Editor’s Note: "Marching On" is a series about former Carroll College athletes, where are they now, and the impact the school and Helena community had on them.
There will not be a "Marching On" next week. It will return, June 14.
HELENA — When former Carroll College quarterback Gary Wagner stepped onto the field at Nelson Stadium, he didn’t assume he would be successful.
He already knew he would be.
“That’s just my mindset,” Wagner said. “I don’t know if anyone else bought that. I tried to portray it. Even sometimes I was faking it. I would do anything it takes to win.”
Now, almost 20 years later, he looks down at his NAIA National Championship ring and the doubters are silent.
He was a kid from Havre who was a little undersized, but who ended with a successful high school and college football career.
And he said there is nothing wrong with that.
“I don’t think it’s wrong, wanting to be successful,” Wagner said. “There are a lot of folks in this day and age that, when they do something good, they shy away from the glory of it. It’s great to be humble but, at the same time, there are so many kids that are super successful that don’t enjoy it. You should be excited to be a winner. Why would you put in all that effort, time and energy?”
GROWING UP IN HAVRE
Wagner grew up on the Hi-Line in Havre, where there was not much football offered to younger players.
“It was just throwing a football around the back yard with your buddies,” Wagner said.
His first team exposure came in middle school, and his competitive drive was fueled by watching his hometown idols such as quarterback Matt Kegel and David Curtis.
By the time he entered Havre High School, Wagner was one of the smaller players, especially as a 5-foot-7, 103-pound quarterback.
But he had skill, something that his high school coach could work with.
“I think you have to have some skill. I knew he could throw a football, but he could also scramble out of the pocket,” Wagner’s high school coach Troy Purcell said. “He had so much athleticism.”
Part of his athleticism grew not from the gridiron, but from the tennis court.
In the offseason, Wagner was well on his way to becoming a two-time Class A doubles champion with Marc Mariani, a future Montana great and pro bowl player in the NFL.
“I recommend tennis for quarterbacks,” Wagner said. “You get your footwork down to help you move in the pocket, and a lot of the footwork drills we did on the tennis court were exactly the same as on the football field. The endurance you need to have, especially during state tournaments, is so important and helped so much.”
Wagner’s high school career culminated with a 34-21 win over Billings Central on his home field to claim a state championship.
He still can vividly remember how the city rallied around their Blue Ponies.
“The buzz on Main Street from the state championship - winning that game was unbelievable,” Wagner said.
By the time Wagner chose where he was going to continue his football career, he had already shuffled through all the scholarship offers that Frontier Conference schools gave him. He even thought about preferred walk-on spots with Montana and Montana State, or staying home and playing for Montana State Northern.
In the end, he knew his football career was less important than a good, catholic education.
“An education at Carroll College is second-to-none,” Wagner said. “It was a home run.”
Wagner soon found out that coach Mike Van Diest was not like Purcell.
“He comes from a tougher type of football and coaches that way,” Wagner said. “If it wasn’t how (the coaching staff) wanted it, they would let you know. They expected perfection. I thought it was great but I wasn’t used to it.”
Once he got out on the field as part of a roster that included more veteran quarterbacks like Tyler Emmert and John Barnett, Wagner learned to be resourceful because of his smaller size.
“I wasn’t going to run anyone over or have a huge arm. I had to throw with my legs,” Wagner said. “I had to have quick hips to get that ball slung around.”
Wagner knew he wasn’t going to start right away, but he kept working and soon, his opportunity appeared.
It was his time, but with both quarterbacks preceding him winning National Championships, he knew the pressure was on.
“I took it as a challenge,” Wagner said. “People will say there was no pressure but, of course, there was. Carroll fans were expecting us to win another National Championship. Whether it is fair or not, the quarterback gets a lot of the credit or blame. That’s just the position.”
But his opportunity would be delayed after a trip to Dillon in week two.
TRIALS ON THE FIELD
After working to get the starting job, Wagner was scrambling and a defensive lineman fell on him, shattering his ankle.
“I could just tell how much this game meant to him,” Van Diest said. “To walk out there and see him pound his fist into the ground, I knew it was about the injury, but he also wanted to be there and lead his teammates.”
He watched the remainder of the season from the sideline, including a National Semifinal loss to the University of Sioux Falls at home.
The injury and the loss just fueled his competitive spirit.
“He worked so hard to get back to where he was before,” Van Diest said.
By the following August, as the 2009 season began, Wagner was back under center, but his fire and desire to be the best were tested once again.
After leading the Saints to a perfect regular season and looking like they were headed to another NAIA playoff run with wins over Dickinson State and MidAmerica Nazarene, Carroll lost to Lindenwood University on its home field.
Wagner took a backseat to the running game but he knows he could have performed better.
“There were routine plays that I should have easily made,” Wagner said. “That really weighed heavily on my mind during the offseason and, come fall, I knew that wouldn’t happen again. I couldn’t let an opportunity like that slip away again.”
Throughout 2010, Carroll ran the gauntlet to another perfect regular season, but this time there was no stopping the Saints trek to the championship game.
When they touched down in Rome, Georgia, Wagner knew he was in for a fight. Sioux Falls was bigger and had the most potent offense in the NAIA.
“The thing that makes me smile to this day is that was their last game in the NAIA,” Wagner said.
The Cougars moved up to NCAA Division II the next season and they were already preparing for the move.
“They had NCAA Division I transfers from places like Colorado State and Florida,” Wagner said. “If you put us on paper against them, they would beat us 100 times out of 100, probably by 75 points. We were outmatched and outsized.”
Wagner kept pushing to make a couple of things happen, including an 83-yard touchdown run from a quarterback draw to take the lead.
The game would come down to a Saints-made field goal in the fourth quarter that clinched a 10-7 victory.
Wagner’s storybook ending of winning championships at both the state and national levels during his final year had been achieved.
“He knew how to win and he knew how to compete,” Van Diest said of Wagner. “He was so confident in his own abilities.”
Wagner’s football career might be over, but that hasn’t dampened his competitive drive.
Sure, he tried out to play with arena football teams and the CFL but it didn’t work out. Does he regret it?
“Not at all,” he said.
He maintains the same mindset of winning on the football field, whether it working with his team at the Schools Administrators of Montana in Helena or cheering on his younger sister, Danielle, who is a senior on the Carroll women’s basketball team.
“Every single time that I have a game, I’ll get a message from him telling me not to forget to do the little things, like hustling down the court or grabbing rebounds,” Danielle Wagner said. “He always just wants me to give it my all.”
No matter what Wagner finds himself doing, he never will relinquish that competitive fire. He is the first one to say that winning isn’t easy.
“I’m super grateful to everyone - my coaches, my teammates, my teachers, and all the support from my friends, my family and the Carroll faithful. They all mean the world to me, but I really appreciate that lion or tiger inside of me that I guess my parents passed on.” Wagner said. “At the end of the day, I realized that’s what it takes.”