BILLINGS — Chris Stutzriem talked and Holden Ryan listened.

“We had a stern heart to heart,” Stutzriem said with a knowing smile.

It was the first meeting between the new Rocky Mountain College head football coach and player, who had joined the program the previous summer.

Stutzriem, like with all players, had done his due diligence, learning that Ryan was a great teammate, a hard worker and well-liked among his peers.

However, there was one additional item they told Stutzriem.

“Don’t look at his grades,” they said.

Stutzriem was blunt with Ryan. “If you don’t get eligible, I’m taking away your scholarship,” he said.

“It made my stomach drop,” Ryan recalled of the pivotal conversation.

Ryan had already endured more than most players to be in the seat across from Stutzriem. The former Billings Central standout persevered through four surgeries — hip, shoulder and knees — a change of schools, a change of positions and a personal dark period that tested even family relationships.

Now all the responsibility fell on Ryan’s strong shoulders.

“Nobody had talked to me like that before,” he said. “I really didn’t want to mess it up. I didn’t want to keep disappointing people.”

Ryan took care of his classroom business in the spring and found himself back on the football field this fall. He played in the opening win against Dickinson State, being targeted for two passes.

“He’s just electric. He’s strong and he’s vocal,” said Stutzriem.

It was Ryan’s first collegiate game since 2016.

“It was awesome,” the player said of returning to the field.

He caught his first pass as a tight end — his third position in college — against Montana State-Northern last Saturday. The reception, for three yards, was also his first collegiate football game statistic.

“I don’t know how to put it into words,” he said of finally seeing a light at the end of what proved to be a very long tunnel. “To play again, meant everything. I’m just so happy to make it at this point.”

Ryan can even laugh now about being listed as a 22-year-old redshirt sophomore.

“It’s ridiculous to think about it,” he said with a grin.

Coveted recruit

In high school, the athletic 6-foot-2, 215-pound Ryan was one of the most-sought after recruits in Montana.

Colorado, Colorado State, Montana, Montana State and Idaho all showed interest. The University of Washington was also in the picture.

But by the time his senior season started, attention from the larger schools fell away. He ran for 1,451 yards and 22 touchdowns in 2014 and also caught three touchdown passes for Central. He was Class A all-state on both sides of the football.

Ryan signed with Montana as a wide receiver.

He had shoulder issues in high school and an MRI prior to the start of UM’s fall camp disclosed a torn labrum. Ryan underwent surgery and redshirted in 2015.

He was moved linebacker in the spring of 2016 and played on special teams against St. Francis and Northern Iowa in the fall.

“After the UNI game, I got off the plane and I couldn’t bend my knee,” Ryan said.

He had suffered a torn PCL and had another surgery. Ryan also had additional surgery to repair a hip injury.

Out again, Ryan was adrift.

“I was pretty beat up,” he said. “I was taken out of the game because of surgeries. I had never been out before. When you’re in high school, you’re the guy. I had high expectations for myself.

“I was not in a good place. I was depressed.”

He stopped going to class, “I stayed in my room, basically,” Ryan said.

When he did venture out, it was to visit his position coach. Ryan stopped by the office almost every day.

“Just to talk,” he said. “I wasn’t myself. I was struggling with my life, not just school.”

He had already changed his major, “Two, three times,” and continued to try and find direction.

With his left hip hurting in the summer of 2017, he started skipping summer workouts, first sporadically, then altogether. Ryan quit the UM program before the start of fall camp.

“I was done,” he said, admitting the period caused a rough patch with his parents Chris and Trisha. “I knew in the back of my mind, it was not the best decision. It was a temporary decision to make myself happy.”

Change of scenery

Ryan moved to Bozeman, thinking he would join Montana State and be reunited with former Central teammate Jacob Hadley and Ty Gregorak, who was his coach at UM before Gregorak moved to the Bobcats.

But Ryan was on academic suspension from UM and playing for MSU was no longer an option.

He stayed in Bozeman for the early months of 2018, working for a rental car business at the airport. “I was making pretty decent money,” Ryan. “It was like a breath of fresh air.”

He was also talking with Teague Blome, who was an assistant coach with Rocky at the time. Ryan told Blome that he wanted to major in sports management, something Rocky had in its curriculum.

Ryan reached out to then head coach Jason Petrino and began exchanging texts. That transitioned into phone calls. “Not always about football,” said Ryan. “I visited with Jason and Jared (Petrino) and thinking, ‘I’m liking these guys.’ “

At the end of April, Ryan informed Jason Petrino, he wanted to play for Rocky and moved back to Billings in the middle of May.

“The focus was to get back in school and get a degree,” Ryan said.

However, Ryan stumbled again trying to get eligible and was just a part-time student at Rocky last fall. In week eight of fall camp, he was on the scout team, mimicking the opposing team’s quarterback. Ryan ran a draw, cut to his left and tore his ACL, MCL and meniscus. He had a fourth surgery on Nov. 13.

More importantly, Ryan went to class, getting closer to being eligible.

“He did an outstanding job last semester,” said Stutzriem. “And he went to every workout this summer. Whatever we tell him to do, he does. Ryan is a great teammate.”

And a happy one.

“I’m proud of myself for sticking through it,” said Ryan, who is a member of the player’s council for the football team. “I’m a much happier person. I got a lot of help from a lot of people. This means a lot.”

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Email Joe Kusek at joe.kusek@406mtsports.com or follow him on Twitter at @GazSportsJoe

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