MISSOULA — Montana punter Adam Wilson felt like his old self when he took off on a fake punt during the Grizzlies’ victory over North Alabama last weekend.
The former rugby standout ran for 19 yards and a first down to extend a drive that led to a field goal as Montana built an early lead.
To get to this point, the 6-foot, 185-pound Wilson took a gamble when he transferred from Arizona’s rugby team. Bogged down by injuries, he hoped to return to football.
Wilson got that opportunity when he had the help of an old friend and earned his way to a walk-on opportunity with Montana after three seasons removed from football.
“It sucks I had to leave. It broke my heart I had to leave my team,” Wilson said, reflecting on the decision before talking about how it’s been a move for the better.
“This is my family. These are my brothers. Those guys were also my brothers, but I feel a way closer connection with these guys. It’s nothing against the rugby team, but this is something else. You go through hell and back with these guys and have an appreciation for each other. It’s been a real family.”
The San Diego native is in his second year as a starter for the Griz and has more responsibility as a senior. He handled kickoff duties last year and has added punter to the list this year.
It’s safe to say Wilson’s wager on himself has paid off so far.
“They all got to take a little bit of a gamble to go anywhere, especially guys that walk on,” said coach Bobby Hauck, who gave Wilson the opportunity to come to Montana. “In terms of him, that’s just an itch some of them have to scratch. He did. I’m glad he decided he wanted to play.”
Kickers and punters aren’t largely considered to be athletes like the rest of the players on a football team.
Wilson would counter that notion with his time playing rugby, a sport that combines football and soccer elements in which strength, speed, endurance and a fearless attitude are needed in a punishing game where padding is minimal or nonexistent. He also played running back and defensive back in addition to handling kicks and punts in high school football.
Wilson learned the physicality of sports in grade school by playing with his older brother against boys who were a couple years older than him since his parents wouldn’t drive to multiple locations for practices. That toughened him up since there were no excuses or whining allowed.
“It definitely put me into a more competitive mode just because I got the crap kicked out of me when I in sixth grade and before that,” Wilson said. “When I started playing with kids my own age, it was a piece of cake. It was easy. It was kind of fun just to kick ass.”
Wilson developed a strong work ethic by growing up with parents who were both in the military. They were strict but fair, he said, and preached the importance of chores and following through on duties.
Sports came to be a necessity for Wilson when his grades slipped during his freshman year of high school outside of the football season. The following year, he played rugby, football and volleyball throughout the year, and his grades rose as he had to manage his time better.
“My parents knew that I needed to continue to play sports to keep my academics right, which I’m doing here too,” Wilson said. “If I have my time occupied, if I’m not just sitting around all day doing nothing. I know how to prioritize my work and know when to do my work.”
At Arizona, Wilson majored in sign language, which Montana doesn’t offer, so he changed to political science. The major doesn’t have much to do with his post-college plans, but he enjoys politics.
Wilson had hoped to join the military, but his brother already has, and he said his mom doesn’t want more than one of her kids to do that. So, he’s considering becoming a paramedic while working to become a firefighter. Being a police officer is also a thought he’s had.
“It’s all about helping someone else, seeing a direct impact,” Wilson said. “A lot of jobs help people, but it’s about seeing a direct influence in someone else’s life and helping somebody else out. I feel like it’s a good fit.”
Before Wilson can help others, he had to help himself.
Wilson earned a rugby scholarship to the University of Arizona to play a position that was kicking dominant but allowed him to run the ball. He broke his arm twice as a freshman, once as a sophomore and had shoulder issues, he said, which led him to medically retiring and giving up his scholarship.
Wilson took six months off while pondering his future, decided to return to football and worked with one of his former coaches. He got his name in front of the Montana recruiting coordinator Justin Green when former Griz kicker Tim Semenza passed along his film since the two of them were teammates at Cathedral Catholic High School.
Hauck liked Wilson’s film and thought he could handle punts and kickoffs because of his height and long legs. In 13 games at Montana, he’s averaged 60.8 yards on kickoffs with 37 touchbacks on 88 attempts and 44.1 yards per punt on seven attempts.
“He’s a steady guy,” Hauck said. “He’s pretty even-keeled. He’s not afraid to take correction, which is a good personality trait in a football player.
“Certainly when your plays are interspersed in the game and not consistent like the other guys, then you have to perform intermittently through the game since you don’t know when you’re going to be called upon.
“I think his steady demeanor probably lends to being able to do that. He’s playing really well.”
Wilson has embraced playing for Hauck, widely considered a special teams guru.
"He treats it like it's offense or defense," Wilson said. "It's not offense or defense and then special teams. We invest a significant, an incredible amount of time into special teams. You got into a meeting and coach Hauck could ask you any question and everyone in that room would know the answer for another position. We are so educated in it and know what needs to be done so that if somebody gets hurt, somebody else can go and fill their spot. It's just incredible how much we prioritize it."
Hauck had the confidence in Wilson to execute the fake punt since it was a simple task of running the ball and he’s had experience in practice being tackled during drills; the question was if he’d get the blocking.
Wilson doesn’t recall the play too well because it was a blur, so he’s watched the film “dozens of times” to see what happened. The plan was to try to jump over the first person who tried to tackle him, but he abandoned that and lowered his shoulder into the defender.
Running onto the field from the sideline, Wilson remembers wiping the sweat off his hands because he didn’t want to fumble the ball. Other than that, it was tunnel vision until he was surrounded by the players he’s come to find a brotherhood with in his short time on campus.
“All I remember is getting rolled over and seeing my teammates crowding up on me and headbutting me,” Wilson said. “It’s one of the cooler moments.”