In the center of Placid Lake, a blue jewel an hour east of Missoula that's hugged on all sides by lush green forest, a triangular object bobs across a few lazy waves.

The water skiing jump, crafted from buoyant materials and waiting for its next challenger, reaches almost 8 feet out of the water. Caleb Kidder has always been tall for his age, but on this day still shy of his 10th birthday the structure still covers nearly twice his height.

All the better, he figures.

"He was fearless -- when it came to anything," remembers Lance Kidder, Caleb's father. "He's always been like that, ready to size it up and do it."

Such an attitude followed Caleb from the lake to the mountain to the gridiron where a dozen years later he has become one of Montana's most feared defenders, the latest in a deep family tree of ferocious Griz tacklers. Now a fifth-year senior, his approach to chasing quarterbacks is hardly different than his thrill seeking on the lake during that family vacation long ago.

"Yeah, intensity is a good word," Kidder said this week, a subtle grin breaking through. 

***

To picture Caleb Kidder, currently a 6-foot-5 and 259-pound football mercenary, as a wee running back is an exercise in imagination. But that was his position of preference when he was little.

Well, little is a relative term, Lance Kidder corrected.

"He's never really been a little guy," the father chuckled.

Every second year of youth football in Helena, when the weight limits for ball carriers increased, the son was free to roam the backfield. By the following year though, as his body continued to grow, he became too heavy and shifted to the offensive line.

Kidder didn't mind. Football wasn't his focus anyway. The end of football season brought excitement each year because with it came wintry weather and more opportunities on the slopes. For as good a tackler as he is now, a preseason All-American and senior captain with the Griz, he very well could have become that type of ski racer.

His father, a Missoula native, coached the Great Divide Ski Team in Helena and the young racer was blowing through older competition by his sixth-grade year. He placed first in races across Montana and earned an invite to the U.S. Ski Team Western Regionals at Snowbird, Utah.

"Caleb always knows where his feet are in relation to where his center of mass is," Lance Kidder explained his son's skill on the hill, an attribute that has since carried over to his football career.

He finished in the top five at the regional meet in super-G, a slalom speed race, against competitors from across the western United States.

"I was fearless. I loved going fast, which I think I had at a young age where other kids were more tentative," he said. "And if I crashed, I crashed -- and I crashed a lot. The times that I didn't crash, I was flying. My size helped me out a lot too because I was bigger than most of the kids. That's just rules of physics."

The junior Kidder suddenly had doors opening wide for him. Admission to skiing academies in Utah and Colorado were possibilities, the kind of schools that teach curriculum all summer to free up their students for training in the winter. The family gathered to talk about their future. It was his choice.

Kidder loved skiing, but it wasn't everything to him.

"It came down to leaving Montana and leaving my family," he said. "It was either go and train somewhere else or stay in Helena and continue to be with my buddies I grew up with."

The Montana Grizzlies owe that 12-year-old and his decision a good deal of thanks.

***

By high school Caleb Kidder had become a beast for Helena Capital. The Bruins went 45-6 in his four years at the school, winning two State AA titles and playing for three. He chose Montana out of a handful of college suitors -- Montana State and Boise State also offered scholarships while major programs like UCLA, Stanford and several Ivy League schools showed interest -- the summer after his junior year.

With his college decision out of the way, he had his best season as a senior. To go with 13 sacks, 97 total tackles and six forced fumbles, Kidder led the Bruins back to the state championship and earned Montana's Gatorade Player of the Year award.

One of those sacks came in the title bout against Billings West and a now familiar quarterback: Brady Gustafson.

In Missoula, Kidder started making the same kind of impact almost immediately. Kidder played in 10 of Montana's 11 games in 2012 as a true freshman. He made 14 tackles, 2.5 for loss, and even notched 1.5 QB sacks.

He started twice at defensive tackle as a sophomore and made another 40 tackles, setting himself up to be a major contributor on the 2014 squad. But a wrist injury required surgery and Kidder only appeared in the team's season-opening loss to Wyoming that year.

Back after a redshirt year and more determined than ever, he played like a wrecking ball under a new coaching staff last season. He made 82 tackles and caused general havoc against opposing offenses.

There's a ferocity to Kidder's game, UM defensive coordinator Jason Semore said, but he's more than a snarling grizzly bear. A joker in the locker room -- and sort of like Semore himself, the coach said -- Kidder is light-hearted off the field and unwaveringly intense on it.

"That makes him a special dude because not everybody has that," said Semore who joined head coach Bob Stitt's staff as defensive secondary coach before the 2015 season. "Most guys play with the personality that they have.

"He approaches his business the right way and he's a good leader in that way."

***

Because Montana's legacy No. 37 jersey came his way last year, Kidder will forever be tied to the Griz defensive legends of the past who sported the number. Whether he can join the most recent two -- linebacker Jordan Tripp and defensive end Zack Wagenmann -- on an NFL roster a year from now is the next question.

"Watching Montana (as a kid) and what they all represent, now it's my senior year and I'm in those shoes that I looked up to," he said. "It's a humbling experience."

Kidder transitioned to defensive end for his senior campaign as Semore put his touch on the Montana defense. Even with a position switch, expectations remain high. He landed on the STATS FCS Defensive Player of the Year preseason watch list, perhaps readying to follow in the footsteps of former teammate and last year's honoree Tyrone Holmes.

"He's a preseason All-American guy and we've been asking him to play like one," Semore said. "So far so good."

Nine games remain in Kidder's final regular season of college ball, a slate he hopes to extend with a Big Sky Conference title and decent playoff push. And then?

"Oh he's an NFL guy, no doubt about it," Semore chimed in, "with his size and speed and productivity. ... I think he's shown his versatility, which will allow him to be more attractive among different teams."

Such a venture will bring with it plenty of new tests, but Caleb Kidder has never met an obstacle he wasn't anxious to conquer.

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