Gustafson NFLPA Bowl

Montana's Brady Gustafson, pictured here during the Grizzlies' win over Saint Francis at Washington-Grizzly Stadium last fall, will play in the NFLPA Collegiate Bowl on Saturday.

TOMMY MARTINO, Missoulian

A decade before Brady Gustafson informed his Billings West High School adviser of his professional aspirations, the same conversation played out in the guidance counseling office at his elementary school.

He has wanted one job since he was 4 years old and watched Brett Favre sling passes during his 1990s Super Bowl heyday. He threw around names of Packers players like they were kids down the street and showed off the playbooks he'd drawn -- always in green and yellow crayon or marker.

He dreamed of playing in the NFL.

"All his counselors through grade school, middle school and high school, that was something he went in there to tell them. That's what he wanted to be, a professional football player," Kandy Gustafson, Brady's mother, recalled this week a few days before the first round of interviews that could help make that dream job a reality.

Brady, Montana's 6-foot-7 quarterback and a two-year starter before exhausting his eligibility this winter, is in Los Angeles for Saturday's NFLPA Collegiate Bowl, a postseason all-star game for draft-eligible college players. There he'll don a slate-gray National Team uniform and compete among dozens of fellow NFL hopefuls trying to impress the 200-some scouts in attendance.

The game, which kicks off at 2:15 p.m. Montana Time and can be seen on Fox Sports 1, is only the latest step in a lifetime focused on getting right here. The road started in the Gustafsons' living room back when those strides weren't so long.

***

Kandy and Loren Gustafson were sports fans, sure, but didn't really follow football. It took time with a grandfather for the game to sink its teeth into their young son.

Even as a toddler, Brady spent Sundays parked in front of the television watching games, cheering and grumbling right alongside grandpa. When his attention wandered, baby Brady took to re-creating the action himself.

"He was walking by 8 months and he always had a ball of some sort," Kandy recalled. "He was always playing catch. You always had to be ready for it, a little baseball player, a little quarterback."

It wasn't yet the arm strength that one day soon would wow coaches, teammates and fans at West High and the University of Montana. He wouldn't graduate to quarterback for many years.

When he played, basketball and baseball were the preferred sports. His height, even impressive at a young age, made for some sharp sinking fastballs from the pitcher's mound and easy rebounding under the hoop.

"He's always been good at everything he does," laughed Ryan Burke, a future Griz teammate who first played opposite Brady in Billings youth hoops leagues in middle school. "From marbles to darts or whatever, he could do it all."

By high school he'd grown to nearly 6 1/2 feet tall and with him the Golden Bears started dominating boys' athletics. Their basketball team went 22-1 and won the State AA championship and the football team finished 11-2 with a loss in the title game.

Brady left West as the school's all-time leading passer with 2,913 of his 6,202 career yards coming as a senior.

"From the time anybody ever saw Brady it was impressive, everything he could do. He could make the cross-field out route and the deep post routes that you don't see a lot in high school," said Burke, who attended Class A Billings Central. "Made me glad I didn't have to play against him in high school."

The players' physical attributes and quick mind led a bevy of recruiters to his doorstep. Basketball and football coaches alike wanted him as their next student-athlete.

Though the successes were piling up on the basketball court, a scholarship offer from the Montana Grizzlies marked another step down the road to the NFL.

***

Brady entered college as a lanky freshman with a big grin and an even bigger arm. It had been his best QB trait with the Bears and as his body continued to develop, the cannon grew more and more lethal.

Former West head coach Paul Klaboe still remembers the 60-yard bombs to the end zone Brady could unleash in high school at Daylis Stadium. When the play called for Klaboe's receivers to run "go routes," a straight path down the field for a deep pass, the coach had one instruction for them: Don't ever stop running.

"You run as hard as you can and you keep going because you are not gonna out-run his arm strength. He's gonna get you the ball," said Klaboe, who retired in 2015.

Of course Brady still redshirted that first year at UM in 2012 and saw limited playing time with QB Jordan Johnson, one of Montana's greatest statistical passers, back starting in 2013-14. It wasn't until the calendar rolled over to 2015, just days after the hire of a new head coach, that the boy from Billings began to get his chance.

Brady -- who along with multiple UM coaches declined to be interviewed for this story, according to a department official -- was the oldest at the position during the Grizzlies' first spring camp under coach Bob Stitt. He took the first-string snaps, but rumors circulated that the passer would soon be passed up and Brady was bound to transfer.

Never one to complain or fuss, the whispers still ate at Brady, Burke said. So he fought to prove them wrong. He brushed away the pressures, learned the new offense and won the starting job.

"I think Brady handled it better than you would have expected him to," said Burke, a receiver in the same signing class of 2012 and Brady's roommate in Craig Hall as a freshman. "He knew he had his chance to play and we knew that, though maybe it wasn't as obvious to outsiders.

"I think he just approached it really maturely. For us on the inside, he just did what we all know he could do. Make great throws, lead the team by example."

***

For Brady's many successes in Missoula -- he leaves with 4,809 career passing yards (11th in school history) and 37 touchdowns (12th) -- his tenure as Griz QB was also rather tumultuous.

A broken fibula in just the Grizzlies' third outing of 2015, which followed the high of highs when UM topped perennial national champ North Dakota State on ESPN, sidelined him for six games. He returned to lead the Griz to the playoffs before a second-round humbling against those same Bison.

In 2016, the Griz roared out to a 5-1 start before sputtering to the finish line of a 6-5 season. The offense proved inconsistent at best, one game (or drive) thundering from goal line to goal line and the next handing the ball off to the punter.

As quick to accept blame as deflect praise, the quarterback never hid from criticisms from the media and the public. That endeared him further to his teammates, running back John Nguyen said.

"He took criticism to heart and really tried to fix every mistake that he made," said Nguyen, a senior last fall. "We could really trust in him knowing that he wasn't afraid to say he was wrong, or even 'you're wrong.' He was a great leader.

"When Brady's hot, we're all hot. That's what happens in this offense."

Now it's up to the Montana boy to prove there's enough promise in his bright spots. The completion of the fall semester capped his time as a student with a dual-degree in accounting and finance. Since then it's been all focus on the athlete.

He spent the past month at TEST Football Academy near Newark, New Jersey preparing for Montana's pro day and the NFLPA Bowl. Saturday he'll take the field under the coaching of former St. Louis Rams leader Mike Martz to put that preparation to good use.

And then?

The NFL draft runs April 28-30 and many of his closest associates feel confident there's a place for a 6-7 quarterback from off the map in the league.

"He fits a pro style way more than he fits a college or high school style with his ability" said Klaboe, his former coach. "He's so tall, he's not the kind that you'll run read-option with and that's what it seems like everybody wants to run in college now.

"... He's more the pro-style -- drop back, scan the field and deliver the ball."

It's the job he's always wanted.

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