Gray clouds hung over Washington-Grizzly Stadium, replacing the sunshine that accompanied the Montana football team's first week of spring practices. The air still carried the tepid warmth often reserved for April or May, but the clouds came to cover the shine, perhaps sensing the mood a few thousand feet below.
As the Grizzlies took the field, they did so with heavy hearts, trying to focus on football while some of their minds lay elsewhere. Though he hadn't suited up in his No. 92 jersey this spring, the absence of defensive end Kole Swartz felt far more stark Monday.
"We played on the D-line together at Hellgate; we were going to play on the D-Line here and..." said Grizzly defensive tackle Zach Peevey, his words trailing off as he spoke about his former teammate.
Swartz, an 18-year-old redshirt freshman for his hometown Grizzlies, died early Sunday morning in Clinton when a rifle he was handling discharged. The Missoula Hellgate graduate was pronounced dead at the scene.
The death was accidental, the deputy coroner ruled.
In his first year out of high school, Swartz spent time on the sidelines in redshirt mode, saving his eligibility for down the road as he continued to develop in both size and skill. He was not eligible to practice with the team this spring for non-football reasons, but defensive line coach Legi Suiaunoa said the young Griz was working to rejoin his fellow players by fall in time for his first year of live action.
Suiaunoa had known Swartz for three years, first crossing paths with the Knight when he was a junior at Missoula's Hellgate High School. The Griz had just plucked Peevey from the Knights' ranks -- Peevey graduated in 2012, two years ahead of Swartz -- and Suiaunoa saw a true college football player buried beneath Hellgate's 0-10 team record.
"First thing I saw at camp when he came, Kole is a massive person -- a long, tall kid," said Suiaunoa of the 6-foot-5, 235-pound defender. "What popped is how athletic he was. Not quite the football player we looked for in terms of being polished, but you talk about a kid that tall, that big, that had that frame, and then the athletic ability that he possessed.
"That was a platform of potential; we had a Missoula kid that just finished that was quite similar," the coach added, likening Swartz's size and athleticism to former Griz D-end Zack Wagenmann.
And Swartz paired it with superb off-the-field work ethic, Peevey chimed in.
"He comes from a place out in East Missoula, the Clinton area -- those guys grew up working hard," the Montana junior said. "He definitely portrayed that."
The Grizzlies, the defenders and local products who better knew him especially, have already begun looking toward the season with Swartz's untimely death as motivation. Peevey, for one, said he's already got "92" penned on his athletic tape.
"It's just sad we don't get to see him develop. Oh man, it would have been something else," said an emotional Peevey before Monday's practice. "I'll keep that in my thoughts and prayers forever."