MISSOULA — The one word that came to mind for a handful of former college football players and coaches to describe ex-Montana standout safety Vince Huntsberger was "smart."
Huntsberger exceled on the field as an All-American and succeeded off the field to where he’s now an emergency room physician in Sandpoint, Idaho.
The Libby native who played at UM from 1998-2001 will be honored Friday when he’s inducted into the Grizzly Sports Hall of Fame alongside former football team doctor Robert “Doc” Curry, who will receive the Grizzly Lifetime Honors Award after nearly four decades at UM.
“It’s a great honor,” Huntsberger told 406mtsports.com. “First and foremost, football’s a team sport, so I have to put a lot of my success on our coaches and great players. It’s an honor to be put in as an individual, but football’s such a team-oriented sport that it’s probably more important to me that the 2001 team went in. It’s a great honor for me to get that, but there are so many great pieces that a football team has to have to be successful.
“I was a good player and helped the success of the team, but I’d love to give all the honor to the team and re-induct them just to say thanks to everybody that was a part of it. Obviously, me being inducted is a great honor, and I’m glad they thought of me and felt my days playing there were worthy of being inducted because you’ve got a lot of great players, a lot of NFL players and I never got the opportunity to play at the next level.”
Huntsberger remains the lone Grizzly to receive a vote for the Heisman Trophy, given to the top football player in all of Division I. He also was named to eight All-America teams, was the runner-up for the Buck Buchanan Award in 2001, was the MVP of the 2001 national title game and was a two-time Big Sky Conference defensive MVP.
“There’s lots of great moments,” Huntsberger said. “We had so many good games and close games and playoff games and playing in snow, playing against Appalachian State and winning that game in the semifinals in Washington-Griz.
“Eastern Washington, my sophomore year, I had three interceptions, which I remember that just because I didn’t have that many interceptions in my career, so that was huge to have that.
“I remember Damon Parker picking up at the end of the Sac State game like a pitch option to win the game. We had such great teams for the five years I was at Missoula.”
There were also some gaffes Huntsberger recalled just as well.
“In the national championship, the very last play of the game, we were always taught to bat the ball down and don’t try to intercept it at the end,” Huntsberger said. “The game was kind of over, but I jumped up and batted the ball down right into the receiver’s hands, and he ran for a touchdown. So we missed that as the only team to ever have a shutout in the national championship if I would have just caught the ball.
“Weber State, my freshman year when we played there, somebody had blocked a punt, I picked up the punt, and I thought I was in the end zone, but I was 5 yards short and I dove and I ended on like the 2-yard line. So, I missed out on my first opportunity for a touchdown thinking that I was in the end zone already.”
Huntsberger is still Montana’s all-time leader with 393 career tackles. He has 469 tackles including playoff games, although the NCAA didn’t count those as official stats at the time.
“I was never the biggest or the fastest, but I studied a lot of film,” Huntsberger said. “I knew the playbook inside and out as far as defensively and where I needed to be and when I needed to be there. Just an aggressive and instinctive player that knew what to expect. The success came from of our coaches.
"We played a cover-4 defense, which is our safeties were heavy on the run. Even from coach (Kraig) Paulson to coach (Jerome) Souers, then onto coach (Mike) Breske and coach (Dave) Doeren, we always ran that cover-4 base, which was huge for me because I was an aggressive strong safety/linebacker type, so my success was really how they played me.”
Huntsberger was a durable player, starting 55 consecutive games. He helped lead Montana to four consecutive Big Sky titles and a 45-10 record in that stretch.
“He didn’t run as fast as a lot of kids, but there was nobody that was any tougher or any smarter,” said former Montana head coach Mick Dennehy, who recruited Huntsberger.
Added former Weber State coach Jerry Graybeal: “In my 30 years in the Big Sky, I’ve seen all these top-notch players, and you don’t forget players like him and (Dave) Dickenson. Just so active. One of those real dynamic guys and obviously tough as nails. Just a total playmaker.”
Huntsberger was a favorite among those who played with him. He was elected a team captain three times.
“We wanted guys like Vince,” former Montana wide receiver Travis Walker said. “One of the smartest guys. He played safety, but he was everywhere on the field. You could count on him getting everybody to be where they needed to be at and making the proper reads and adjustments. He was just a smart player and very hard-nosed.”
Added former Montana quarterback Drew Miller, “He was just an animal. Just a very cerebral, smart football player that you knew was always going to line up right, get other guys around him lined up if they weren’t. He was a playmaker. He was a great tackler. He had a knack for finding the ball and either intercepting it or causing a fumble. He was a quiet leader but was just tough as nails — never wore gloves, never wore a towel.”
As a pre-med student, Huntsberger was a three-time Academic All-American and a finalist for the 2001 William V. Campbell Trophy, known as the academic Heisman.