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Rocky Klever
Rocky Klever, a standout running back for the Montana Grizzlies who want on to play in the NFL, heads for paydirt during his UM career.

While he was in town for last fall's Grizzly-Bobcat football game, former University of Montana star Rocky Klever planned to get in touch with Mike Van Diest, the head football coach at Carroll College in Helena, and one of his assistants, Jim Hogan.

Van Diest had been part of Larry Donovan's coaching staff when Klever was finishing up his career with the Grizzlies in 1980 and 1981, and Hogan was a teammate.

They met for breakfast in Helena, and the conversation quickly turned to what Klever was doing at the time. He had just sold a bar and liquor store in New Jersey.

"Nothing," Klever told them over breakfast, to which Hogan responded, "Hey, why don't you come be the tight ends coach?"

Klever had played tight end for the New York Jets for seven seasons.

Klever ran the idea by a number of folks including former agent Ken Staninger, former Jets and Grizzlies teammate Guy Bingham, and his children, among others. Klever has been divorced for more than 10 years.

"It just seemed like a cool thing to do," Klever recalled. "I'm going to be 50 years old in July, so I started thinking how can I change careers into something that I love and did for awhile, and before you know it, I'm the running backs coach down here (in Helena)."

Klever's NFL career certainly wasn't something he had anticipated when he came to UM as a quarterback out of Anchorage, Alaska in 1977.

"When I left Alaska, I was just happy to get to a different place and go to college," Klever said.

Once in Missoula, it didn't take head coach Gene Carlson and his staff long to move him to tailback. After that happened, some scouts came through Missoula and indicated he might have the size and speed to "play something" in the NFL.

When Bingham was drafted by the Jets a couple of years before Klever finished his UM career, scouts started paying a little more attention. When the time came, the Jets also went for Klever.

"I was lucky to hang on," Klever said of his early time in the NFL. "My first couple of years, nothing was guaranteed. It just kinda worked out perfect because a tight end that was drafted from Idaho couldn't play special teams.

"He got hurt once and I kinda filled in, and before you know it, they liked me at tight end," Klever added. "That's half the battle if the coaches kinda like you."

Playing special teams added to Klever's stock, and even when he was playing tight end more regularly, he continued his special teams contribution. He enjoyed it, and said he wouldn't mind being a special teams coach someday.

Klever's NFL career ended somewhat unceremoniously. He was on injured reserve for his entire last season with a back injury, and then was cut by the Jets because he couldn't pass his physical.

Stories circulated that Klever actually was cut by the Jets because of his activities with the NFL players' union. But he claims it had nothing to do with that.

Klever went through a lockout and a strike during his NFL career. During the strike he was quoted as saying the Jets should go back to work as a team, but the players' association didn't like the idea.

"It wasn't as if I was a union rep or anything like that," Klever explained.

Klever played his whole career with Bingham as a Jets teammate. After Klever was let go Bingham went to the Atlanta Falcons, then the Washington Redskins, before his NFL career came to an end.

Klever's fondest memory of playing in the NFL was having Bingham as a friend and teammate, but he also really liked the camaraderie and the closeness of the team.

"I still have the friends from the Jets," Klever noted. "Quite frankly, I forget a lot of plays. I know we played a lot of games, but there are some games that just aren't in my memory bank anymore."

Klever said having Bingham already with the Jets when he arrived as a rookie was a huge plus as well.

"He knew all the guys, and they accepted me quicker," Klever recalled, "'cause there was a little bit of a hazing going on with rookies. It wasn't anything brutal, so Bing always told me what to do, and how to do it, and when to do it, and before you knew it, you fit right in and you were one of the guys."

Walt Michaels was the coach of the Jets when Klever first arrived, and he gave way to Joe Walton. Klever said they were very different.

"Walt Michaels took us to the AFC championship playoff game my first year there," Klever remembered, "and then he got fired, and it was kind of weird. Then Joe Walton took over."

"Joe Walton liked me at tight end, so (he) would be my preference," Klever joked.

During his time with the Jets, Klever married a Pennsylvania girl. The two settled in New Jersey "and started having kids." Klever already was interested in coaching.

"But it takes a special couple to be a coach," Klever said. "The wife has to buy into the coach's wife thing, and it just wouldn't have worked being married."

After the divorce he tried coaching at Northern Arizona with Jerome Souers, but that didn't work either.

"She wasn't a very good coach's ex-wife either," Klever said.

Three of Klever's kids are in college, and the fourth - Taylor - is in ninth grade. It was Taylor who said he should go back into coaching and that she would go to college wherever her dad happened to be coaching at the time.

After leaving the Jets, Klever owned a Gold's Gym in New Jersey for about five years before getting into the bar and liquor store businesses. His best job, he recalls, was with a golf course, also in New Jersey.

"I'd go in at six in the morning and get out by 1 and do the golf course thing and play golf every day," Klever said.

Jake is his oldest child, labeled by his dad as a "career student" at Lyon College in Arkansas, where he plays baseball.

Daughter Ali is 20 and goes to Villanova, where she started out competing in crew.

Kelly, 19, plays on the women's lacrosse team at Westchester in Pennsylvania.

Klever also has a pair of dogs that he said are just as important as his kids: a standard poodle named Zoey and a golden doodle named Sophie.

Klever hopes to stay in coaching until he retires, and he has the blessing of his four kids to go for it.

"I'm down here at Carroll with a great staff," Klever boasted. "I want to pursue it (coaching) and see what happens going forward. I could stay at Carroll for 20 years, or bounce around."

Klever said he has tried to make it to a Grizzly football game every year and also has participated in Doug Betters' fundraiser in Whitefish as often as he could.

"It's taken a little longer than I wanted," Klever said of his return to the Treasure State, "but I have patience, you know."

Klever's mother splits time between Arizona in the winter and Anchorage - where one of his brothers lives - in the summer. He has another brother in Oregon, where the Klever family lived before moving to Alaska.

It was the "Tom Huffer connection" that got the Grizzlies interested in him. A former Griz quarterback himself, Huffer - who had coached at a rival high school in Alaska - was serving as a UM graduate assistant coach the year before Klever was a high school senior.

Huffer tipped off coach Carlson and his staff about Klever and said they should recruit him.

Klever had played sports with the likes of former Portland State and NFL quarterback Neil Lomax in Lake Oswego, Ore., before his mother moved the family to Anchorage and had always figured he would play for Oregon or Oregon State.

He considers it more good luck that he ended up at Montana, and that he was moved to running back. It seems that starting back Monty Bullerdick had a case of fumble-itis in the first half against Boise State, when Klever was a sophomore.

"One of the (UM) coaches asked me if I knew the plays," Klever said. "They put me in at tailback and I had a good second half. That's also when (assistant coach) Dave Nickel started doing the Shotgun Flex (offense)."

Klever still got a little time at quarterback that season, but as a junior and senior he played nearly full time at running back.

Things changed drastically when Donovan took over as head coach ahead of Klever's senior year.

The new staff, including Van Diest, instituted breakfast check, study hall and winter conditioning, and made the players live on campus. Klever was a team captain and the coaches wanted him to buy into what they were doing.

"I was kind of bucking the system a little bit," Klever recalled, "and then Donovan had to have a little sit down with me and tell me to either buy in or get out, so I chose to buy in."

Donovan also wanted to try Klever at outside linebacker, but that only lasted for a couple of practices before he settled back in at tailback.

Having lived in Oregon and Alaska, Klever immediately felt like Montana was better than both places because it had the best of both places. But he said Missoula was different when he first arrived, adding that it has since become a "little bit crowded and trafficky."

Klever still believes Donovan and his staff deserve a lot of credit for the new stadium that opened after they were fired.

One interesting thing that Klever was involved in at UM was the emergence of running back Wayne Harper of Anaconda. Klever had broken his collarbone early in his first senior season in 1980 and sort of promoted the idea of Harper becoming his replacement.

Harper had a great game in the mud against NAU in Missoula, running for 151 yards, and had a couple of other outstanding efforts that year as well.

"It was kind of like we talked more about especially him being big and fast and ugly," Klever laughed, "(and) that the mud was good for him, too."

Klever's most vivid memory from his UM days was playing against his brother who was at Portland State. Their mother came for the game.

While somewhat disappointed that the Grizzlies didn't have playoff-type success while he was a UM, Klever - much like his days with the Jets - especially remembers the friendships he made while in Missoula, with guys like Harper, Bingham and Staninger.

He fondly remembers beating Idaho State the year the Bengals went on to win a national championship. He also talks about what a great man Griz trainer Naseby Rhinehart was.

Klever, in addition to Harper and Bullerdick, also maintains contact with former teammates like Bill Dolan and Jay Becker, and is excited to have been reunited with Hogan at Carroll.

Now that he's back in Montana he hopes to get back in touch with ex-teammates like Allan Green in Anaconda and Terry Thomas in Dillon, both successful coaches in their own right.

Klever is somewhat amazed that some things haven't changed all that much, including Hogan, who he hadn't seen in some 30 years.

"It's like you get right back into acting like a 20-year-old in college and just being normal football teammates," Klever marveled.

Klever maintains a home in New Jersey, near the beach and the boardwalk, and enjoys being able to partake in what both states offer.

But eventually he hopes to sell out of New Jersey altogether, and perhaps make Montana his permanent home.

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