BILLINGS — Speed.

He craves it on the mountain.

He shows it on the field.

And because of the latter, the former will have to wait.

“After this year, I can ski all I want,” said Sam Sparks.

Skiing is one of Sparks’ favorite hobbies. Fishing is another.

But he’s known more for his talents closer on drier ground. The Billings Senior graduate returns as the primary running back for the Rocky Mountain College this season.

“He tries to sneak it in,” said head coach Chris Stutzriem of Sparks’ penchant for the slopes. “We tell him as long as it’s not during spring ball or during the season.”

The solid 5-foot-11, 190-pound senior will be relied upon to help carry the offensive load as the Battlin’ Bears transition into a new starting quarterback and rebuild the offensive line.

“He’s definitely our No. 1 running back,” Stutzriem said. “He can run inside between the tackles and take it outside. And he catches the ball well out of the backfield.”

Patient before bursting through the line of scrimmage, Sparks has 1,242 career rushing yards and 11 touchdowns. He’s led the Battlin’ Bears in all-purpose yards two of the past three years.

Not in a hurry when he gets the ball, Sparks is willing to take his time before he makes his move.

“I wait until I see it,” Sparks explained of openings along the line of scrimmage. “I let the play develop. I read the holes and gaps. When I have the ball, I’m reading the defensive lineman and when he’s pushed a certain direction, I make my move. When I see a hole, I go. I just like following the offensive linemen and our receivers making good blocks.”

And it’s his speed that separates him from defenders.

Along with 11 rushing touchdowns, he’s also caught a pass for a score. But Sparks has a knack for turning on the jets during kick returns. He’s taken three to the end zone, including game-winners against Montana State-Northern in back-to-back seasons.

“I do like returning kicks,” Sparks said, taking a sip from the gallon jug of water he was carrying. “Just because you don’t see a lot of kick returns. The hole opens, you hit it fast as you can go. It’s all about timing, 11 men going to work.

“The kick return is exciting … crazy adrenaline.”

Sparks, who celebrated his 22nd birthday last Saturday, has been playing football since he was seven. At that age, he also loved playing soccer with equal enthusiasm. He was forced to choose between the two in middle school with both being played in the fall.

“I had cousins in Wyoming who could play football in the fall and soccer in the spring,” noted Sparks. “I just loved the physicality of football. Once I learned how to tackle is when I fell in love with the game.”

He is one of just eight seniors on this year’s roster, “I feel a little old now. Last year not so much,” said Sparks, and part of a group that has helped the Battlin’ Bears post back-to-back winning seasons, culminating with the Frontier Conference championship last year.

“We take pride in what we’ve accomplished here,” said Sparks. “It’s been great to be part of that.”

Sparks is also the rare Billings athlete who decided to remain home for his college career.

“Family would be the main reason,” Sparks said. “It would be so my family could watch me play. It’s been a good decision. It’s a great community who have supported us and I’ve created life-long friends.”

And it’s kept the business management major with an economics minor close to his beloved mountains.

“I’m pretty cautious,” he said. “I don’t get too crazy with it.”

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

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