DJ Colter started out doing what he always thought he would do and probably what anyone who knew him and his background thought he would do. He was a teacher and a coach.
Both of his parents were educators. His father, Bill, has been a school administrator in Montana for more than 30 years.
But a series of events took Colter and his wife, Jennifer, back to her home state of North Dakota and to a totally different life.
While Jennifer remains a 6th-grade teacher, DJ finds himself selling insurance and blossoming as a self-described “wannabe entrepreneur” in West Fargo. He’s even hooked up with younger brother Curt in an Oreck Clean Home Center in Sioux Falls, S.D., and so far, they still like each other.
Colter played football for the Montana Grizzlies from 1996 to 1999 - redshirting in 1995 when UM won the national championship at Marshall - and earned his degree in education in 2000.
He spent this next three years in Vancouver, Wash., teaching math, social studies and reading at Gaiser Middle School where he also coached football, boys’ and girls’ basketball and track. He twice was nominated for teacher of the year honors there.
Colter met Jennifer while both were teaching and coaching in the same school district. They were married in July 2003. While they were there DJ earned a master’s in educational leadership and management from the University of Portland.
It seemed he was headed solidly down the education trail. But now he owns his own agency under the umbrella of American Family Insurance.
His other business enterprises - he also owns Oreck outlets in Fargo and Billings - include some real estate ventures, Ron’s Aqua Massage, a Mrs. Fields Cookies franchise and a company called MTV Basement Technologies of North Dakota.
It was a fall hunting trip to North Dakota after DJ and Jennifer became engaged that started the ball rolling eastward. DJ’s current boss was in the hunting party with Jennifer’s father.
Colter told them he had wondered what it would be like to own his own business and try something other than teaching. A job offer followed, so DJ and Jennifer took a year-long leave of absence from the school district to test the Fargo waters.
“We thought we’d come out here and try it, and if we didn’t like it move back and go back to our careers in Vancouver,” Colter explained. “(But) I got a real good opportunity and a couple guys ended up retiring. I never thought I’d end up in Fargo.”
Colter said for years Fargo has been ranked high nationally among communities under 500,000 population as a place to live, raise a family and own a business. He said Microsoft’s second-largest headquarters is there.
“The timing of everything played out,” Colter said of his growing business background, “where now in the last year or two with how the economy’s tightened up it’s a lot harder to get money (and) I wouldn’t have had that opportunity.”
Colter likes everything about his life in North Dakota. Brother Curt had taught for five years in Arizona, was “sick of it” and wanted to try something else. Now he overseas all three Oreck stores, and the one in Billings gives them an excuse to return to Montana.
Colter also misses Missoula.
“Missoula is such a beautiful and awesome place,” Colter said. “I brag about it all the time out here to all my friends.”
The Colters have three daughters. Kennedy is about to turn five and start kindergarten. Twins Harper and McKenna are just seven months old.
Jennifer is a former college athlete, having played volleyball for Jamestown College in North Dakota. DJ said their girls already are showing athletic signs, so he’s not expecting life to be any less busy as years go by.
Colter has no doubt that his athletic experiences have benefited him in his current endeavors.
“I’ve never been the most talented or fastest or strongest,” he said. “When I came to Montana I had played eight-man football. I got the opportunity to play for the Grizzlies and loved it.”
Colter said the greatest thing he learned in college was to be persistent and well prepared. He remembers former Griz players speaking to the team during Griz-Cat week and saying it might be the last time they would be in a room with 100 guys who wanted the same thing.
“Unless you were freaky talented you had to work hard to carve out some time to play,” Colter said.
His office walls are replete with photos and framed newspaper articles from his days with Grizzly football. They all show him sharing his Montana dream with people that, by and large, are aligned with the North Dakota State Bison.
For Colter the UM experience has translated into him knowing, as an insurance agent and in other business ventures, that you need to take care of customers and surround yourself with qualified staff.
“It’s been tough, especially not being from here,” Colter noted. “I think it would have been a lot easier if I had started in insurance in Montana because you have contacts and family and know people.”
In high school Colter drew interest primarily from NAIA schools in Montana and the Dakotas. During his senior season in 1994 Montana and Montana State started calling.
The Bobcats were the first to invite him for a campus visit and offered him a partial scholarship.
One day, out of the blue while he was sitting in math class, his father Bill - Hysham’s principal at the time - got him out of class to meet with UM assistant coach Kraig Paulson, who apologized for being late due to the Grizzlies going so far into the playoffs.
“We had a good talk and all of a sudden (head coach) Don Read walks into the school and sits down and starts talking,” Colter said.
They watched some film, and the following Sunday Colter was on an airplane to Missoula to visit the campus.
“They offered me a scholarship and that was it,” Colter recalled.
In those days Hysham was in Bobcat country, but he had always admired what was going on in Missoula. A second cousin, Jay Fagan, had played Griz football earlier, and Colter’s parents had taken their boys to games at both UM and MSU.
“I’d always had a dream of playing at that level and then it just happened,” Colter said, “and it was an awesome experience.”
As for adjustments, Colter admitted to being slightly claustrophobic looking out the dormitory window at mountains he could almost reach out and touch.
“And then you’re going through two-a-days and getting your butt kicked every day by offensive linemen,” Colter recalled. “Those guys had me on my back a lot, and that’s part of (being) a redshirt.”
Coming from a more conservative part of Montana to probably the most liberal community in the state was another part of Colter’s education.
“It makes you open your mind,” he said. “You have to really learn how to think on your own and do your own thing. I’ll always be indebted to that place and love (it) forever.”
Colter was in the stands at Huntington, W.Va. when the Griz won the 1995 national championship and then played in the 1996 loss to Marshall on the same field a year later.
But most important to him were the friendships and relationships that developed.
“It wasn’t always about Saturdays,” Colter explained. “It was in the locker room after practice and before, lifting weights in the summer, going to class, going to other sporting events.”
Colter also recalls spending Thanksgiving in Missoula and having dinner with the other defensive linemen at someone’s home. He loved the beauty of the surrounding area and the activities that were available, like folf at Blue Mountain.
Colter and some of his teammates would play in basketball tournaments around western Montana during the spring. He also remembers spending the Fourth of July at Flathead Lake.
Colter also spent summers working for Missoula Parks and Recreation umpiring softball games and running one of its programs.
Coming from a place that didn’t have a golf course within 30 miles, Colter concentrated on football, basketball and track in high school and doing farm and ranch work during the summers.
“It got you tough and ready for the real world, I’ll tell you that,” he stated emphatically. “I wish I could have golfed in high school. Maybe I’d be better now.”
Colter came back to Missoula more often right after he finished at UM because Curt played from 1999 to 2002, picking up a national championship ring himself in 2001. DJ became friends with many of Curt’s teammates as well.
Then came a lull, perhaps the result of some burnout. But while spending time with his newborn twin daughters - he took three months off after they were born last fall - he had time to reconnect with the Griz.
Between listening to the games on the Internet and checking out eGriz online he “got addicted to all this stuff.”
DJ also keeps in touch through his father, who lives in the Missoula area and has been labeled a “Grizaholic” by Jennifer.
It’s natural that Colter has great appreciation for the small-town kids who continue to make their mark on Grizzly football. He remembers Shann Schillinger and his brother at a football camp in Hysham way back when.
“A lot of those guys are eastern Montana kids,” Colter boasted. “That’s pretty darned cool.”
Dallas Neil, who went on to play professional football, was Colter’s roommate for five years at UM. Both have three daughters, “our little sorority houses,” Colter says, adding that he’s planning a trip to Missoula in late summer to visit Neil.
Another roommate was basketball player Mike Warhank, like Neil from Great Falls. Ex-linebacker Adam Boomer was a groomsman in Colter’s wedding. He tries to stay in touch with all of them.
One goal for Colter is to make at least one trip to Missoula each fall for a home game. When the 1995 team was inducted into the Grizzly Sports Hall of Fame in 2005 Colter said, “It was great to see all of those guys.”
During his time in Missoula Colter built an even stronger work ethic than what he came in with. It paid off when he was named UM’s student-athlete of the year, an award tied to both athletics and academics, as a senior.
“It gave me a great education,” Colter said of UM, “but it really taught me to grow up and take responsibility for my actions.”