Erik Stoll can definitely tell that the University of Montana football team is about to play its 15th game Friday.
What helps the strong safety ignore the various bumps, bruises and pain in his body is the fact that the top-ranked Grizzlies are playing for a national championship.
“It’s been a lot of fun, but it’s also been a grind,” the Sandpoint native said Tuesday morning before the Grizzlies (14-0) boarded a plane for a flight to Chattanooga, Tenn., where they will take on Villanova (13-1) in the Football Championship Subdivision championship game Friday.
“You play 15 games and you get beat up a bit. But I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”
Stoll has played hurt all season. He was hurt going into the season. But he wouldn’t disclose the specifics of the injury, because he said it was against team policy.
“I’ve been dealing with some things all season,” he said. “I’ll decide what to do about it after the season. It may require surgery.”
Still, Stoll ranks second in tackles while not missing a game.
“I was going to do everything I could to play going into the season,” he said. “At times I’ve been at 90 percent. At other times about 70 percent.”
It speaks to Stoll’s toughness.
Stoll had to overcome injuries in high school, too. A two-year starter at Sandpoint, he broke a leg in the first game of his junior year. But he came back to play in the final game of the season.
His head coach then, Sean Dorris, an assistant at Post Falls the past two years, fondly recalls Stoll. In fact, Stoll is somewhat of a prodigy.
Dorris, a Coeur d’Alene High graduate, was a three-year starter at Montana – his first season as a free safety, the last two as a strong safety, the same position Stoll plays. The coach was at Montana last Saturday, sitting in the north end zone among the “rowdies” watching the Grizzlies pull out a 24-17 win over Appalachian State.
“I’m really proud of him for gutting it out so much this year,” said Dorris, who talks to Stoll frequently.
Dorris noted that Stoll played a fantastic game last Saturday. On Appalachian State’s first series, Stoll broke up a pass on fourth down that set up Montana’s first touchdown.
On another series, Stoll made a big tackle.
“It was a bubble screen away from him,” Dorris said. “He came over and chased it down from the back-side hash and made the tackle in front of the play-side safety. I was just going crazy. He made so many big plays in that game.”
Stoll wanted to play at Montana right out of high school. But he was asked to walk on because it was a slim year for scholarships. Idaho State, Idaho and Eastern Washington all offered scholarships. He chose ISU.
He started the final seven games his true freshman season. But head coach Larry Lewis was fired and Stoll began to wonder if he should stay in Pocatello.
Stoll asked to be released from his scholarship. Meanwhile, his father and friends called Montana to see if there would be a place for him in Missoula. He enrolled at Montana and sat out the season under NCAA transfer rules.
Last year, he played quite a bit as a backup, finishing sixth in tackles. He won a starting job for this season during spring ball.
This is the second straight year the Grizzlies will play in the national final. The game will be broadcast on ESPN2.
Stoll hasn’t had a chance to relish the Grizzlies’ success this season.
“I haven’t had any time to sit back and reflect on it,” he said. “It’s all been a grind and a blur. You get Sundays off and that’s when you catch up on your homework and anything else you’ve got to take care of. Then on Monday it’s on to the next opponent.”
Stoll will graduate next spring with a degree in biology. He carries a 3.95 grade-point average.
When he entered college, his plan was to pursue medical school. But he’s not sure what he wants to do now.
“I’m just trying to find out why I wanted to go to medical school,” said Stoll, whose father is a veterinarian.
His maternal grandfather was a doctor and he has a couple of uncles in the medical field.
So Stoll needs to determine if he has a passion for something medical related or if his initial pursuit was a matter of passing on the family torch.
“I’ve got to get on that for sure, because time is winding down,” he said.
Dorris, meanwhile, has had a few flashbacks with Stoll at Montana.
“It’s so neat to see him play at such a high level,” Dorris said. “I often make comparisons. We’re similar in a lot of ways. Erik has way better feet than I ever had. He breaks so well on the ball. I had probably better straight-on speed. His instincts are outstanding.”
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