MISSOULA — As the season winds down, seniors with the Montana Grizzly football team are seeing some of their last snaps in their college football careers.
For Joe Babros and Justin Belknap, it's an opportunity they've cherished after coming to UM from FBS programs.
Both players are defensive ends, and Babros came to UM after starting his career at Saddleback College before spending one season at NC State, where he redshirted.
But the Mission Viejo, California, native said the move across the country burned him out, and he almost left football entirely, but once Montana called, Babros opted to give the sport another chance and joined UM ahead of the 2019 season. He then waited out the canceled 2020 season and stuck around with the Griz for his delayed senior season.
"Football for me was just something I worked on my whole life," Babros said. "Ever since I was in second grade I’ve been playing football and senior year is something you always look forward to, especially as freshman you’re like, ‘Oh I wish I was a senior,’ and it was finally here and all of the COVID stuff happened and I just thought that we had a good team and that we had put in the work and it was worth sticking around to see what we could do with what we had."
It's been an up and down year for Babros, who left UM's game against Cal Poly and didn't play against Eastern Washington and Dixie State. But he came back in Montana's game against Sacramento State, and against Idaho on Saturday he got his second sack of the season as the defense shut down the Vandals.
"It’s been great, I’m really happy that I came up here," Babros said. "I had so many opportunities and so many cool things I never would’ve had without it and I’m just really thankful for all of the opportunities this place has given me.
"My senior year has been everything I could have hoped for and imagined. We've been on a good roll and it's just been a really good time out here with everybody and I've just been trying to enjoy it and soak in every day as much as I can."
Belknap's career began at Pac-12 Arizona, where he walked on and spent five years.
Belknap broke his foot during his junior campaign in 2018 and was granted a medical redshirt. He played his senior year in 2019 for the Wildcats, but with the extra year remaining, Belknap said Arizona opted not to bring him back, so Belknap went searching for a new school to play out his final year.
Belknap, who was born in Spokane, Washington, grew up near Las Vegas in Henderson, Nevada, and knew of Bobby Hauck during his time at UNLV. He also knew Griz defensive back Robby Hauck, since the two went to the same high school. Plus, Belknap added that he had family who grew up in Libby and in the Viginia City area, and he periodically spent time in Montana growing up.
So with all of those factored in and after getting a good word from friend and former Griz quarterback Dalton Sneed, Belknap found a new home with the Grizzlies.
"It just was serendipitous," Belknap explained, adding, "My mom’s going to laugh when I say that.
"To come here and everything was second nature. I was getting recruited from other places but it just made so much sense for me to come up here. I'm just happy to be in the programs, I remember my mindset when I walked on at Arizona was just survive the year and not get cut during the spring and so I’m just very thankful for where I’m at now and what happened in my past and where it’s taken me today.
"I couldn't imagine what I'd be doing not playing football and to prolong the experience as long as I can before I have to be a real adult, I'm all for it," he added, saying his goal is to be a firefighter after his college football career concludes.
Like Babros, Belknap had to wait through the postponed season before getting to play his final year. In the third game against Cal Poly, Belknap scored his first college touchdown when he took an interception back 24 yards for a score.
Through transferring, waiting through the COVID season and injuries, both players have stayed patient to get to their final year at Montana, and those decisions and that perseverance has ultimately paid off.
"It’s life-changing, eye-opening," Belknap said. "Like Joe also said all of the opportunities I’ve gotten up here just with being part of Montana Grizzly football, it’s been awesome and I really wouldn’t change it for the world."