MISSOULA — When it comes to sports, there are natural talents, and there are anomalies — those players whose progression simply seems unfair and therefore befuddles the everyday athlete.
Perhaps “phenomenon” would be more appropriate.
Well, Danny Kistler Jr. could then be considered as a “phenomenal anomaly.”
The 6-foot-8, 315-pound senior is a third-year starter at right tackle for the University of Montana football team.
But the fact Kistler plays for the 3-1 Grizzlies is not odd in the sense of his ability, rather it is due to his relative late start in the game of football.
While he says he was always one of the biggest kids growing up in his neighborhood, Kistler didn’t play football until his freshman year at Seattle’s O’Dea High School. His late start wasn’t necessarily his decision, however.
“I started playing football in high school, because I was a little too big for all the junior leagues,” Kistler said. “I was too heavy, which I guess is a positive thing.
“The way I look at it is it’s a little bit better, because it saves your body. I know a lot of kids came into high school with injuries from playing junior football that I didn’t have to deal with as much. With that being said, I haven’t played football as long as a lot of these guys have.”
That inexperience only drove Kistler to work harder as he helped the Fighting Irish to a 13-0 start and a state championship berth during his junior season of 2007. He started every game and was voted most improved football player.
“We had one of the best offenses to ever play in the state of Washington,” Kistler said. “We made it to the state championship and lost to Skyline — it was a tough loss.
“I started to really get motivated at the end of my junior year. I started to say, ‘You know, I really love this game. I want to be successful at it, so I’m going to give it everything I have.’”
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After being named a preseason all-state choice before the 2008 season, the now 22-year-old battled through an injury-plagued senior year that included a torn lateral ligament in his left ankle and a broken right hand, which forced him to miss three games.
That season did not result in immediate college football offers for the lineman. But Kistler only grew more determined.
“Montana State actually told me they didn’t think I was athletic enough to play college football, so they weren’t going to offer me a spot,” he said. “Eastern Washington never called me back.
“I had a lot of adversity. A lot of the coaches told me I couldn’t do it, and that just kind of stuck in the back of my head and motivated me to go prove them all wrong.”
After spending six months as a janitor while attending South Seattle Community College, Kistler caught a break ... after thinking he caught a break.
“I was on an official visit to Colorado State,” Kistler started. “On the visit, I found out they had a guy commit and the offer was taken up.
“Luckily, coach (UM Mick) Delaney has a good relationship with some of the coaches there. So they called him, I came out here on a visit and I was starting school at the U of M the next week. It was a quick process.”
Not only did Delaney want Kistler on his team, he wanted the offensive lineman to play right away.
Kistler forewent the seemingly common freshman redshirt season and immediately saw action in 2010; as did William Poehls — who starts at right guard alongside Kistler.
The 6-8, 340-pound Poehls and Kistler both lettered as true freshmen that season and have developed a friendship on and off the field during their four years together.
“Playing next to him is easy to say the least,” Poehls said. “I don’t have to worry about him, he knows what he’s doing. It’s just one of those things where we have chemistry together.
“Often times, we’re the first ones in the weight room and we’re the last ones out.”
As sophomores, Kistler, Poehls, and now-center Kjelby Oiland — a defensive lineman in 2010 who transitioned to offense in 2011 — helped anchor what is considered one of the most talented offensive lines in school history, which included tackle Jon Opperud and guard Stephen Sabin.
With three of those five lineman still on the roster, Kistler sees the 2013 UM line as potentially better than that of 2011.
In addition to Kistler, Poehls and Oiland, the Grizzlies’ left side now features sophomore tackle John Schmaing, a Billings Senior grad, and junior guard Trevor Poole.
“That sophomore season I had, a lot of people say that was the best offensive line in Montana history, but I think we have a real good shot at being better than that one this year,” the right tackle said. “We’re just as talented and we work extremely hard.
“The team cohesion is unbelievable. We all love each other and we all have each other’s backs, and I think that’s what’s going to give us the edge on other teams.”
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After being named an All-Big Sky Conference pick in 2012, Kistler was voted a captain by his teammates.
One of three seniors on the offensive line, Delaney says Kistler has perhaps the most impact on the rest of the lineman.
“Dan just brings a little bit of everything to the offense,” the second-year coach said. “He brings leadership and he also brings a lot of talent to the line. He’s very athletic with good feet.
“He is the leader on the offensive line, so to speak. He’s a tremendous influence on the younger guys and the guys around him. He makes them better.
“Dan is more of a leader that leads by example. He just goes out every day and goes to work. He never wastes a day.”
Kistler does not shy away from the leadership role.
“I just have a responsibility to do what I’ve done my first four years here,” he said. “I study film hard and try to get better at that every day. Then I try to teach the young guys how to do it. I can take the young guys under my wing a little bit and they can trust I’m going to show them everything I can.”
While Delaney says his right tackle is not the “rah-rah” type, Kistler understands an offensive lineman’s duty.
“The thought process is you want to be overwhelmingly physical and execute at a high level,” the senior captain said. “You want to communicate. It’s more about you than it is the other team. We have to know exactly who we’re going to block and when the snap count is.
“I think getting that comfort is huge.”
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Aside from the teams and coaches that didn’t see Kistler as “good enough” or “athletic enough,” what drives the phenomenal anamoly more than anything else is his family.
The all-conference tackle attributes much of his success to his parents — Helen and Dan Kistler, Sr. — but his inspiration comes from the prior generation.
“First and foremost, I write my grandmother’s initials on my arm for every game — MHK (Mary Henrietta Kistler),” the grateful grandson said. “She passed away shortly before I got my scholarship offer here at Montana.
“I write her initials on my arm so she’s always with me, because she was kind of the one that was always there to help raise me. She was always an encouraging voice saying, ‘Hey, everything’s going to be all right, you’re going to make it, you’re going to be successful.’”
MHK is sure right so far.