MISSOULA — Justin Strong calculated the numbers. His financial situation didn't look good. 

Rent for his Corvallis, Oregon, apartment was $795. He had $1,200 left of his Oregon State scholarship with two to three months before moving to Missoula.

"I had no more money," Strong said. 

A friend helped him find a manual labor job, fixing cattle runs to make ends meet.

"It was enough to provide for myself," he said. "It wasn't easy."

The transitional period between transferring from an FBS program to an FCS school can be difficult, as FCS scholarships don't begin until classes start.

That's the predicament Strong found himself in during the summer of 2016 before coming to the University of Montana. 

At one point, Strong "had $20, so I bought a loaf of bread, some sandwich meat, mayonnaise, just to eat," he said. 

It's not a story he tells often, as he's a man who prides himself on handling adversity on his own. 


Strong's start into football was a baptism by fire.

With brothers both older and bigger than him, he learned to make no excuses.

"When I was probably like seven, my brothers were varsity in high school. My other brother was 300 pounds," Strong said. "I was going against bigger guys my whole life. If you ever see us, we don't care about how old you are. We don't care how small you are. We gon' hit you and if you cry, you cry. 

"It got to a point where I'd go cry to my mama and she'd tell me, 'Don't play then.'"

He toughened up through the Pop Warner ranks into high school at Summit High School in Rialto, California, where he dominated. 

The three-time high school team captain had 105 tackles, five sacks and five interceptions as a linebacker his junior season and earned first-team honors for his league.

That was the year that playing college football became a realistic option for him.

"Honestly, I didn't even think about college football until my junior year of high school," Strong said. "I started seeing my friends from around the area getting scholarship offers. I was like, 'You really can go on to play more football.' I always knew I was good at football, even from a little age. I was like, 'You know what? I'mma just keep playing this game and see what happens."

San Diego State was the first school that offered him. Plenty of other schools came calling as well, but no school stuck out like Oregon State did. Oregon State had his attention for multiple reasons. Strong believed he was a Pac-12 caliber athlete and one of his older brothers, Victor Butler, went there too. 

"I always told my mom, 'I'm a Pac-12 player,'" Strong said. "As soon as Oregon State came, if nothing else comes better than Oregon State, then I'm going to Oregon State regardless.

"Also (former Oregon State head coach) Mike Riley and Coach (Mark) Banker. They were close to the family. I already knew I was going to go into a good organization where they cared about the players, where they let you become a better player and a better man and thrive and have a better opportunity to get you to the next level."

His senior season, as a safety, Strong had 49 tackles and four interceptions, earning him first-team honors. Because of that, the three-star recruit was Scout's No. 56 safety in the country.

Strong signed with Oregon State and took his redshirt in 2013 and did work for the Beavers' scout team — an experience he doesn't miss. 

"They talk to you however they want," Strong said. "They don't really respect you as a football player. There were times where I went into the equipment room and I couldn't even get a pair of socks. 

"Once the season ended, I was telling people I was on the scout team with, 'I'm not being on scout team ever again in my life.'"

He wasn't. Strong played in all 12 of Oregon State's games in 2014 and started in three. By the season's end, he had 56 tackles, five tackles for loss, three pass breakups and a forced fumble. 

He started eight games his sophomore season before missing the last four due to a concussion. 

"It wasn't even a big one," Strong said. "That wasn't how it was supposed to shake out though, that's the thing. I was supposed to miss that week. Then, we were like 2-6 and I talked to the coach and they said, 'There's really no risk of putting you back out there to risk getting another one, so we'll just rather you sit out.' So, that's what I did. I sat out."

Even though Strong had 54 tackles in 2015, he wasn't happy. 

Riley, Oregon State's head coach from 2003-14, took the same position at Nebraska after Strong's redshirt freshman season. Things weren't the same.

"When Riley left, a lot changed for me," Strong said. "They didn't like my size. They didn't like that I was 5-10, but I played like I was 6-2. That didn't really matter. I don't know. It was just the best thing for me to do at that point."

Strong had connections, including to Mike Leach at Washington State, as his younger brother Marcus plays there.

Because of that, Strong wanted to become a Cougar, but since he's used his redshirt, he didn't want to lose a year of eligibility.

"I wasn't missing any more years of football," Strong said. "So Coach Leach put my mom in contact with Coach (Bob) Stitt."

The rest was history, sort of. 

Strong finished out the school year in Corvallis but approached the end of his scholarship money, so he went to work.


Strong had to be cleared before he could join up with the UM team, so he worked out alone when he arrived in Missoula. 

His workout routine consisted of running or hiking up the M every day, working on position skills and hitting the weight room when the football team wasn't in there. 

"(Getting) cleared was a good feeling because I got to get my helmet back, get my pads on and get ready for my first game as a Griz," Strong said. 

Even then, Strong doubted himself. 

"I wasn't sure if I was still going to be the same J. Strong that Coach Stitt was expecting from Oregon State," Strong said. "I wanted to come from Oregon State to Montana and make the same plays I made at Oregon State, but even better. I was nervous about it."

Strong played in 10 games his junior season and finished with 68 tackles, a mark that was good enough for third on the team. He had a team-high three interceptions and six pass deflections and three pass breakups. 

The team felt his immediate impact.

"He's been really good for us and we're lucky to have him," safeties coach Shann Schillinger said. "I'm just really proud of him because he's a hard worker. I don't think you'll be able to realize how valuable he is until he's gone."

As Strong prepared for his senior year, he hit another bump in the road — another injury.

"I tackled (the sled) from the side and popped my hand on the metal behind the machine real hard," Strong said.

The verdict: Strong dislocated and fractured his left thumb, tearing ligaments along the way too. He needed surgery to repair his thumb and missed only one game.

"I'm happy the way they handled it because it could have been a lot worse," Strong said. "They could have procrastinated the process and I could have missed more than one game."

There was one small caveat though. Strong would have to play with a club on left hand and it took him a bit to get used to it.

"I feel bad for the kid because he's done everything with one hand. That's frustrating because when you know you can do something but you don't have the hand to do it, it makes it hard," Schillinger said. "I think he's been successful because he's really good. He finds ways to get it done."

Strong, UM's 5-foot-11, 190-pound starting free safety, single-handedly had one of his career-best performances against Portland State. He had three interceptions with another pick on a 2-point conversion attempt, enough to win national player of the week awards.

"After I got the three interceptions at Portland State, I didn't even think about the club anymore because, I'm still gonna make plays like I'm supposed to," Strong said. "That's all that matters at the end of the day."

Lately, Strong's been practicing without the club and hopes he'll be able to be "two-hand J" for the rest of the season. 

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Amie Just covers Griz football for the Missoulian, among other things. Follow her on Twitter @Amie_Just or email her at Amie.Just@406mtsports.com.

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