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VETERANS DAY

After serving in the Army, Rocky football's Colten Craig finds calm in the chaos

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BILLINGS — Colten Craig stares down the Herb Klindt Field turf ready to hit somebody.

Seeing most of his action this year on special teams for the Rocky Mountain College football team, despite his freshman designation, Craig isn't the typical wide-eyed first-year player. He has a fierce, laser-focused intensity as he waits for the snap, sometimes slapping a teammate on the helmet as a way to release tension. 

Those slaps are important to Craig as he finds ways to release his tension safely — and make up for lost time.

Four years ago, the 23-year-old Craig gave up a promising college football career to join the U.S. Army. Now, amid his second act in college sports, with a personality hardened by his military service, his time with the Bears is more pleasure than work.

It's also much needed in his ongoing adjustment back to a civilian lifestyle.

"Football was always, up until I joined the Army, my life," Craig said. "That's all I cared about. And I joined the Army and was like, 'Oh, football is not my entire life.' ... But now it's just, I'm playing for fun. I get to go out there and hang out with a bunch of really cool-ass dudes who all have the same love for the sport that I do, but we're all just out there trying to have fun."

It's a different type of team atmosphere than the armed forces, and one that Craig appreciates. When he lets loose on an opponent, some of the anguish he endured during his time in the service goes away — even for just a few fleeting moments.

All-conference standout

Originally from Jerome, Idaho, where he was an all-conference football selection at the prep level, Craig was recruited to play football in Caldwell at the College of Idaho — which, like Rocky, plays in the NAIA's Frontier Conference. Listed as a linebacker for the Yotes on the team's 2018 season roster, Craig recorded no stats, per the C of I record book, partly because he had dropped out early to enlist in the Army.

At that point in his life, said he wasn't "mentally grown up enough" to handle a college lifestyle. His family has a deep military background with an uncle who served in Afghanistan and a great-grandfather who served in World War II — a man who was the subject of many conversations and admirations from Craig's father growing up.

With the thought of enlisting in the back of his mind, an Army recruiter's arrival at school "sparked a fire under (his) ass." Not wanting to regret not joining, Craig found himself off to basic training.

Colten Craig Rocky Football

Spc. Colten Craig

"There was definitely a couple of times where I was like, 'did I make the right choice?'" he said. "But, for the majority of the time, it was like, 'No, this is where I need to be.'" 

Craig thrived in the hectic environment at Fort Benning, Georgia, quickly elevating himself to a platoon leader role. Drill sergeants tried their hardest to break him down a few notches.

Craig didn't budge, eventually finishing at the top of his class.

"That kind of made me realize, 's---, I was kind of made to do this," he said.

Finding a friend

Transferred to Fort Hood in Texas after basic training, Craig met Spc. Michael Shawn Hook, Jr. Not one to mince words, Craig said his first impression of the Indiana native was that he was a "complete dick" who picked on new arrivals as a way to impress the non-commissioned officers who ruled the base. 

But once Craig withstood Hook's initial rough exterior, the two quickly connected over their shared love of football, weightlifting and motorcycles. Their relationship evolved into best friends, with the duo working out together nearly every day even after their transfer to Europe, where Craig was stationed in Germany, Lithuania and Latvia.

Colten Craig Rocky Football

Colten Craig (top right) poses for a Christmas photo with fellow servicemen during his stint in the U.S. Army. To the left of Craig is Spc. Michael Shawn Hook, Jr., who died by suicide during his time in the service. Craig wears a memorial sticker on his Rocky Mountain College football helmet in Hook's honor.

The friendship was as close as anything between two people who weren't blood-related, Craig said, adding that "Big Mikey," his affectionate nickname for Hook, "pulled me out of a lot of hard times."

"Him and I did anything you could think of together," Craig said. "We ended up buying motorcycles together, riding around all the time. Honestly, (we) just had a lot in common, which is crazy to meet someone from however many states Indianapolis is over from Idaho and make friends with someone like that. But he was as genuine of a dude as you could get. Dude would give you the shirt off of his back."

The two often talked for hours about life, passing the time on training missions in which both were awake for days on end. Craig discovered a lot about Hook, including the fact he had what he called "psychiatric problems" he rarely talked about. Craig checked in every once in awhile to make sure he was OK.

But when Craig arrived for work one morning in 2021, a member of his scout platoon was missing: Hook. Craig had a horrifying suspicion for why Hook wasn't there, but he didn't speak up because he didn't want to be right. He was right.

Hook was found dead from a suicide at his residence on June 18, 2021, leaving behind a wife and two children, per his obituary page. He was 24 years old.

'It took a toll'

Shock and devastation wrecked Hook's close friends, with Craig in particular saying his outlook on life has been forever changed. 

"It was rough, man. It sucked," Craig said. "It took a toll on all of us. ... I hate to say this, but sometimes, something as terrible as that happens and it kind of brings a lot of people together.

"You kind of think about it, but you never think it'll be something that really affects you. And then when it does, it just kind of hits (you) about how serious that s--- actually is."

Colten Craig Rocky Football

Colten Craig (middle) poses with his father, Sam Craig (left), and brother, Kyle Craig. Kyle will join his older brother at Rocky Mountain College to play football for the 2023 season.

Craig got out of the Army in March at a specialist rank, saying he felt it was time to "do my own thing." He worked as a diesel mechanic for a few months back in Idaho before getting contacted by Rocky assistant wide receivers coach Jordin Myers, his high school quarterback at Jerome.

Mulling a return to college football at his old program, C of I, Myers asked a question to Craig: Why not Rocky? When Myers cleared the idea with head coach Chris Stutzriem, the two former teammates were reunited.

Still, few in the Rocky program knew who exactly Craig was when he showed up for his first summer workouts. Redshirt sophomore and fellow running back Cade Lambert's first sight of Craig was of an unknown man walking around the football facilities with long hair, a full beard and bulging muscles. Lambert at first thought Craig was a coach in his 40s.

"I was like, 'Who the hell is this guy?'" Lambert said. "But it didn't take long. I kind of just started getting to know him and I found out he was a running back, which is my position, too. So we ended up spending a lot of time together just in position meetings and such getting ready for the season."

Many in the running back room have warmed up to Craig, as well, turning to him as a pillar of advice as someone who has not only played college football before, but also someone who has been part of a team with a different type of intensity than on a football field. It's a role that Craig relishes, noting that the Rocky version of himself is far, far different than the C of I version.

"When I was kid, especially going through high school and then before the Army, I was kind of timid," Craig said. "I kind of didn't want to be that dude that was laying big hits (and) stuff like that. And after the Army, I just kind of found a whole different side, like a flipped switch, you could say.

"(Football has) been, honestly, one of the best releases since I've been out of the Army, for sure. Just being able to kind of let out a lot of that pent up emotion and anger that I had from the Army."

A jack-of-all trades for the Bears this season, Craig (who has three years of eligibility remaining) has played sparingly but has made his playing time count in multiple facets of the game.

Against his old team C of I in early September, Craig took a kickoff return back 28 yards. In the blowout 56-0 win over Montana State-Northern later that month, he got three carries for 13 yards in the game's late stages. And across the year, he's tallied four total tackles to show that he still has plenty of talent and room to grow.

A battlefield cross

Beyond his No. 40 jersey, the best way to identify Craig on the football field is by looking at his helmet. Many Bears players wear decals and stickers of personal significance. The one of Craig's is of a battlefield cross with the initials MSH: Michael Shawn Hook.

Colten Craig Rocky Football

Rocky Mountain College freshman running back Colten Craig's helmet features a memorial sticker, seen to the far left in this photo, for Spc. Michael Shawn Hook, Jr., a friend during Craig's stint in the U.S. Army who died by suicide on June 18, 2021, at the age of 24.

"You give everything you have for those who can't give anymore," Craig said. "I'm trying to show that after the military, even if you're going through the s---- (and) dealing with your mental problems or just having trouble transitioning, there's things you can do. There are people out there that want to see you succeed and want to help you."

Craig credited his family for helping to keep him stable and offer a constant source of support through his many location changes. His brother Kyle will join him at Rocky next year, giving the Craig family even more of a reason to make the nearly eight-hour haul from Jerome to Billings, as they've done for nearly every Bears home game this season.

Taking to heart one of his favorite sayings — it could always be worse — Craig has deserved the right to relax a little and enjoy the good times that he's earned, with his first Rocky season ending with a home game Saturday against Montana Western.

But for the names that he holds dear, both still on this Earth and not, Craig will keep pushing.

"On this team and in the community, and even in my own community back home, we've got people that I haven't heard from in years that are hitting me up, asking how I'm doing," Craig said. "They're just saying how proud they are of the things that I'm doing and how I'm kind of putting little old Jerome on the map. So it's been cool, and I really, really do look forward to these next few years."

Email Briar Napier at briar.napier@406mtsports.com or follow him on Twitter at @BriarNapier

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