MISSOULA — Keenan Curran attributes the best football game of his career to his mother.

After Curran's breakout game in high school, he found his mom in the stands afterward to tell her that his pick-six was for her.

"She's literally my rock," Curran said. "She guides me in everything I do. She's done everything. It's not easy to have four African-American kids living in the 90s. I don't know how she pushed through it, but she managed to raise us and get me to where I'm at now. It's all thanks to her.

He added: "She's literally sacrificed everything so I can live out my dream. I'll never be able to repay her. I don't even know if she necessarily wants me to, but to see the joy that she gets to experience, it makes me so happy."

Tattoos sprawl up and down Curran's right arm and every one of them references his family. 

His mom's name — Shannon — is on the back of his arm. He's worn the Curran family crest on his arm since he was 14. His older sister's name — Ashley — is on the inside of his wrist. A depiction of his grandfather's eye is on his forearm. 

Curran's love for his family has always been there. But his family became an even greater priority after he received a phone call in March of 2015 while he was at the Air Force Academy Preparatory School.

His younger half-brother on his dad's side suddenly passed away.

"I was pretty close with him. He was a really smart kid," Curran said. "He got sick and passed away. It really made me re-evaluate what was important to me."

"... It's unfortunate for anybody's family member to die, but what I've been able to do is live every day like it is my last because I don't know. I could get hit by a bus walking back to the locker room. Life is sacred. I don't want to take life for granted. And that's him being in my life."

Curran had been unhappy at Air Force Prep, but Robert's passing was the catalyst for him ending his days in Colorado. At the end of Curran's first year, he was honorably discharged. 

Curran called Legi Suiaunoa, the former Griz defensive line coach and friend of his family. Curran said he let Suiaunoa know how he was feeling and that he wanted to come closer to home.

Curran accepted former head coach Bob Stitt's scholarship offer in May 2015, albeit as a wide receiver rather than a defensive back.

"Griz Nation, they've received me extremely well," Curran said. "They've received me better than I could have ever wished. I'm happy that in my time here that I've created a second home. It's almost like when I'm back in Seattle, I'm itching to come back here, spend time with people here. This is my family out here. I'm so invested in this place."

Curran said coming to Montana and being closer to his hometown of Federal Way, Wash., has been a blessing in disguise. 

In the summer of 2016, one of Curran's older brothers had a close brush with death as well. 

"I was here working out. My brother, he had an ulcer in his stomach rupture. He was in critical condition. My mom wasn't even sure if he was going to live," Curran said. "Luckily, I was here and able to go back home and see him for the rest of the summer. He's recovered. He's doing all right.

"I don't know what would have happened if I wasn't able to go back. If I was still at Air Force and couldn't get leave, I would have had a hard time with myself if I wasn't able to see my brother if he had passed away."

Along for the ride

Curran, a senior captain for the Grizzlies, has racked up 1,538 yards receiving from 2015-17. That's good enough for No. 24 all-time among Griz receivers. 

His name appears in the record book six times — including one for a school record. His four receiving touchdowns in 2016 against Idaho State is tied with Jabin Sambrano, Marc Mariani, Joe Douglass, Marvin Turk and Mike Rice for the school record.

His average yards per catch — 17.80 — for his career is third all-time among Griz players. That mark is behind Marvin Turk and Mariani. Curran's 14 career receiving touchdowns are also 14th in the books.

And two people have watched it all happen — yard by yard, catch by catch, touchdown by touchdown. Curran's mom and grandma are in the stands for each and every contest. 

"'Man, you're so fortunate,'" Curran recalled one of his teammates saying. "And sometimes I forget that. I don't want to say I take it for granted, but, wow. They do make sacrifices for me every single game. I think they enjoy it. It's their place away from home, but it's special.

"It's easy to come to the Griz home games when there's 27,000 fans. It's hard when you're making sacrifices flying to Illinois or when they're sitting in Cal Poly two years ago and it's like 107 degrees. My mom's sitting there and she's watching the game. Even when we're playing Portland State in a high school stadium. It's less enjoyable than Washington-Grizzly, but it doesn't matter to them."

Even when Curran donned the No. 82 jersey and primarily played special teams, his biggest fans were in the stands. And to Curran, that means the world.

"Some peoples' parents don't come to every game. They don't make a game ever. They were at every home game, even when I wasn't even playing. When I was No. 82, playing special teams, not really catching the football.

"That just means everything to me. I'm glad that they can enjoy it. Not just because they're there to support me — that would be selfish. I'm happy because they get to enjoy it. Now they have friends that are Griz fans and they have friends who are parents of other Grizzlies. That's what Griz Nation is. It's cool that it's become part of who we are."

'A good, quality guy'

Curran's leadership skills aren't new to his days at Montana. They go all the way back to his days at Federal Way.

After his Eagles lost in the semifinals in the Class 4A state playoffs his senior year, Curran gathered his team around.

"I don't remember what the score was, but it wasn't very close," Curran's high school coach John Meagher said. "There's the tears and everybody's all upset at the end and he called all the players over. He gave this inspirational speech telling everybody, 'Hey we should be proud of what we did this year. Next year you guys gotta go win it all.'

"It was an impressive speech, especially with the emotions of the moment that we all were going through and he rose above it, brought the team together and gave them his last hurrah. It was awesome."

Montana's current head coach Bobby Hauck was immediately introduced to that side of Curran as well back in December. 

"When we walked in the door, we gave everyone a clean slate to either achieve or not. And just how quickly who he is became apparent," Hauck said. "Immediately you know this guy's a quality guy. He's going to do whatever he can to help his team. He's not in it for himself. He's in for his teammates and they recognize that. That was quick. That's what stood out the most."

Hauck added: "He's such a solid person. He's a good, quality guy to be around every day for everyone involved with the team. He's got a good, strong leadership-oriented personality, both in his meeting room with the wide receivers and on the offense. He's exactly what your seniors want to be in those aspects."

Curran tries to be a leader off the field as well. He volunteers at every Griz camp he can. He referees youth basketball games. 

Curran does that because he knows he's a role model. 

"Charles Barkley said, 'I'm an athlete, not a role model.' I don't believe in that," Curran said. 

He added: "It was cool to go out and be seen by the younger kids and let them know that I'm a human. You don't have to see me as the Griz football player. Yes I play football for the Griz, but that's not it. I want you guys to be able to come up to me and say, 'I remember when you reffed my basketball game. You're a terrible ref.' But that's all right. It's more so being out in the community."

Curran, who has 10 nieces and nephews, sees what good role models can do for kids.

"I don't want them to ever think they have limits on their life," Curran said of his nieces and nephews. "That's all I try to do is be the best person I can be so they can have some inspiration."

Curran's desire to be a good role model comes from having good role models in his every day life. 

Curran said he didn't realized what sacrifices his mom made for him when he was a kid, but he's well aware now.

"What my mom has managed to do in her life with what's she's been through, it makes me never want to complain," Curran said. "She had to raise four kids on her own with not a full college education, so job opportunities were slim. There were lots of times where we were on government assistance. I see now a lot of people are like, 'People take advantage of that.' Well, my mom was working two jobs and sometimes working more than 12-hour days, 13-hour days at my school.

"We'd get there early in the morning at 6:30 and she'd bring breakfast to the kids. She'd work a full day of work and then she'd be the gym monitor for basketball games and we'd be there until 10 o'clock at night after she cleaned up the whole gym. She would do that. She did that for so many years. To me, it's like, how can I ever complain when my mom has sacrificed everything?"

Curran's other role model is his older sister, who went back to school, was on dean's list for eight quarters and graduated while working full-time and being a full-time mom to her three kids.

Curran said watching her succeed helped him make the dean's list last semester.

"I attribute that 100 percent to my sister," Curran said of making the dean's list in the spring. "She has three little ones and she managed to finish her degree and be on the dean's list for eight quarters while having a little girl, a little boy, a full-time job and sometimes a second job. That to me was impressive. I can't come out here and complain and say, 'Oh I'm tired from football.' She's doing actual life and still making the dean's list. Shout out to her. She just graduated this last quarter.

"She did it in the hardest of ways but she still managed to excel at it. I'm super proud of her."

Strong roots

Curran's been around football, especially Federal Way football, since preschool.

"He was running around being our ball boy since he was five years old," Meagher said. "He had older brothers on the team and he was always around Federal Way football. "It's no surprise that he comes back when he's in town because it's part of his upbringing and a part of who he is."

Curran goes back and speaks to Federal Way athletes whenever he's home. And Meagher appreciates every minute Curran spends giving back.

"He's just got a special way about him in terms of his outlook. He's got great leadership qualities, certainly, but when he comes back and speaks to our current players — he was great in high school, I don't want to demean him — but now he's hitting it out of the park.

"I want to run through a wall now after he talks to the kids. He's that motivational. He's an inspiration. That's really what he is."

Curran is just the fourth letterwinner from Federal Way in Montana's program history. The first Federal Way product is at every practice with Curran, albeit not on the same side of the ball. 

Defensive line coach Barry Sacks played at Montana from 1976-79. Before then, he was an Eagle just like Curran. 

"We have a special bond about that," Curran said of their shared Federal Way ties. "He knows my head coach back home. Coincidentally, he said he was tracking a lot my senior year because we had made it the farthest that any team had since his team. That's a little unique thing we have. He went to the state championship and lost to Snohomish. I went to the semifinals and lost to the eventual state champs."

Not done yet

Back in 2015 in a Q & A with the Missoulian, Curran said by the time his career at UM was over, he wanted to grow as a football player, person and student to become the best person he could be. He added that breaking some records along the way would be nice as well.

Curran has at least 11 games left in his Grizzly career. And he's not done yet. 

"I always think I can do better," Curran said. "I won't say I'm satisfied with where I'm at. Football, you know, it's, who knows. I'm just happy to be here. If I set some records, if I don't, my focus is winning and mentoring the young guys."

"I know that maybe three years from now, there are some guys we have in the receiver room that could bypass everything I've done and then some. You've got Samori, Sammy, Gabe Sulser, Mitch Roberts, Malik Flowers — guys who really are explosive. I've just tried to show them what I know and what I was taught from Jamaal and Ellis and Ben Roberts. So hopefully when they're in my shoes, they can surpass anything I do."

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Amie Just covers Griz football and Missoula-area preps. Follow her on Twitter @Amie_Just or email her at Amie.Just@406mtsports.com.

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