BILLINGS — Matt and Heidi Wetherell wanted answers.
Denton Wetherell wanted to sleep.
His parents weren’t their son. They would leave the final decision up to Denton. “When you’re ready to talk, we’ll talk,” they told him.
He had already crossed Rocky Mountain College off his list of potential suitors after a coaching change. But newly-hired head coach Jason Petrino was blowing up Wetherell’s phone, wanting to put the Battlin’ Bears back in the recruiting picture.
Finally, Scott Criner, Wetherell’s high school football coach, pulled the player into his classroom.
“He said, ‘You’ve got a guy who really wants you,” Wetherell remembered of the conversation. “You need to go there and check it out.”
So a week before signing day, Wetherell was on the Rocky campus with his parents contemplating being part of Petrino’s first recruiting class.
But Wetherell was still uncertain. Immediate sleep was a better option than making a life-changing decision.
He tried to keep his eyes shut the entire drive — 622 miles – from Billings to Meridian, Idaho. After arriving home, Wetherell went upstairs and pondered his future for almost 40 minutes.
A quick-footed interior defensive lineman, Wetherell had also heard from Western Oregon, Carroll College, Eastern Oregon, College of Idaho and Montana Western. Western Oregon had emerged as the front-runner.
He finally came back down and informed his parents of his decision and promptly called Petrino.
“I said, ‘I was going to be a Battlin’ Bear,” Wetherell said. “The rest is history.”
With a chapter still to be written.
The 6-foot-1, 265-pound Wetherell is the only senior defensive lineman and Rocky’s leading returning tackler from the 2018 Frontier Conference championship team. The bearded 22-year-old —“I’ve had facial hair since I was 16,” he said — has also stepped into a more vocal role for the Battlin’ Bears rebuilding defense.
“What stands out is his leadership and the way he has bought in since day one,” said new head coach Chris Stutzriem. “He mentally sets the tone for the defensive line.”
Wetherell was one of three players with a team-best six tackles in last week’s 23-21 win over No. 9-ranked Dickinson State. Since arriving at Rocky, he has banged his head against offensive linemen in 32 games.
“I figured it out. Since high school, I’ve been part of 1,500 snaps on the line,” Wetherell said. “Some plays might go away from the linebackers or the secondary. As a defensive lineman, you’re always part of something on every play.”
Last season, Wetherell finished with 49 total tackles, including three for loss. He has also recovered a fumble in each of the previous three seasons.
He’s already been chosen to play in the NAIA Senior Classic on Dec. 14 in Savannah, Georgia, along with teammates Jimmy Henderson, Devonte Woods and Sam Sparks.
Wetherell said he has two personalities when it comes to football. “Outside the lines, I’m the nicest person,” he said. “Once I walk inside those lines, I flip a switch.”
And losing is not an option.
“Love to win, hate losing even more, even in practice,” Wetherell added. “I just don’t like to lose and I’m that way for every single play.”
Wetherell is the defensive line’s point man in its new aggressive approach.
“He’s really flourished with coach (Dustin) Sobieraj,” said Stutzriem of the defensive line coach.
And that approach begins in practice.
“We’ve got to set the tone in games and in practice,” said Wetherell. “We found when we set the tone, bring energy, practices are better.”
The defensive line, which goes about eight players deep, is being counted on early in the season as Rocky breaks in a new linebacker corps and some new faces in the secondary.
“That just comes with trusting each other,” Wetherell said of the line’s dominance. “We’ve got some young guys, but they can play some football. Everybody is on this team for a reason. It’s because they’re good players. We’re still all learning.”
Along with playing with the accumulated bumps and bruises — “There is a difference between being injured and being hurt. You have to figure out what it is and get through it” — Wetherell plays with a brace on his left wrist to protect a tendon that is missing a sheath.
On his right wrist is something more important.
Before every game, Wetherell puts small heart angels on his tape honoring family members he has lost — three great-grandparents and a grandfather.
“Last year, I did their initials,” he said.
The exercise science major has also learned to be more open about issues that surround him.
“Before, I slept to avoid homework,” he said. “I’ve gotten better about talking to people about things. This year, I realized talking about it is better than staying quiet.”