BOZEMAN — It’s been a tad ridiculous.
Then again, that’s the definition of mania — “an irrational but irresistible motive for a belief or action.”
Grown men have debated for weeks about an appropriate theme song to immortalize him — so far “The Age of Denarius” has a slight lead. Young girls have been spotted buying T-shirts outside Bobcat Stadium that pay him homage — they read “In McGhee We Trust.”
Denarius McGhee Mania has arrived. It’s here to stay.
And Cody Kempt, the quarterback whose job McGhee took, couldn’t be happier about it.
Lest it be forgotten, before McGhee notched any of his dizzying 2010 accomplishments — the 2,477 yards passing, the three national freshman of the week honors and the 7-2 record, which ties for the best start in school history since the 1984 national championship season — he faced what many believed to be an insurmountable obstacle.
Winning Montana State’s starting job.
You can count his dad among the doubters.
Mike Gause, a.k.a. Big Mike to friends of his son Denarius, didn’t bother purchasing season tickets for this season. A military man, Gause knew a thing or two about seniority.
His son, a redshirt freshman, didn’t have it. Kempt did.
A fifth-year senior, Kempt had started several games for the Bobcats coming into 2010. To put it simply, Gause said, there were many who “didn’t think there was any way Denarius was going to be the guy this year.”
Aug. 31, 2010, the day McGhee was named MSU’s starter, would consequently prove to be a bittersweet day for Gause. Interestingly enough, the same goes for Kempt.
It was the third time in his career that Kempt had been demoted. As a redshirt freshman at Oregon, it prompted him to transfer. (He also lost his job last year). As a senior at Montana State, some folks might say a similar course of action wasn’t taken only because Kempt had run out of options.
Those folks don’t know Cody Kempt. Then again, neither do most folks.
A former Bobcat himself, Kempt’s father Mychal knows his son hasn’t shown the “affable and goofy” side of his personality that comes out around his two younger brothers, both of whom are also quarterbacks.
Mychal knows very well the side Kempt has shown Bobcat fans the past two years.
“The Cody you know is a very protective, guarded, straightfaced, unemotional, quiet, work, work, work type,” Mychal said. “The Cody I know is funny as heck.”
These days, the Cody that Mychal knows has been making more appearances.
That side comes out in the grin that sneaks across his face while overhearing McGhee galloping through the nearby locker room, overpowering the bass boost from an impressive speaker system with a chorus of, “Oh baby! Oh baby! Oh baby!”
It’s evident as he relaxes his chiseled shoulders, exhales and calls his coaches decision to make him a backup a “sign from God.”
“It was kind of like He was giving me a taste of humble pie and telling me to get my priorities straight,” Kempt said. “Through this whole situation, I’ve finally learned that my football career is not going to define who I am.”
In MSU head coach Rob Ash’s eyes, McGhee’s story has been a great one. But Cody’s “may be the greatest story on the whole team this season.
“He’s a fifth-year senior who has played a lot of games who’s been beat out by a freshman at the premier position on the field and he’s handled it like an absolute champion,” Ash said. “I just can’t say enough about the positive impact he’s had on this team. He’s been fabulous.”
If their roles were reversed and he was back on the Montana State campus in the mid-1980s, Mychal’s not sure he would have had the strength to handle losing his starting spot to a freshman.
“I was a little bit immature, I was a little bit misguided,” Mychal said. “I would have probably been a little bit more focused on myself than I would have been on my team. Seeing Cody handle this situation this year, I’ve actually learned a lot.
“To be able to say that about my son, I can’t tell how proud it makes me.”
Cody didn’t get there overnight, though. For a kid who says, “I once made football my idol,” his maturing process has been far from brief. Mychal and his wife Marlene are well aware.
“There were times when we were concerned,” Mychal said. “He was just so focused, so competitive. There were multiple occasions where we’d talk to him and say, ‘It’s OK to take a day off.”‘
Cody admits that some of his loosening up started when the team signed McGhee a season ago.
“I’ve learned so much from Denarius and this whole situation,” Cody said. “If you become too serious or too mature, it will affect you negatively. Denarius has a solid balance in his life and he’s helped me learn how to have fun with the game.”
Mychal has seen it firsthand.
“Watching Cody on the sideline, he seems entirely different,” Mychal said. “His attitude and demeanor — he’s more relaxed. He’s more himself. And I do think that has to do with the youngster that he’s with. I really do.”
It was one of those life lessons that Mychal feels probably had to come from a source like Denarius.
“For me to say it, or his mom to say it or even a coach to say it, it might have seemed like, ‘You don’t get it,’ or, ‘You don’t get me,”‘ Mychal said. “I think Denarius has had that affect not only on Cody but on the entire team. He’s a special kid, and as an alumnus, as a dad of a player on this team, I’m so glad that he’s our guy.”
Being able to say that about the quarterback starting in front of his son means something to Mychal.
“I’m a former player, I’m a father of a current player; you probably couldn’t get a less objective observer,” he said. “But hey, I think Denarius is awesome. He’s doing a great job. Cody and I agree.”
While Cody says he gave himself some time to digest the fact that he wouldn’t be a starting quarterback in his final year of college and “be down for a little bit,” it didn’t last long.
“About two days,” he recalled.
Not only did Cody feel as though getting behind Denarius was the right thing to do, he felt as though it was his duty.
“I owed it to this team,” Cody said. “I owed it to this program, I owed it to the community, I owed it to the state. I wasn’t going to be someone who was going to let this situation affect this team negatively.”
Why? Because “more than anything,” Cody wants to win. And with McGhee, that’s what the Bobcats have been doing.
“That’s all I’ve ever wanted,” Kempt said. “I’m going to do whatever I can do to help us win. If that’s giving my best in practice and helping Denarius as much as I can, that’s what I’m going to do and have been doing.”
But when his senior year does end, whether it’s on Nov. 20 in Missoula or Jan. 7 at the national championship in Frisco, Texas, Cody can take solace in knowing that he has a career waiting for him.
Hoping to become a coach, he has a list of nine references ready and waiting to vouch for him.
“I will do whatever I can possibly do to make sure Cody Kempt makes it into the coaching profession,” MSU offensive assistant Brian Von Bergen said. “He’s earned that.”
As for his dad, it doesn’t matter if he sees his son throw one more pass.
“I’m more proud of him now for what he’s done when he hasn’t been playing than I ever was when he was playing,” Mychal said. “A couple months ago, I might not have shared that. Now, I’m happy I’m getting the chance to do so.”
As for Cody, he may not be able to call himself Montana State’s starting quarterback. But he can say one thing.
“I’m 23 years old and I have my whole life ahead of me,” he said. “But right now, I can honestly say I’m as happy as I’ve ever been.”