BILLINGS — One word is all it takes to send the Billings Senior football sideline swirling into a frenzy of urgency, force and determination.
That same word can make the chest of any Bronc swell up, even if just a bit, with pride.
“Rambo! Rambo! Rambo!”
With that declaration, someone who normally plays on the defensive line could run off the sideline and line up on the O-line. An offensive tackle could slide over to center, a linebacker could become a tailback.
They can come from any position on the field, and where they play during a regular snap might have no bearing on where they line up once that word is shouted. A player or two might not even be a regular at all.
But that clarion call isn’t for everyone.
“Rambo! Rambo! Rambo!”
It’s for the “11 toughest dudes” on the Broncs.
Though he’s attended elementary and middle schools all around Billings, Caleb Romero has always been a Bronc. His parents graduated from Billings Senior, so even when he went to Alkali Creek Elementary School (Skyview territory) or, say, Burlington School (West High territory), Romero wore the orange-and-black of Senior High.
“I figured I should keep the tradition,” said Romero, a 6-foot-2, 260-pound lineman for the Broncs.
Romero was aware of another tradition. As an eighth-grader, he attended a Senior football game and watched future Montana Grizzly Gabe Sulser score a touchdown from a compact offensive formation. Sulser, not an overly big player, somehow emerged from the mass of helmets and arms and legs and found the end zone.
Romero asked his father what type of offense the Broncs were running. That’s Rambo, his father said.
The youngster responded, “Hopefully, I’m on there some day.”
How it started
Herb Meyer hadn’t reached legendary status, yet, but he was on his way there. It was 1986 in New Orleans when, during an American Football Coaches Association convention, Meyer heard then Baylor head coach Grant Teaff give a presentation called, “Move the Chains.”
The lecture on short-yardage and goal-line offense got the wheels turning in Meyer’s brain. Upon returning to Oceanside High School in California, Meyer and his coaching staff got to tinkering.
Meyer’s teams were power-running squads, but he was looking for a way to guarantee first downs … to keep the chains moving. Taking on themes Meyer heard from Teaff, he landed on two guiding principles: Treat the short-yardage package as a special team, just like punting and kicking units; get your best players on the field, regardless of where they usually play.
“One of the things we talked about is if you want to be a good football team,” Meyer, now 87, told The Billings Gazette and 406mtsports.com by telephone from his California home, “you’ve got to be mentally and physically tougher than your opponent.”
During the late 1980s, there was one iconic figure who personified toughness. John James Rambo, portrayed by Sylvester Stallone, first hit the big screen in the 1982 film, “First Blood.” Sequels “Rambo: First Blood, Part II” and “Rambo III” followed in 1985 and 1988 (the movies were based on a fictional character in a 1972 novel by David Morrell). By the time Meyer had gotten around to developing his short-yardage scheme, Rambo had taken on a whole persona.
A definition for the noun “Rambo” had even been born: an exceptionally tough, aggressive man, according to the Oxford Old English Dictionary.
“He was a tough guy,” Meyer said, not remembering if it was a player or coach who came up with the idea to name their offense after the movie character. “So that terminology came from there. We wanted to be as tough as Rambo.”
Passing it on
By the time Meyer gave one of his own presentations at a coach’s convention in Great Falls in 1997, he had reached legendary status. (Meyer was six years from retiring after 47 years of coaching with 338 career wins, the most in California high school history, a total which has since been surpassed).
Presenting his Rambo offense at C.M. Russell High School, Meyer piqued the interest of Billings Senior coaches. The Broncs toyed with the offense for the 1997 season in the final year of coach Pat Dolan’s run, and the package was used a little more with new head coach Mark Sulser starting in 1998.
Under Sulser, the Broncs began to throw the ball more than under previous coaches, and by 2001 Senior was pretty much a throwing program. By the time Sulser retired in 2011, the Broncs had become a bit more balanced once again.
But in the interim, Meyer’s Rambo package, which is designed to get three yards (anything more is a bonus), became ingrained in the Senior program.
“You know, it’s that reassurance of being able to get the yards when you need to, especially when you’re throwing the ball,” said Sulser, who is now the activities coordinator at Senior but who still helps current coach Chris Murdock come up with twists for Rambo. “Because when you’re down to the two-yard line, the field shrinks and you have something you can go to. If you get first-and-goal on the 2 and you can’t score on Rambo three plays in a row, that’s just unheard of.”
Not about the highlights
“Rambo! Rambo! Rambo!”
There’s nothing subtle about it, really. There were six plays that could be run out of Meyer’s original scheme, though the Broncs have inserted as few as four options and as many as 10 into the playbook, depending on the abilities of the team.
Meyer said another key to Rambo is to keep things simple. Every play is blocked the same, giving players less to think about. Fire off the ball, feel which way your defender wants to go, and help him get there, hopefully making room for the ball carrier. Yes, there is some play-action involved at times or attempts to get to the perimeter, but mostly it’s “hat on hat,” as coaches say.
When Rambo is called for, the Broncs huddle quickly, less than six yards from the line of scrimmage. Since the play calls are not complicated, the offense also breaks the huddle quickly and linemen set up nearly foot-to-foot. They are so close together sometimes that if a player’s hand isn’t situated in the correct spot, he might end up with another hand or even a foot on his own. (In a typical formation, linemean could be as many as one or two feet apart).
It might not be three yards and a cloud of dust anymore, given the turf surface on a lot of playing fields these days, but you get the concept. The tougher side wins.
Murdock, who took over when Sulser stepped down 10 years ago, was one of the original quarterbacks for Rambo.
“Ever since I can remember, we just took the 11 toughest guys,” Murdock said. “It’s an offense that’s not about the highlights. It’s just everybody doing their job, doing their job tough, and getting those three yards.”
A special unit
One of the many quotes from the movie franchise happens when the main villain in the third installment asks Rambo, who are you? The response: “Your worst nightmare.”
Meyer said he used to have T-shirts inscribed with that quote made for those who made the squad, and Murdock said he’s considering doing the same for the Broncs’ Rambo unit.
Sulser recalled playing a game against Skyview when a student-made sign at Wendy’s Field at Daylis Stadium had the same caption as Meyer’s T-shirts.
“I was like, we have something, you know, that’s part of the program now,” Sulser said.
For the Broncs players, being named to the Rambo squad is a badge of honor, and Romero saw his junior-high hopes come to fruition. He’s been on the Rambo unit since his sophomore season, and he’s been the package’s center for the past two.
“When you get picked to be on Rambo, it’s excitement,” he said. “You’re like, dang, I’m a bad-ass now. It honoring.”
Jacob Swant, another senior, plays tight end on the formation.
“It’s probably one of the better places to be on the team just because of the honor that’s behind it,” he said, “and how long it’s been around. We’re not a team that quits, we work as hard as we can every single day, and I think (Rambo) just kind of symbolizes it. Like, if one kid doesn’t do his job on Rambo, the whole thing blows up. So it’s just kind of that don’t stop, keep moving forward mentality.”
Keeping the faith
Rambo is a badge of honor for Meyer, as well. He said his teams used Rambo for 18 years and ran 996 plays out of the formation, gaining 4,605 yards, an average of 4.83 yards per attempt.
One season, a state championship year in 1991, Meyer’s team had 48 opportunities out of Rambo to either make a first down, score a touchdown or make a two-point conversion. His team was successful 44 times, or 92% of the time.
The Broncs don’t keep such detailed stats on their Rambo attempts, but Sulser estimated the Broncs are successful 90% of the time. (That estimated success rate includes the times it might take the Broncs two Rambo attempts to make the necessary yardage for a first down or score.)
Despite the lack of hard numbers, the fact the Senior program has been running Rambo going on nearly a quarter of a century now is music to Meyer’s ears.
“I talked in clinics at 20 different states across the country,” Meyer said with a laugh, “and in a lot of those I talked about Rambo. So I would like to think that some people picked up on the concept. Otherwise, I was wasting my time.”
The concept didn’t fall on deaf ears in the Senior program. The coaching staff, players and even fans, see Rambo as a defining element of the Broncs. It’s not going anywhere anytime soon.
“It’s something that’s been a part of our culture and a part of our tradition for … how many years now? … a long time,” Murdock said. “And so you hope the kids understand that they’re part of something bigger than themselves. It’s a cool thing.”
One side to the other
“Rambo! Rambo! Rambo!”
As a rotating defensive player at Billings West, Brandon Quesenberry’s heartbeat spiked a bit when the opposing Broncs went into their formation. Quesenberry, like other defensive players, knew he was about to be tested.
“I remember spending big chunks of time practicing for what was coming, but when it was out there during the game it was like nothing you expected,” said Quesenberry, who graduated from West in 2006. “It has its own attitude and persona.”
And it’s easy to get lost in that persona. Usually in the week leading up to a game against Senior, West coach Rob Stanton said he and his staff will put “a little stress” on their players by upping the intensity in practice.
“Your kids can kind of pucker up a little bit because you can kind of lose track of your key or where the ball is at and you just want to grab and pull and sometimes you’re doing it the wrong way,” said Stanton, who has coached against Rambo for several years now. “We know what’s coming and we’ll try to be as efficient as possible with our scout team, but you can never emulate that.”
Quesenberry has switched allegiances since his playing days, but his respect for the formation hasn’t changed. If fact, it’s gotten stronger. Now a member of the Broncs’ coaching staff, he’s sort of the Rambo coordinator, as it were.
“Rambo is like fighting in a phone booth and only the toughest 11 will come out,” he said. “It has high standards … move the sticks or score. Anything else is a failure. Coaching it now, I feel honored because it has been a staple of Bronc football and how we do things, and we want to honor those who have been on it before.”
“Rambo! Rambo! Rambo!”
Time to get into that phone booth.