As is bound to happen when talking sports, the topic of Montana Grizzlies football made friends of two strangers Tuesday when head coach Mick Delaney visited Earl Bilbrey.

That’s not to say 77-year-old Bilbrey didn’t have some advice for Delaney.

“You guys have got to score from the 1-yard line,” Bilbrey said, good naturedly referring to a play during last week’s game.

Bilbrey has been a Griz fan for decades.

Now in hospice care at Bee Hive Homes, he lived in Yuma, Ariz., and spent 30 years as an agriculture inspector before moving to Missoula several years ago. When his daughter, Melanie Pettit, moved to Montana more than 20 years ago, Bilbrey and his wife, Audrey, came to visit and quickly discovered the Grizzlies.

“I didn’t realize that this Montana wasn’t just a cowboy state,” he said.

“It’s a football state,” Delaney agreed.

For Bilbrey’s daughter, Delaney’s visit provided a glimpse of the father she remembers before dementia, diabetes and heart disease took their toll.

“It’s one of the happiest events we’ve probably had in three years,” Pettit said, thanking Rocky Mountain Hospice for setting up the meeting.

Bilbrey used to embarrass her by coming to all of her flag football games, Pettit said, adding the two have shared football throughout her life.

Talking about football still perks up her father, even while he deals with his health issues and his change in housing, she said. “That’s where his memories are. So if you can tap into him, that’s where the clarity is.”

Bilbrey said he started playing football as a young boy in 1941, but was too small for long-term success on the field. His size didn’t stunt his love of the sport, and he coached and attended games in Arizona and California for years.

His attachment to the Grizzlies stems from how many players are from the state and the region, he said. “I just love this football team because it seems like they’re a home team.”

Although he hasn’t been able to watch the Griz play live this year, Bilbrey still follows them on TV and said he’s looking forward to Saturday’s game.

“We’ll see if we can play well for you this Saturday,” Delaney told him before going to practice.

Delaney’s visit was wonderful, Bilbrey said, but a Griz win against Eastern Washington University on Saturday will be even better.

Reporter Alice Miller can be reached at 523-5251 or at alice.miller@missoulian.com.

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