, Sam Bignell and the Bignell brothers - Jim, John, and Joe - are grandsons of Butch Bignell.

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