By Tim Leeds/Havre Daily Newsfirstname.lastname@example.org
North-central Montanans have headed east to watch their beloved University of Montana football team play for a national title. Some are taking a 100-mile detour to see the Fighting Saints in their own national championship game.
This weekend is huge for Montana football.
"We could not pass this up because we have not missed a (Grizzly) game this season," Hill County Commissioner Pat Conway said.
Conway and his wife, Arlene Conway, flew with Ric and Denise Floren on Thursday to Atlanta before driving about 100 miles to Chattanooga, Tenn., to watch the Grizzlies try to win their third NCAA Division I-AA championship tonight. They play the James Madison University Dukes.
The four will drive another 100 miles to Savannah, Tenn., to watch the Carroll College Saints try to win a third straight NAIA championship when they battle the St. Francis University Cougars on Saturday.
"We thought this would be a wonderful opportunity to see the Griz and Carroll play," said Ric Floren, operations director for Havre Public Schools.
They are not alone. Hordes of Montanans are flying east on commercial flights and on charter flights, including a plane chartered from the Hooters company complete with Hooters Girls.
Joel Carlson, assistant sports information director at UM, said the university has sold 2,000 tickets to Montanans going to the game.
Steve Mariani, a Havre insurance agent, said his trip to the Griz championship game is his Christmas present to himself.
"It's Merry Christmas for Steve," he said.
He has missed many Grizzly games this season while watching the Havre High Blue Ponies advance to win the state Class A championship. His son, Marc Mariani, was one of their star receivers.
Marc Mariani is now playing Blue Pony basketball, but Steve Mariani said he will miss one of those games to see the Griz championship game. He plans to return in time to see the Saturday Pony game against Great Falls High School.
He added that he is hoping for another Christmas present while he is in Chattanooga.
"I'm just hoping I'm carrying those goal posts this year," he said.
The last time Mariani went to a championship game, in 1996, it was the Marshall University fans who carried the goal posts off the field. Marshall's Thundering Herd won that game 49-29.
"Randy Moss was playing for Marshall and he kind of had his way with the Griz," Mariani said.
Lowell Swenson, the Havre city clerk, said that also was the last Grizzly championship game he went to - "the year that Randy Moss kind of ran all over the Grizzlies," he said.
Swenson said camaraderie is strong at Grizzly games. He runs into many people he knows at the games, including people he went to school with at UM.
"The only time I see them is tailgating at the Griz homecoming game," he said. That's usually the only game he goes to.
"This was kind of a spur-of-the-moment thing," he said about his trip to Tennessee.
He said he won't be surprised to see many people he knows, including Havre-area people, in Chattanooga.
"It should be a pretty good time," he said.
Going to a Grizzly game is an event all in itself, Floren said.
"If a person hadn't ever been to a Griz football game, it's an atmosphere you've never been exposed to," he said.
He's never seen fans who are as knowledgeable and as enthusiastic about a team.
"It's just electric," Floren said.
That electricty starts as the marching band performs and the colors are brought in. Weather permitting, skydivers land in Washington-Grizzly Stadium, then Monte, the team mascot, rides in on a Harley-Davidson motorcycle.
Havre certified public accountant Leonard Deppmeier is a Grizzly season-ticket holder, but said he can't get away to the championship game. He has been to the playoff games this year in Missoula.
"The games there are really something to behold," he said. "The crowd noise is deafening. Those playoff games are really special."
He said watching the fans tear down the goal posts last weekend after the Grizzly victory over Sam Houston State University in the semifinals was something to see.
He refrained from going down to the field.
"That would be taking your life into your own hands," Deppmeier said.
The parties before the game are also memorable. Mariani said Grizzly fans usually throw a big party the Thursday night before the championship wherever the game is being played.
"I might see people there I haven't seen for years ," he said.
Havre lawyer Dan Boucher said he can't go to the Grizzly championship because he had a prior commitment - refereeing at the Holiday Classic wrestling tournament in Great Falls this weekend.
"Even if I'm not there, of course I'm excited about it," he added.
He has made the Grizzlies' last four championship games, including the victories in 1995 and in 2001.
Deppmeier said Havreites have a standing invitation to a party at the Grizzly home games held in a trailer near the stadium. It has a sign that says "Bullhook Bottoms Tailgate Party."
The sign has a Blue Pony on one side and a Grizzly on the other.
"You're always welcome if you're a Havre native," he said. "You can run into all kinds of combinations of people at that."