MISSOULA — Mundane for the most part, the NFL preseason is much more intriguing when you know some of the guys fighting for their livelihood.
My mind wanders back to University of Montana football practices five summers ago. Back when friends Brock Coyle and Jordan Tripp set the pace for the Grizzly defense with their passion for the game and work ethic.
They just seemed a little different than the rest. Seemed to have more fun and care a little bit more.
Both had dreams of playing in the NFL. But really, what are the odds of a kid from Missoula and his chum from Bozeman both ascending from the same Griz linebacker corps to the point they consistently hold their own with the best football players in the world?
"I knew they were both good football players and had outstanding work ethic, but I would have never ...," offered former Griz defensive coordinator Ty Gregorak. "You know I would have hoped they would have chances in the NFL but what they've done is just unbelievable."
Just like the last three Augusts, nothing is guaranteed for Tripp and Coyle as NFL teams approach that dreaded week when they'll make wholesale cuts.
Coyle, 26, started his career as an undrafted free agent signed by Seattle to provide depth for the best defense in the league. Three years, one Super Bowl, five starts, seven playoff games and 24 tackles later, the Bozeman product agreed to terms on a free agent deal with the 49ers earlier this year.
His one-year pact is reportedly worth a million dollars, not including the $400,000 signing bonus. But Brock has to make the team to get all his money and he has some catching up to do after a nagging rib injury kept him out of the Niners' preseason opener at Kansas City.
That's just the latest in a line of injuries for Coyle and Tripp, who might best be described as special teams survivors.
Tripp is on his fourth NFL team and the stakes are higher than they've ever been after he signed a base contract reportedly worth around $700,000. If the 26-year-old Missoula native makes Green Bay's 53-man roster, he might just nab that one piece of jewelry Coyle came within a play of nabbing in Seattle — a Super Bowl ring.
"Shoot, one's a Packer and one is a 49er, you talk about two storied franchises," Gregorak marveled. "You find the right niche and hope you'll have a little luck health-wise.
"Injuries are going to happen. It's such a violent game and linebacker is such a volatile position. But special teams were drilled into their heads at Montana and they've become outstanding special teams players."
Regardless of what happens in the coming weeks, Tripp and Coyle have built quite the Griz legacy. Long from now, Gregorak will still remember them as the guys he had to "boot out of the building" at Montana because they just couldn't get enough football.
"You had to tell them, 'Hey go be a college student,'" Gregorak joked. "They studied, they worked at it, they kept their bodies in unbelievable condition. They acted like pros even when they were in college in terms of eating the right things and doing the extra."
The average career of an NFL player is just over three seasons. That includes all those over-hyped draft choices from big-time colleges that you hear about, ad nauseam, in April.
Tripp and Coyle are approaching that threshold and both have already qualified for an NFL pension.
That may not be such a big deal if they played college ball at Alabama or Ohio State. But for two fun-loving Montana chums that played alongside one another at the University of Montana, it's truly special.
Gregorak continues to stay in touch with Tripp and Coyle and even though he's moved on to Montana State where he serves as defensive coordinator, the success of his former Grizzly understudies is gratifying for him.
"I'm proud of all those Grizzlies still playing," he said, "but in particular those guys will always be near and dear to my heart."