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Grizzly iron men: Health fortunes aiding Montana to reach pinnacle of FCS title game

Tyler Flink, Garrett Hustedt and Alex Gubner
Posted at 6:56 PM, Dec 30, 2023

MISSOULA — One of the themes, storylines, and contributing factors to this year's run to the FCS national championship for the Montana Grizzlies is health.

It feels obvious to say, but it's true. Without a healthy team, the Grizzlies, or anyone, don't make deep playoff runs.

"I think we could have been sitting here in (2021) and (2022) potentially if we'd stayed healthy, but we didn't, so it was certainly productive for us to be healthy," UM head coach Bobby Hauck said.

What's been different?

Naturally, a number of factors, but some come to the forefront.

"I think (football strength coach) Dan Ryan and coach Hauck kind of came up with a real plan to really hit on our soft tissue, the little (hamstring) injuries to our quads," senior safety TraJon Cotton said. "And when things really get tight, we kind of hit those in the weight room now, which we kind of really didn't really hit as much in the past. And I think that's really showed the season."

Senior safety Nash Fouch and senior defensive tackle Alex Gubner have played in every game for the Grizzlies since the 2019 season, with next week's national championship set to be Fouch's 57th game, and Gubner's 58th.

"I think as you get through college, with football, how to take care of your body, nutrition, or just stretching and sleep, just all these things that help you with performance," said Gubner, the Big Sky Conference's defensive player of the year this season. "And you get a lot of older guys too that you come up with. And you see how hard they prepare physically for a game.

"Guys like Marcus Welnel, and Pat (O'Connell) and even Dante Olson or Colin Bingham, those guys I always saw them in the training room just doing extra stuff, recovery, ice bath. We got kind of a good culture here. Guys like Levi Janacaro and Braxton Hill, they get in that cold creek out in the Rattlesnake all the time and consistently. I think just everyone here just kind of understands that from just the staff from all those departments."

"I think (former safeties coach Shann Schillinger) told us a long time ago when I first was here, your best ability is availability," Fouch added. "So just stay healthy, learn as much as you can, and I think that's been huge for this team this year."

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University of Montana senior TraJon Cotton (3) breaks up a pass during the Brawl of the Wild at Washington-Grizzly Stadium on November 18, 2023.

Offseason work and the weight room has also been key for things like mobility and longevity as the Grizzlies built up their bodies.

"I think the weight room has been the biggest thing for me just because we work so much," Fouch said. "I mean, we work speed and we work heavy lifts all the time, but it's just as important if not more important than the season to work on the mobility and stuff at the same time, and I think through the course of my career I've tried to be pretty good about it and I think it's showed.

"We've kind of bought into the training piece, probably a little bit more. I mean, our summer workouts last year were awesome. Everybody's still working really hard in the weight room right now. Which is I think probably the biggest difference in the past is I think, I mean, we always work hard but I think we've made it a point this year to stay up on that in the weight room this year and working on our mobility and stuff like that as much as we can."

Cotton also hasn't missed a fall game at UM since he arrived three years ago and has been a starter almost his entire career with UM.

Cotton battled injuries at Oregon State, but since, it's the attention to details of preservation that have helped him stay ready in Missoula.

"Just a commitment to the training room," Cotton said. "I go in the training room after every lift and cold tub and ice tub. And I do after practice as well. I do it twice, they call me an old man, because I be in the training room so much and using the cold tubs and things like that, but it just got me here this long.

"I was a young head at Oregon State. So, I really didn't believe when the older dudes said better hit that training room, you better roll out, get to workouts a little earlier to roll out and stretch a little bit before you just hop in the work out and things like that. I really didn't take that serious until I kind of went through those injuries, and I really focused on my body. And I think that's really paid off."

Stretching, hydration, recovery. You've heard it before, but it works.

"You got to take care of yourself," Gubner said. "If you're playing a lot of snaps, ice bath, Normatec, even the sauna. A lot of us get in the saunas here at the end of the day just because, you know, you're not missing games, you're still hurting. We get creative here."

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University of Montana senior Nash Fouch (4) forces a fumble that is returned for a touchdown against University of Delaware during the second round of the FCS playoffs at Washington-Grizzly Stadium on December 2, 2023.

And there's other guys like safety Garrett Graves, linebacker Braxton Hill, linebacker Tyler Flink, cornerback Corbin Walker and center AJ Forbes who have all sparingly missed games and have played in 50 or more at Montana. Others on the team have cracked 40 games and rarely missed time, but especially, this season.

"I think it's helped a lot," Cotton said. "I mean, we got to build that chemistry every week, every week in and week out, playing with the same guys, you know what I mean? And I think kind of building that chemistry really helped with everybody being healthy."

Of course, some luck is also involved to get through a full season, and there's bumps and bruises along the way, but games are special because of their limited number, and this year's Griz team has done everything in their power to make sure they're available when Saturdays roll around, and the work they've put in has paid off in the long run.

Especially Fouch, who left UM's game against Furman in the fourth quarter, but still made it back for the semifinal against North Dakota State to keep his perfect streak in tact, while helping the Griz topple the Bison.

"Most of my best experiences in life have happened in (Washington-Grizzly Stadium) and to miss one of those would just suck, so I think it's been really cool for me," Fouch said. "It's been really cool for a lot of guys, I mean, Gub and TC too, and some other guys, it's just, it's really cool to come out here every Saturday and do this and to miss one would just be a shame. So I'm glad it turned out the way it did."