Montana State’s Brekke vows to lead by example as career comes to a close
BOZEMAN — The moment that perhaps best encapsulates Gunnar Brekke’s steady career at Montana State isn’t a twisting run through a defense or a long kickoff return down the sideline. Rather, it’s a play that did nothing to rescue the Bobcats from defeat, provided no heroics and won’t appear on any highlight reel.
But it spoke volumes about the way Brekke plays football and, more importantly, embraces his role as a leader and team captain — even though his playing days are quickly coming to an end.
During a last-ditch drive late in the fourth quarter of a close game against Northern Arizona at Bobcat Stadium on Oct. 8, MSU quarterback Chris Murray was blindsided and stripped of the football by Lumberjacks defensive end Siupeli Anau.
The ball bounced free until NAU linebacker Xavier Stevens scooped it up and started racing the other way for an unabated touchdown — which would have only added insult to the Bobcats’ bruised psyche.
But Brekke wasn’t having it. As if shot from a cannon, the former Helena Capital star chased Stevens down, took a hard swipe at the ball in vain from behind before hauling him down at the 19 yard line.
The Lumberjacks’ offense took a knee on the next snap. The game was over. The Bobcats lost, 20-14.
Brekke’s mad dash didn’t matter though, did it? He could have just as easily stood and watched as NAU returned the ball all the way into the end zone. The game was over at that point anyway, right?
“Looking back, it would have been really easy in that situation just to say ‘screw it,’” Brekke said. “But to go out there and just let that guy run and just stand there, what example does that set? You don’t stop until this game’s done.
“I’ve never started something and not finished it. I think that’s one of the things I pride myself on and that’s one thing to pride yourself on in life. It’s very easy to sit back and just say ‘I’m done’ and quit something when the going gets tough. But it’s the true competitors and the successful people that when the going gets tough they find a way to push through it.”
Brekke’s effort was a microcosm of his attitude toward — and his love for — the game, but the loss to NAU was a microcosm of something else. It served as one of several one-possession defeats the Bobcats suffered early in what has been a season of transition under first-year coach Jeff Choate.
Since the spring, Choate and his coaching staff have been busy instilling a greater amount of physical and mental toughness within the program while installing new systems on the field. The Bobcats have remained largely competitive but haven’t gotten many positive returns on the scoreboard.
Still, Choate and the Bobcats have rolled with the punches, trusted the process and relied on their seniors and upperclassmen to show a young team the right ways to prepare and compete.
Brekke is one of MSU’s most valuable players. But he proved he is invaluable to Choate in the waning moments against Northern Arizona.
“The one play that stands out to me from that game is Gunnar at the end,” Choate said. “Just to see the heart that kid showed and the fight that he displayed in that moment, he’s a tremendous competitor and that showed me a lot about the type of young man that he is.”
• • •
Brekke’s career at Montana State almost never materialized.
The summer before his junior season at Capital High, Brekke was turning heads during football camp at the University of Montana. Brekke remembers being called off the field by then-UM defensive coordinator Mike Breske.
“They pulled me out of drills and we went up to his office,” Brekke said. “He got me a Gatorade, sat me down and said, ‘We’re going to offer you a full-ride.’ My jaw dropped.”
A Montana fan growing up, Brekke committed to the Grizzlies on the spot.
But Jason McEndoo, then the offensive line coach at Montana State, didn’t let Brekke off that easy. McEndoo was persistent in his pursuit of Brekke, even though the young prospect was staying loyal to his non-binding verbal contract with Montana.
Eventually, McEndoo broke through.
“Coach McEndoo kept calling me and I didn’t answer. I didn’t even want to talk to him. I was already committed to the Griz,” Brekke said. “He kept calling and kept calling, and he left me a voicemail and just said, ’I know you’re committed to U of M, but if you ever just want to talk, call me back. I’d love to talk to you.
“I sat on it for a couple days and it was really weighing on me. Finally I was like, ‘I kind of want to call coach Mac back, and I don’t know why. I shouldn’t, but I want to.’”
Long story short, Brekke made the call, and a couple days later he was on campus visiting Montana State. He liked what he saw from a program that, at the time, was on its way to winning a third consecutive Big Sky title.
Meanwhile, there was upheaval at Montana. Months earlier the coach and the athletic director had been ousted, the quarterback had been accused of sexual assault and the university and law enforcement in Missoula were facing scrutiny for their handling of such allegations.
It all played a role in Brekke making what he said was one of the toughest decision of his life.
“When I met the guys, something about it just felt right,” Brekke said of his visit to MSU. “That’s not to say there was anything at U of M that I disliked or people at U of M that I disliked, I just had a feeling that maybe that wasn’t the best fit for me. Maybe this was.
“As soon as I left, the word was out. I called (Montana) back and told them, ‘I’m not 100 percent sure now.’ It’s way too big of a decision to not have 100-percent certainty. I gave it another week and a half, then I called coach (Mick) Delaney and told him that I was sorry, but I was going to MSU.
“The next phone call to coach (Rob) Ash was a lot easier.”
Bobcats defensive coordinator Ty Gregorak, then on the staff at Montana, remembers it well.
“I remember him committing ... and I remember him de-committing,” Gregorak said. “I think we were surprised, but we also got it. Montana was going through a lot. It was a very interesting time at Montana.
“Of course we were disappointed. Gunnar was one of the best if not the best player in the state that year. He’s just a good football player. You can do a lot with guys like that.”
• • •
Months removed from being named the state’s player of the year, Brekke was in the MSU lineup as a true freshman. But he made his first big impact as a sophomore in 2014, piling up 424 rushing yards, 204 receiving yards, 732 kickoff return yards and six total touchdowns.
During a game at Sacramento State that year, the versatile Brekke amassed 308 all-purpose yards. It will stand as the most productive all-around season of his career.
Brekke had the first 100-yard rushing game of his career, surprisingly, earlier this season against the Hornets.
Brekke never became the every-down back many people thought he’d be when he was fresh out of high school. He’s had to share touches with several talented backfield mates, including fellow senior Chad Newell, one of Brekke’s best friends.
But that’s hasn’t altered Brekke’s mindset.
“Running back by committee has been our thing since I’ve been here,” MSU running backs coach Michael Pitre said. “That’s where he’s so selfless. He just wants the team to be successful at the end of the day.”
At the end of last season, when the Bobcats finished 5-6 and missed the playoffs for the second time in three years, Ash was let go as coach. Choate was hired less than a month later.
Whether good or bad, right or wrong, the coaching change affected — and continues to affect — MSU’s players. As changes are implemented, it’s been a trying season.
Brekke believes the Bobcats, under Choate’s leadership, will be a contender someday soon. There’s only one problem: he and his fellow seniors won’t be a part of it.
“This season has been frustrating, but as a captain what can you do besides lead? Leadership trumps everything,” Brekke said. “Selfishly, yeah, we wanted so much more. But this program is bigger than us.
“I know that we as seniors can help lay the foundation for what’s going to be built in the future, and I take a tremendous amount of pride in that.”
Brekke is a finance major who is on track to graduate next fall. He isn’t quite sure what route he’ll take when he exits MSU, but he’ll have options.
Brekke expressed interest in joining the Helena-based construction business owned by his father, Ray, with the potential to one day take over.
Before he leaves, though, Brekke wants to accomplish a few things. Notable on that list is beating Montana, the program he originally committed to before his heart took him to MSU.
Brekke has never been on the winning side of a game against the Grizzlies.
“Looking at my career ... I don’t know. It’s funny,” Brekke said. “You go back to your senior year of high school and you have all these dreams and you know how it’s all going to play out. And then it doesn’t play out that way.
“I’ll never get to play this game again. I see the handwriting on the wall, and this is it for me. But at the same time I look back on it and think about how much I’ve learned. I couldn’t be happier for this experience. I really couldn’t.”