On the turf at Bobcat Stadium, Jon Montoya is 250 pounds of the meanest, fiercest defensive lineman you'd ever want to see. Once he leaves the locker room, he's a different man.
"He is definitely a dichotomy," Montana State football coach Mike Kramer said. "He has a different type of motor. He has a hard heart about playing football, but he has a soft spot about everything else in his life. When he's playing, he's ferocious. When he's not playing, he's absolutely benign."
Montoya is a senior defensive end for the Bobcats, who take on No. 22 Idaho State today, in their homecoming game in Bozeman. He's a devout Christian who moved around California with his aunt and uncle from age 10 until age 16, when they all settled in Sioux Falls, S.D. He's also been a first-time All-Big Sky selection the last two seasons.
"Jonny has been nothing but concrete from day one," said Kramer, who has started Montoya every game since taking over as the Bobcats' head coach in 2000. "He's been one of the most formidable run defenders I've ever been around. His ability to strike a guy that outweighs him by 50 pounds - he's done it so repeatedly, we sometimes take it for granted."
Montana had a team-high 91/2 sacks last season, despite weighing around 235 pounds by the end. He came into fall camp this year at 258, but hasn't been able to keep all that extra weight on. Still, he has 11 tackles, a sack and a fumble recovery through MSU's first five games.
"To take on a 295-pounder that's taller than him, and control him, and playoff the block and make the stop on the run?" Kramer asked. "I've never seen anything like it, and I don't know what it is. He's not a big bench presser - he's not a 500-pound bench presser, or even a 400. And God knows he's not fast. I mean, he's five-flat (over 40 yards). But his ability to torque guys - it's just different."
Moving around The ability Kramer cites is as different as Montoya's background. He grew up outside Los Angeles with his mother, and when she lost her job, Montoya said he and his two brothers and one sister were basically farmed out to relatives. He moved in with Kurt and Debora Makower, and moved to Northern California, then back to Temecula, then to Sacramento. Then Kurt decided to go to North American Baptist Seminary in Sioux Falls. Montoya went to school there for a year, then to nearby Brandon Valley for two. It was the smallest Class AA school in South Dakota, but had the largest tradition.
"We had an awesome football team," Montoya said. "My junior year we went to the state title game and lost; my senior year we won the title in overtime. Awesome tradition. Classic small town, but majored on sports. Awesome in basketball, great in football. It was pretty neat."
Colleges came calling, among them Nebraska. When the Cornhuskers asked him to walk on, MSU was his next-best offer. "It seemed like a neat opportunity," he said.
Montoya, who stands 6-foot-2, feels he's a fit, even if he came to MSU as a tight end/linebacker prospect in Cliff Hysell's final recruiting class - "One of the great recruiting classes in Montana State history," Kramer maintains. He was moved to defensive end during his redshirt year; then came Hysell's resignation. When Kramer's staff came in, Montoya got the go-ahead to move back to tight end.
"That's where my heart was," Montoya said, then laughed. "Then came time for spring."
Joe O'Brien, the embattled assistant who recently resigned from the staff, was a key to Montoya switching to defensive end again. "Just a real passionate coach," he said. " A guy that just helped increase my level of play, and the whole line's play. It was definitely a privilege at that point to play on the D-line."
Twenty-four sacks later, Montoya has settled in - sort of. "I can't really make a wrong step, especially with my size," he says. "I feel like we play a style of defense that's enabled me to be successful. We play hard-nosed football on D-line, and that's the kind of style I like to play. Especially on the run - I love the run. I like those teams that come right at you."
Making an impression Montoya is an elementary education major who is currently doing his student teaching. He has also been married to Tracy - who he'd known since age 12, when both were in California - for more than two years. "We were just great, best friends," he said. "Not until my senior year did we start dating, with the intention of getting married."
He's started 39 of 40 game for the Bobcats. The first 12 were losses, including the 0-11 2000 season, but last season's Big Sky championship was the eventual windfall. "The first year was pretty rough, obviously," Montoya said. "But at the same time I was encouraged by what you could see down the road with the team. There was a lot of great talent being shaped and molded. Now we're just reaping the benefits of that experience."
On trips to California - MSU lost at Cal Poly this season, and shut out Saint Mary's 40-0 last week - his mother has attended games. His aunt and uncle make it to at least one game a year, and his father has seen him play as well. "I have a great relationship with all of them, now," he said.
Tracy has helped stay the way. So has his belief in God. "Just being able to depend on Him through those hard times - I look back at it, I'm just extremely thankful to Him," he said. "For just kind of leading me through all that took place."
"We have had a very strong Christian presence on our team," Kramer said. "Ryan Johnson, Mike Woodberry - they proved you can be a strong Christian man and be a hard-hearted football player, too. Jon lives his life in a way that brings respect to what he believes in. And he never wavers from that.
"He's the best defensive end in the conference in terms of being a run-stopper, and a pass-rusher. He was unanimous all-Big Sky as a sophomore, and should've been unanimous as a junior. And I believe he'll be unanimous as a senior."
Two weeks ago 12 of Montoya's 14 charges at Heritage Christian School attended Montana State's home game against Northern Colorado. They unfurled a banner and chanted, "Mr. Montoya!" during time outs. During his time at the school - 8 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. every day, before heading to practice late - he has clearly made an impression. "That was real special," he said.
"Then I have to take on a whole other role when I get to practice," he added. "It's been a real unique experience."