Blaine Wright took a birthday trip to the bear in the heart of Washington-Grizzly Stadium and the crowd roared to see him back.
The last time he tried to get there nearly killed him.
A year ago, the veteran Silvertip Skydiver caught a bad wind gust during his pregame parachute jump. Instead of crashing into the crowd, he swerved for the only bit of open grass he could see, on the southeast edge of the stadium. His chute grazed a tree and collapsed, dropping him 40 feet onto a concrete retaining wall. The impact broke 19 bones. Shattering his pelvis tore so many blood vessels, he nearly bled to death internally. It took six months before he could get out of bed.
“This is a significant day,” Wright said on Saturday just before walking out to the center of the 50-yard line. “It gives me a chance to acknowledge the support of the crowd. But it’s also a day to get through.”
Wright said the support of University of Montana Grizzly fans, hundreds of whom wrote him get-well letters, was crucial to his recovery. He wrote back to every person who wrote him; one of the few things he could do during months of recovery.
“In the last couple months, he’s been saying it (the accident) was one of the best things that ever happened in his life,” friend Jill Frazier said. “It’s strengthened his relationships with people. It’s given him new perspectives. But he wasn’t sure how he’d feel about walking out there again after so many years of making grand entrances.”
Wright started skydiving in 1974. He made his first jump into a Grizzly football game at Dornblaser Field in 1976. By last Oct. 29, he had more than 3,000 jumps in his log, including 100 into Washington-Grizzly Stadium. That day, he was the lead skydiver for the Silvertips, responsible for gauging conditions and scouting the best landing path to the bear.
“It’s an expert skydive,” Wright said. “Hitting a football field is not that tough. Hitting the bear is tougher. And I hit the bear 90 percent of the time.”
But landing in a high-walled stadium by the mouth of wind-swept Hellgate Canyon adds complexity to the jump. And that day, swirly winds and a bad call from the ground crew pushed Wright into an impossible situation.
“When you turn in on your final approach, you’re a few seconds off the ground,” he said. “There’s no good out if something’s gone wrong.”
Wright vaguely remembers the hazards rushing at him – the sea of spectators ahead, the tailgate campers aside, and a little strip of grass between the stadium and Mount Sentinel that seemed the only place where he’d hurt no one but himself. As it happened, he knocked over one 6-year-old girl by the tree. She was uninjured.
The impact and subsequent medical treatment was so traumatic he has no memory of the landing. In fact, he has little recollection of anything until two weeks later, when he found himself in a Seattle hospital bed with a broken body.
Months of healing, followed by even more time in physical therapy, followed. Wright returned to his Whitefish home, but found himself withdrawing from the world.
“I went into exile for months,” he said. “I just didn’t want to face people. The whole thing with a near-death experience does change your perspective. I’m feeling awfully cautious about a lot of things. Skydiving doesn’t have much significance to me right now. I might not jump again.”
The continuing support of family, friends and fans helped reopen the windows of his personal cell. So did getting outdoors, where he felt fresh air recharging his inner battery.
“These last two months have been when the majority of my recovery has come about,” Wright said. “I’ve hiked 80 miles. I’ve climbed Big Mountain 16 times. I’ve been hiking twice in Glacier (National Park), twice in the Jewel Basin. And I’ve swum 50 miles. It feels so good to do so.”
So has getting back to work. Wright designs and tests rocket engines, and touching one off in his Kalispell lab recently was a great milestone.
Word of his recovery started filtering through Griz Nation. One person to pick up on his signal was author and UM alum Susie Graetz, who got on the phone to UM President Royce Engstrom about commemorating Wright’s return.
“There’s always a need for good, positive news,” Graetz said on the sidelines of Washington-Grizzly Stadium. “When you think about what he sacrificed to save the fans he didn’t hit and the little girl he threw himself away from – there’s a hero amongst us in the UM family, and he’s back and we need to celebrate.”
The man who walked onto the football field Saturday morning was a little different than the one who crashed there a year ago. Still taller than many of the Grizzly football players, Wright is quite a bit leaner. He moves fluidly, but there’s a bit of stiffness in the way his rebuilt hips turn. He says they ache when the weather changes.
But he’s also celebrating his 54th birthday. One present was meeting Craig Robertson, the first medic to reach him at his crash scene last year. Another was hearing Tom Petty’s “Free Falling” blare from the loudspeakers – the tune traditionally played when the Silvertips descend.
He joined Engstrom for a pregame brunch and visit to the 50-yard line President’s Box before taking his season-ticket seat in the stands.
The Silvertips are still debating whether to resume jumping into the stadium. Wright fully supports continuing the tradition, although he’s not sure he’ll join it.
“The crash was two days after my birthday,” he said. “When somebody mentioned to me that exile was an unhealthy reaction to a near-death experience, that’s when I started changing my approach to all this. It was my pleasure to go out there and acknowledge all the thoughts and cards those people sent me. And it’s great to go back to my regular seat and watch the game.”