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MISSOULA — Montana fifth-year senior Shayne Cochran has had multiple reasons to leave the Griz football team.

Start with the fact that he hasn’t earned a single start despite displaying an uncompromising work ethic. Then add in that he’s playing for his third head coach since coming to Missoula, and it’d be understandable if the 6-foot-1, 225-pound linebacker sought a new home.

The thought of leaving has crossed his mind, but he never seriously entertained the idea. Besides, he couldn’t abandon the Griz, the relationships he’s developed and the school that’s given him the rare opportunity for a person from a town of 800 people.

“I’ve definitely gone through my ups and downs. I think a lot of people do. That’s just life,” said Cochran, who calls Culbertson, Montana, his home. “But I never considered leaving. This is still Montana. This is the best place to play college football in the country, I think.”

It’d be easy for someone in Cochran’s situation to uproot themselves in search of more playing time elsewhere. In fact, hundreds of players transfer from college football programs or leave the sport every year. But not Cochran.

As head coach Bobby Hauck has gotten to know Cochran and learn about the senior’s story in his first year back with the Griz, he’s appreciated the dedication Cochran has shown while at Montana.

“Anybody that’ll stick with things and see things through the end is somebody that I admire,” Hauck said. “I don’t think there’s enough of that, particularly with our young people these days. I think a lot of them tend to turn tail at the first sign of adversity. And certainly that’s not Shayne Cochran.”

Small-town upbringing

Cochran was born on the Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota. When he was 5-years-old, his family moved to Culbertson, where his mom, a branch manager of a credit union, and his step dad, who works in the oil fields, still live. His dad is a firefighter in Oregon.

Cochran attributes his involvement in sports to his older brother, 4½ years his senior. They would watch the Minnesota Vikings together on Sundays and spend time outside playing anything from football to basketball to soccer, and much more.

The one condition was that his brother would make him work for a victory in anything, no matter how small the competition. That helped build Cochran’s resilience.

“He was just kicking my butt in everything, but it was a lot of fun,” Cochran said. “He didn’t take it easy on me. Still doesn’t. It’s always a competition with him, which is good. I like that.”

Cochran recalled first throwing around a football when he was 4 years old, but it wasn’t until sixth grade that he began organized football. It became his favorite and his best sport, and he set his eyes on playing Division I football.

“I was pretty bad at basketball. I fouled out pretty much every game I played in,” Cochran said. “I love track, but I just wasn’t athletic enough for it. Baseball would have been cool, but we couldn’t fill a roster when I was in high school. Football just kind of was something I always liked. I like the physicality of it. I like hitting people. That’s kind of why I stuck with it.”

Only one other football player from Culbertson, nearly nine hours east of Missoula, has suited up for the Griz. That was Terry Falcon, who was twice selected to the All-Big Sky team as a lineman in the 1970s and went on to a three-year NFL career with the New England Patriots and New York Giants.

One of Falcon’s helmets is on display in a case at Culbertson. Cochran would spend time admiring the helmet, and it began to serve as his motivation to stick with football.

He’s met and talked with Falcon on several occasions, and Falcon’s dad still watches Griz football games with Cochran’s parents in Culbertson.

“He’s basically part of the reason why I wanted to get into football so much because I wanted to play for the Griz, too,” Cochran said. “I wanted to make a name for myself.”

Becoming a Grizzly

Cochran was a star running back and linebacker in 8-man football, helping lead Culbertson to its first playoff win in 40 years. He earned all-state recognition at both positions as a junior and as a senior while playing for two different coaches — the latter a precursor of what was to come in college.

As a junior, Cochran received multiple college offers, although they were mainly from NAIA schools. He narrowed down his choices to Rocky Mountain College and Montana Tech, but his parents suggested he attend a Griz football camp the summer before his senior year.

By the end of his senior season, then-Griz head coach Mick Delaney offered him a partial scholarship. Montana only had nine scholarships to give out to that year’s recruiting class because of NCAA sanctions, and linebacker was a position of need with the graduation of Brock Coyle, Jordan Tripp and John Kanongata’a.

“As soon as they gave me an offer, I was like, I can’t turn that down,” Cochran said. “It wasn’t a full ride, but just getting an opportunity to play D-I football was my dream. It still kind of blows my mind that I get to run out into this stadium. I’m just a small-town kid. I love it. I feel like I’m surrounded by celebrities — and I’m a senior. It’s a lot of fun. These kids are coming from all over the country, and this is kind of my backyard. It’s awesome.”

Cochran redshirted his first season in Missoula, adapting to the 11-man game. Before he experienced his first spring camp, he was playing for a new coaching staff, helmed by Bob Stitt.

Cochran didn’t have any qualms playing for a coach who didn’t recruit him. He was just eager to tackle the new challenge.

“I didn’t considered leaving,” Cochran recounted. “I guess I wasn’t playing yet and I didn’t know what was going on. I didn’t get to know the first coaching staff as good as I probably would have wanted to. I was ready for the opportunity, for a new change and what came with it.”

Vying for a starting spot

With his redshirt season behind him, Cochran was ready to finally take the field as he went from playing in front of 100 people in high school to 25,000 at Washington-Grizzly. He earned playing time in five games on special teams but never got a start on defense.

In his sophomore season, he was up to eight appearances for the Griz, although it was again mostly on special teams. He still hadn’t earned a start.

Cochran kept working, and by his junior year, he played in all 11 games, getting reps on defense in addition to playing on special teams. He was the second stringer behind linebacker James Banks and filled in whenever Banks needed a breather.

Coming into this season, Cochran was one of four linebackers who had playing experience with the Griz. Like most players, he had to start from scratch trying to prove himself to a new staff with Hauck taking over.

While he could’ve gone to a smaller school to salvage one year of playing time, he stayed true to the Griz.

“I never would have done that,” Cochran said. “Once I heard coach Hauck was coming back, he’s a celebrity in my mind. He’s a hero in Montana. He’s kind of the guy. I was really excited for that, and I knew he was going to bring in a good staff.”

Cochran has played in five of six games this season. He’s upped his career total to 30 appearances on defense or special teams.

With five games left in his final regular season, Cochran knows his chances to earn a start are quickly fading away. But he still continues to push himself in practice, and Hauck has taken notice.

“I think he’s a good Montana Grizzly because he’s got toughness and he wants to and he cares about his team,” Hauck said.

Sticking it out

Cochran hasn’t become despondent because of his lack of playing time.

In fact, Hauck has seen him welcome a new role working with younger players while continuing to lead by example.

“Day in, day out, he does a good job and pushes hard, and even when he’s got a younger player in front of him, he tries to push them as best he can,” Hauck said. “I think just exhibiting work ethic in that situation shows a lot of character.”

Cochran is still aiming for that one start but is cognizant enough to recognize his shortcomings compared to others on the team. And he wants to help them become even better.

“You don’t come here to be a special teams players,” Cochran said. “You come here to play offense or defense. But everybody has their role. I feel like I’ve embraced it and I do whatever I can to help this team out and help the younger guys that are way better than I am whenever they need it mentally and trying to help them wherever I can. It’s been great.”

Even if Cochran doesn’t get that coveted start, he has more than enough memories to treasure.

There’s the early morning workouts and practices in the snow with his teammates. Then there’s the win over North Dakota State at home, being on the punt coverage team for Jerry Louie-McGee’s special teams touchdown against Northern Iowa and playing on defense in last year’s Cat-Griz game.

He’ll also leave with a bachelor’s degree in communications when he graduates in December.

“When I think about it, I think maybe I could have played a little bit more somewhere else. But I mean, look at this, look at where I am,” Cochran said, standing on the field in Washington-Grizzly Stadium. “I’m in awe every day. It’s definitely been worth it.”

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Frank Gogola covers Griz football and prep sports for the Missoulian. Follow him on Twitter @FrankGogola or email him at Frank.Gogola@406mtsports.com.

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