MISSOULA — Bruce Carlson preached the motto, "Keep fighting the good fight," whether it was in relation to life, business or his Montana Grizzlies football team.
Carlson, one of the top kickers in Griz history and an all-state athlete at Great Falls High School in the 1970s, died on Thanksgiving morning at 62 years old because of complications from surgery, his son Brian Carlson told 406mtsports.com.
“The guy was my superhero, my coach, my dad, my mentor, my everything,” said Brian, a former Griz football player himself.
Carlson was a kicker, punter and linebacker for the Griz from 1974-77. He excelled as one of the last toe-style kickers before soccer style became the norm.
In 1976, Carlson tied the school record with a 50-yard field goal at Northern Colorado, a mark that’s now tied for 13th in program history. His 196 points scored were the most in school history when he finished playing and are now 13th most.
One of Carlson’s biggest kicks came when he booted the game-winning field goal in a 17-14 road win over Boise State in 1976.
“Being a Montana Grizzly, that’s what you do. That was it. That was the only thing for him to be,” Brian said of Bruce, who treasured a letterman-type Griz blanket and newspaper clippings of the family’s time playing for Montana. “It’s the pride. It’s why you get up in the morning. We’ve been raised Grizzlies through and through. I can’t tell you what it means to him being a Grizzly. There’s nothing better.”
During his final two years at Montana, Bruce played for his dad, Gene Carlson, a former Montana player himself who went 16-25 as the Griz head coach from 1976-79.
Bruce never beat the Cats, going 0-4 and heightening his disdain for Montana State.
“He joked he had to have kids to see someone beat the Cats,” Brian said. “He was so happy when his kids did. My mother used to pick out clothes when we were kids, and if anything had blue and gold together, he wouldn’t let us wear it. It was those things. We didn’t stop for lunch in Bozeman. It was Livingston, Three Forks or Butte. We don’t spend money in Bozeman.”
After graduating with an accounting degree from Montana, Carlson got a free-agent tryout with the Chicago Bears, but his kicking career was cut short by a hamstring injury. He became a land man in the search for oil and gas, handling negotiations, contracts and paperwork.
Carlson had throat cancer in 2000 and later was cleared. He underwent throat surgery this summer but experienced complications following that.
Carlson was born on May 22, 1956, at Fitzsimmons Army Medical Center in Aurora, Colorado. His family moved to Great Falls in 1957 when his dad, Lieutenant Loyal Gene Carlson, retired from the Air Force.
Growing up, Carlson went to Paris Gibson Junior High School, played Little League baseball and was a wrestler. At 13 years old, he was the Punt, Pass and Kick national champion.
Carlson played football for his dad at Great Falls High School and earned all-state honors as a punter, kicker, defensive end and offensive guard. He was also on the basketball team and threw discus for the track team. He met his future wife, Judy, in high school.
Carlson was joined at Montana by his brother Jeff Carlson, who played safety. His sister Wendie (Carlson) Thomas was on the Montana track team. Sisters Kim (Carlson) Brant and Stephanie Carlson also went to Montana.
Carlson’s son Brian played tight end at Montana and another son, Jesse, was a defensive tackle for the Griz during Bobby Hauck’s stint from 2003-09. His son Chris played defensive back at Harvard. All three were all-state athletes at Billings West. His youngest son, Billy Carlson, is in eighth grade playing football at Ben Steele Middle School in Billings.
“When the Griz do their trip around the state and came to Billings (in May), my dad took Billy to it,” Brian said. “Bobby (Hauck) comes up and said, ‘Good to see you. We need more Carlsons. We were winning when we had Carlsons.’ My dad just got a spark. That was one of the best compliments. It just made my dad feel real good and brought him to tears.”
Carlson’s nephews Tyler and Torrey Thomas also played for the Griz under Hauck.
Funeral arrangements haven’t been set yet, but the family joked Bruce would’ve liked it to be this coming Saturday.
“We were talking that we should make the service at the time of the Cats kickoff on Saturday so no Cats fans could attend,” Bruce said. “My mom has been horribly sad, and when we said he’d want us to plan it on the Cats’ kickoff, that was the first big laugh and smile I saw out of her.
“She wants the service to be on an upbeat note. He wouldn’t like anybody to be sad for him, to mourn for him. He was the rock, the guy that held it together. He was about always fighting the good fight.”