Missoula's semipro football team makes debut in front of full house
Missoula Raptors head coach Matt Softich, top left, reacts as his players score the first touchdown in the team's short history Saturday afternoon in Missoula. The Raptors beat Glacier 46-0 in their inaugural game.
Photo by MICHAEL GALLACHER/Missoulian

The dream became reality for the Missoula Raptors on Saturday.

Last October, the notion of a semipro football team in Missoula was just a vision in the head of a young man named Paul Ryan. It wasn't a particularly clear vision at that.

But seven months later, Ryan and the team's other co-founders, Rajiem Seabrook and Chris Stratton, stood in awe on the sidelines of Loyola Sacred Heart's Rollin Field as more than 1,000 fans came to see the team's first game.

"It's been a long time coming, baby, but here we are," Seabrook said shortly before the game began. "Now we gotta show these people something."

Three hours later, the Raptors came off the field higher than, well, their namesakes searching for prey. They had just clobbered Kalispell's undermanned Glacier Knights 46-0 in a game that wasn't as close as the score indicated.

"The whole day, it's just been amazing," said Ryan, who played defensive back. "The way we played, all the people in the stands. It's just a dream come true for all of us today."

Wives and girlfriends who've watched their husbands and boyfriends fall in love with football all over again the past few months cheered madly during the parts of the game when they weren't wincing and shielding their eyes.

"There are just times when I see him running and those guys closing in on him, and well, I just can't look," said Sarah Fortune, whose boyfriend Jimmy Compton is the Raptors' second-string quarterback.

Fortune had moments of joy, as well, as Compton threw the first touchdown pass in Raptors history, a 26-yard strike to Grant Roman early in the second quarter.

There's no way to really describe how ready the Raptors were to play a football game. Some had been waiting since high school or college to play tackle football again. Others, like Willy Williams and Raphael Roberts, had been waiting all their lives.

"This is what we've been training for for three months," said Williams, a backup running back. "I'm so ready to get out there and run into somebody."

"When we came out of that locker room, I had goose bumps all over me," said Roberts, a former soccer player who kicked a field goal and five of six extra points. "It was just the best feeling."

Head coach Matt Softich found himself with a locker room full of goose bumps just before game time. His team has been almost frothing at the mouth, waiting for a real game, and Softich's job before game time was just keeping them calm enough to play with the pride and grace he's been pounding into their heads for the past couple of months.

"They are so ready, they deserve this day," Softich said just before he addressed the team.

Inside the locker room, he called the players to their knees, then spoke to them like the grown men they are.

"OK, men, we have the best equipment, the best players, the best captains," said Softich, a former assistant coach for the Montana Grizzlies in the early 1980s. "We've got the best founders, and the best community. Now prove it to yourself, to your family, your community."

The Raptors whooped it up after that little speech, but Softich still had one more thing to say to his players, who range in age from 19 to 46. And now he was a football coach, pure and unadulterated.

"And let's prove it to those guys on the other side," he said.

Rollin Field isn't exactly Washington-Grizzly, but when the Raptors rumbled onto the field to a standing ovation, the players couldn't have cared less.

"This is what it's all about, right here, right now," Seabrook yelled to his teammates.

Todd Mackey, who runs music at Grizzly games, took the mike as Raptors announcer Saturday, and called the crowd back to his feet as Roberts' initial kickoff sailed to the Knights' goal line, where it was promptly fumbled.

Four plays later, the Raptors blocked a field goal and recovered for the team's first touchdown.

From that point on, things only got worse for the Knights, who are in their second year in the Rocky Mountain Football League.

"That's a good football team, with a good organization and really good fans," Knights coach Ron LaTray said after the game. "That's the biggest crowd we've ever seen, even bigger than when we played the defending champions last year in Idaho Falls."

That crowd was part of the dream when Ryan, Stratton and Seabrook breathed the Raptors to life. They knew Missoula was a football town. If they could just give Missoula another team worth rooting for, they figured the town would respond.

"It was pretty gratifying to see all those people up there today," said Ryan. "We've come a long, long way."

On Saturday, no one came further than Buckie Brawley, the team's starting quarterback.

Last Saturday, while Brawley was practicing with the Raptors, his mother died. Alta Brawley was 44.

The Raptors have plenty of personality in players like Seabrook, tight end Rich Fillie and linebacker Tad Sheridan. In Brawley, they have the essence of quiet leadership.

On Saturday, Brawley deftly dodged the Glacier blitzes, picked apart their secondary and took off on a few mad scrambles that had a few fans recalling some rather more famous quarterbacks from Washington-Grizzly.

He exuded the sort of confidence that is felt more than heard; he makes a point to thank his linemen for keeping him on his feet and off his back.

During the game, he elegantly put Softich's offensive plan in action. But as focused as he was, a little part of his mind was somewhere else.

"This one's all for Mom," he said in the second half, when the game was a blowout and the first-stringers had been pulled. "It's all for you."

Reporter Michael Moore can be reached at 523-5252 or mmoore@missoulian.com

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