Sept. 18, 2014
Anyone who has lived in Missoula for any significant period of time knows that, prior to the mid-80's, University of Montana Grizzly football games could hardly be described as a community event. However, at some point thereafter, it became a city event, then it was most certainly a regional event, and now it is, at the very least, a statewide event, maybe larger.
In the past 20 years, we have watched a small town, small-time program struggle to its feet, and take wings and touch the highest echelons of the college game. Unfortunately, as Grizzly football became more than a small and simple football program, inaccessibility became an inevitability. It became inaccessible to so many children, especially financially-disadvantaged children.
Griz Kidz, a program designed to put tickets in the hands of these children at no cost, is now a huge part of the Grizzly game day experience, and it brings Grizzly football to those children who don't always have the opportunity to see the silver and maroon. Griz Kidz secures and distributes tickets to disadvantaged individuals, so that they are afforded the opportunity to visit the UM campus and attend Griz home football games, free of charge.
The organization began thanks to the efforts of former Montana football players, and all of the current board members are former Griz standouts. That group includes: Mike Rankin, who played linebacker at Montana from 1985-1989; Tim Polich, who played offensive tackle from 1985-1989; Bryan Tripp, a linebacker in 1989-1990; Thad Huse, a defensive tackle (1987-1991); Mike Bouchee, linebacker from 1993-1996; Jeff Larson, a quarterback/ wide receiver from 2007-2010; Shane MacIntyre, a linebacker from 2001-2005; and Dylan McFarland, an offensive tackle (1999-2003).
For the past six years, Griz Kidz has provided 50 tickets for each home game, free of charge, to its beneficiaries along with a Griz Kidz shirt, hat and vouchers for food at the concession stands. More than 2,000 children have received free tickets from Griz Kidz, and with each ticket, nearly every beneficiary has received, at the very least, a Griz Kidz shirt and hat. At each game the children utter phrases like "this is so amazing and cool" to something incredible (and often heard) like "this is the best day of my life".
The planning for Griz Kidz started a decade ago. In 2004, Rankin approached a group of his former Grizzly teammates, and presented them with an idea to assist children in the Missoula community. This group of former teammates immediately understood the value, and at that first meeting, it could be said that Griz Kidz was born.
"During the first couple of years, I instinctively felt children would enjoy the opportunity to spend a Saturday at a Grizzly football game," Huse said. "However, I was far off. They get so much more from it. Without exaggeration, there have been several instances where the children have found the Griz Kidz opportunity to be a life-changing or at least life-impacting event. I have come to realize there is so much more to it then just tickets, a free shirt and a game. To some of these children, depending on their backgrounds and what they have faced in life, this is a generosity that they have never experienced before. For others, it is a view to something they didn't even know existed, and it inspires them to do something good, or at least makes them think about doing something good.
"Some of these children have never seen a college campus, and just being there opens doors in their minds," Huse said. "Mostly, though, I have learned that the kindness and generosity of Griz Kidz lets these children know someone really cares about them, and every Saturday, you can see the children respond to that positive message. You can almost feel they are learning good things through the simple kindness of the Griz Kidz program."
"I have been involved with Griz Kidz since the first year back in 2005," Tripp said via a text message. "Mike Rankin approached some of his friends and ex-teammates with this idea of getting disadvantaged kids to games with the hundreds, sometimes thousands of tickets that go unused every week. We all agreed it was a great idea and a way for us to give back to a program and community that had given so much to us. Now, through the generosity of our sponsors and the community, we own 50 tickets and can bring 50 kids to each home game!
"It is a very rewarding program to be a part of," Tripp said. "Since the origin in 2005, all of the coaches and affiliated staff, too numerous to mention, have been an integral part of the program's continued success. I am proud to be a part of such a great program and affiliated with the University of Montana in this way!"
"We are in our 10th season and to look back at all the kids and organizations we have touched is quite amazing and rewarding," Polich said. "The support we have had from day one from the Missoula Community, Grizzly Athletics and Griz fans from far and wide, has been incredible and ever increasing year after year. It has been a great run thus far, and we look forward to future seasons of inspiring more hopes and dreams for the kids -- that's what is important and really counts at the end of the day."
In order to make Griz Kidz a self-sustainable program and a viable operation, the members quickly ascertained that Griz Kidz would need funding. The original founders decided to apply for, and received status as a 501(c)(3) non-profit entity. Most importantly, that meant donations made to the program were, at that time, tax deductible. In conjunction with securing that status, Griz Kidz formed a formal board of directors, which included current board members Rankin, Tripp, Polich and Huse.
"The Board is what you would truly call a philanthropic-minded group in the sense that I have never been around a group who gives so much and expects so little," said Huse. "No one complains about helping, and when something needs to be done, we are never short of volunteers. It really is indicative of the bond of the board, and how much each individual cares about the program and the children it assists. There is no question that a bond has been created, just being part of Griz Kidz, but I believe it is probably appropriate to say that bond was created by just being part of the Grizzly football program.
"I have found so many folks in the Missoula community to be overwhelmingly kind when it comes to assisting Griz Kidz and its recipients," Huse said. "We have watched folks bend over backwards to assist us in meeting our mission of helping those individuals who receive tickets from Griz Kidz. It is a special community when a program, like Griz Kidz, almost always gets the assistance it needs, when so many children can benefit.
"The University falls into the same category," Huse continued. "The folks in the ticket office, the GSA, the coaching staff, the players; they have all been willing to take time from their jobs and their daily routines to be there when Griz Kidz and its children needs them. It is not only heartwarming, it is inspirational to witness true philanthropic kindness at work, and I know I speak for the entire board when I say we see it every week in this community."
Griz Kidz is so much more than a program now, it is a community asset. Another example of what the organization does is coming up soon.
On the Grizzlies' Nov. 1 home game against Sacramento State, Griz Kidz will host a paraplegic boy from Deer Lodge for the weekend, and UM head coach Delaney has invited him to practice and to the team dinner on the Friday before the game.