The way Grady Bennett figures, coaching is about guiding players to discover the best in their abilities. Sometimes that's easy; other times it feels impossible.

The story of Jackson Thiebes falls somewhere in between.

"We always knew he had potential," says Bennett, the head football coach at Kalispell's Glacier High School, "but with him not buying into it early in his career, we thought maybe he was one of those guys you miss, that we weren't gonna get him to reach his potential."

It took five years, two colleges, two attempts as a walk-on and more protein shakes and six-omelette breakfasts than you can count, but Thiebes is finally there. A standout player for the Wolfpack -- when he wanted to be -- the big man from the Flathead Valley has found his home on the offensive line of the Montana Griz this season.

A fifth-year senior, Thiebes (pronounced THEEB-ess) has grabbed the Grizzlies' starting spot at right tackle this fall -- something few would have predicted a handful of years ago.

Heck, Thiebes himself hardly knew if he wanted to pursue football beyond high school.

***

It came somewhere around the midway point of Thiebes's senior season at Glacier. In the fall of 2011 the Wolfpack was on a quest for just its second state playoff appearance since the school opened its doors in 2007. Even with a postseason berth, the teams' games were numbered.

And so was Thiebes's time playing football.

Thiebes started his Wolfpack career wanting to play quarterback before moving to tight end. Out of necessity, and because of his body size, he shifted to the offensive line as a junior. There he went through the motions for a year and a half, as likely to attend offseason workouts as not.

But as his senior season wound to a close, Thiebes was a mainstay in the Wolfpack weight room, Bennett said, making up for lost time.

"All of a sudden for the first time after the season he's up in the weight room just banging, getting after it," remembered Bennett, a standout Griz quarterback during his college days. "'Well, why didn't you do this two years ago? You could have been unbelievable.' He worked so hard that winter to give himself a chance."

He was off the recruiting radar of college coaches, so Thiebes began reaching out to Division II and Division III programs around the Pacific Northwest. Finally Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Oregon was willing to take a shot on him.

"I liked it, but I realized I wanted to try for something more," Thiebes said, "and playing for Montana was a dream come true for a Montana kid."

He transferred home, two hours south of Kalispell, and enrolled at UM after one semester at D-III Lewis & Clark. His grandfather, Joseph, played football for the Griz before World War II and his father and three brothers had all attended the school as well. So in the winter of 2012, he tried out during Montana's winter conditioning period.

And Montana said no thanks. For a second time Thiebes was on his last football legs.

"Once they told me I wasn't on the team, I started to buy into the thinking," he said. "I was just gonna be a typical college student, just drink and go to class."

But he wanted one more shot. He remained at UM, worked out and trained for the Missoula Marathon to stay in shape, though that came with the unintended side effect of losing lots of weight. By winter 2013, he was ready for another go and the Griz were willing to have him.

***

Where Thiebes had played tight end in Oregon, used primarily in special teams situations without recording any offensive statistics, the Griz asked him to man the offensive line -- again. The transition from tight end to O-line isn't unheard of, but changing positions at the college level is never a sure thing.

A successful switch requires physical and mental strength, Montana offensive line coach Chad Germer said this week.

"If the guy's athletic, what we do is not that complex," Germer said. "If I feel that a guy has a base understanding of the game of football, just kind of let them go and learn on their own instead of try and fill 'em up with a whole bunch of jargon and terminology. Just let them act naturally and start fixing and changing from there."

Thiebes showed promise and was pressed into early season duty because of injuries, starting the teams' 2014 opener at Wyoming. He played six games in all that year.

He played in four more as a junior in 2015, bulking up to 270 pounds with a hearty diet of four meals a day plus healthy snacks. By this fall, under the watch of strength and conditioning coach Matt Nicholson, Thiebes had added another 30 pounds and now straddles the 300-pound line.

He started the first three weeks at right tackle, the farthest lineman away from the center on quarterback Brady Gustafson's dominant side. His job is often fending off the opposing team's best pass rusher.

"You're on your own a lot. It's a lot of one-on-one blocks and you get the more athletic D-linemen, the D-ends like Tyrone Holmes and Zack Wagenmann," he said. "You have to deal with that with power and speed."

So far his extra weight has paired well with the footwork of a player who has a background running passing routes. Thiebes has fared as well as any lineman this fall, Germer said.

"He's starting to take chances and have fun out there," the Griz coach said, "not just trying to do things right, but actually make plays and create to take that next step."

The next step. Thiebes spent a long time figuring out what that would be. For a third time, the Kalispell product is facing the end of his football days with just eight regular season games in maroon and silver remaining, but this time it is on his own terms.

His is a story of perseverance, determination and hard work, Bennett said, and one the coach recounts often.

"It was just maybe two weeks ago I shared his story with all of our freshmen," Bennett began. "Of the hard work and what can truly happen if you stick with it.

"You say, 'Hey, Jackson Thiebes was a quarterback and a tight end who never played, then he was begrudgingly an O-lineman. Now look at him!'"

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