He’s one of the best hometown players to ever walk down the tunnel at Washington-Grizzly Stadium.
Before it’s over, Missoula’s Jordan Tripp will likely land on the list of all-time football greats at the University of Montana. Certainly the uniquely gifted inside linebacker is setting lofty standards as a junior.
“He’s got exceptional speed for a 6-foot-3, 243-pound guy,” Montana defensive coordinator Ty Gregorak said. “Sideline-to-sideline he’s probably our rangiest player.
“He spent the last few years as a space player. Now he’s on the inside. But he can get outside the tackles to go chase ball carriers down and it’s such a plus. It’s ideal.”
The numbers tell a lot about Tripp, who prowls the field like a panther on an empty stomach. He leads the Griz with 40 tackles and a 58-yard interception return.
Yet there’s so much more. So many qualities that endear him to all who take pride in Garden City football.
Resilient, thoughtful, well-spoken, humble – Tripp is a tremendous ambassador for Griz athletics and his home state. His rise to glory has been anything but seamless, making him even easier to like for anyone who has encountered an obstacle.
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“I was really small in high school and even my freshman year here,” said the Missoula Big Sky grad, whose popularity is reflected in his 2,777 Facebook friends. “Ever since I was young my dream was to play football for Montana. Having people tell me I was too small kind of encouraged me to work harder.”
While hard work got him over the hump, early exposure to Montana football games set the tone. A third-generation Grizzly gridder, Jordan used to accompany his father on the field at age 2 when Bryan Tripp served as a UM grad assistant coach.
“We were on the sidelines back in the days before they wouldn’t allow a young kid down there,” Bryan recalled. “His big thing when he was little was he just wanted to throw a ball. I mean, he’d go to scrimmages when he was 4, 5, 6 years old and he’d be back catching the ball when the kickers would kick them.”
Tripp remembers one day in particular.
“I think I was in fifth grade or something like that and I was down there for the coin flip when Drew Miller was the quarterback,” he said. “They got done with the coin flip and he jogged over and gave me the coin they used from the ref. I have a poster signed that he was actually on.
“It’s just one of those memories – I thought it was cool as a younger kid. Then growing up through high school, coming down there on the field at the stadium, I used to look at it when it was empty thinking, how cool would it be if I got a scholarship and was able to play here.”
Tripp’s passion for football has been tested more than once. He played a good part of his senior season at Big Sky with cracked ribs, dealing with pain that may have caused someone else in his shoes to quit.
Then there was Sept. 17, 2011. Playing against defending national champion Eastern Washington in front of a packed hometown crowd, Tripp lost his season to a shoulder injury.
“Man I was worried about that when he first got hurt,” Bryan Tripp said. “He had a third-degree separation, which basically is a sever of the collarbone and then the labrum was torn.
“He had a double surgery on his shoulder. A very complicated surgery and long rehab. He lost a lot of weight. At first it got him clear down to 215. He wanted to be up to 240.”
Besides his burning desire to come back better than ever, Tripp had an ace up his sleeve. Teammate and friend Brock Coyle had endured a similar surgery a year earlier and his advice was priceless.
“It’s kind of funny because you work out so hard and you’re so strong and then you get this procedure done and you lose all strength to that area,” said Coyle, who also plays linebacker. “I just told Jordy to keep his head up and know what the future has in store for him – keep working hard and keep that goal in mind that you’re going to come back even stronger than you were.”
“The way Brock approached it was kind of the guideline I took on,” Tripp said. “He told me what it was going to be like and I really listened. I stayed around the guys and realized how much I love football and wanted to play again.
“Losing a season with all the guys you worked so hard with really puts a damper on it. All the support from the coaches and my family and Dr. (Larry) Stayner and the guys at Active Physical Therapy really helped me. They kept my mind occupied and not worried about things. And my dad really helped me.”
Gregorak endured five shoulder surgeries while playing linebacker at the University of Colorado, so he’s uniquely qualified to comment on Tripp’s recovery.
“He’s exceptional,” the coach said. “He absolutely worked his tail off from late last fall, winter, spring, summer, to come back in the kind of physical condition that he came back in.
“I think he would even tell you his shoulder is probably stronger than it was before. It killed him to not be out there so there was never a doubt in my mind he would come back even better than he was last year.”
The respect Jordan’s teammates have for him was never more evident than this offseason when defensive end Ryan Fetherston, a senior in 2011, handed him the famed No. 37 jersey. The number is reserved for Montana-raised Griz with the heart and competitive spirit that harkens back to Grizzly legends like Tim Hauck and Ciche Pitcher, who share in the tradition.
In the 29 years since the legacy began, no Missoula player had ever worn No. 37. Until this year.
“What that number means for the people who had it before,” Tripp said, “I wanted to have it.”
Growing up in a household with a former Griz standout, Tripp’s appreciation for Montana football tradition goes a little beyond most of his peers. On top of that, Bryan’s father Gene played for the Griz in 1963-64.
Gregorak, for one, recognizes what the maroon and silver means to Tripp.
“Really for his size and the way he runs, he probably could play at the next college level,” the coach said. “But frankly I don’t think Jordan Tripp was ever going to go anywhere but the University of Montana.
“This place and this program are so important to Jordan. You can see that every day. A lot of guys know this place has been successful. Jordan got to grow up watching it. All he’s done every year growing up is come watch the Griz win a lot of football games. He’s grown up in the golden age of Montana football.”
For all he does on the field, Tripp’s impact off the field is just as impressive. Last year he grew out his hair to the point where it was annoying, so it could be cut off and donated to Locks of Love, an organization that provides hairpieces to children suffering from long-term medical hair loss.
He grew up in a home where it was impressed upon him that actions speak louder than words. That cockiness is unacceptable. That “mean people suck.”
“Just think about that,” he offered. “It’s not something you have to try to do, it’s who you are.”
One of Tripp’s favorite offseason hobbies is helping with Little Griz football camps. He savors the opportunity to encourage young players, especially those who may not be blessed with all the physical tools.
“I think it’s part of his personality, helping others,” Bryan Tripp said, “because he came from being kind of the short kid nobody picked on their team to this kid who developed himself into a college athlete.”
Bryan Tripp chuckles when asked about his son’s size and speed. These are areas where he’s not about to take credit.
“It’s funny because my wife always tells everybody he got the size from her side,” Bryan said. “Her grandpa was Norwegian and 6-5. My wife is 5-3.
“Most of my family is Italian. I’m probably the tallest at 6-2 and I was never that fast. But Jordan got into track at Big Sky and they really pushed him. He learned how to run right. By the time he was a junior and senior he was competing in the 100 dash. It was probably one of the better things he did.”
Tripp blends his physical talents with an insatiable appetite for learning. The Griz co-captain spends a good deal of time in Gregorak’s office studying film and asking questions. He encourages his teammates to do the same.
Jordan’s long-term goal is to play in the NFL.
“I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have aspirations,” he said. “As of right now I want to win the Big Sky championship, the national championship with these guys I’ve been working with every single day.
“But seeing Caleb (McSurdy) and all those (ex-Griz) go to the NFL and get their chance is actually pretty cool. That’s in the back of your head but you have to do amazing things at this level to get to that point.”
Regardless of what happens from this point forward, Tripp will always look upon his Griz days as a gift. Even when programs like Boise State were showing interest in Jordan as a high-schooler, he refused to go on visits. He called ex-UM coach Bobby Hauck to verbally commit in the summer before his senior year and he’s never looked back.
“This was his dream,” his dad said. “One thing about it, there’s nothing like playing in your hometown.”
Even if you’re not from Zootown, it’s easy to appreciate what Tripp is all about.
“You can just see the love he has for this university and his team,” said Coyle, who prepped in Bozeman. “He’s a great teammate, great leader, great friend. He’s a guy you definitely want to go to battle with.”
Bill Speltz can be reached at 523-5255 or email@example.com.