Steve Christilaw: Montana Griz recruiter visits familiar territory
Ross Brunelle was ready for a couple of days off, but he’s in no hurry to make a habit out of it. He’s a man who loves his work and already is anxious to get back to it after taking a breather.
It’s how Brunelle played the game of football at East Valley and later at the University of Montana: with a mixture of passion and abandonment that made him both a standout player and a role model for younger players.
Brunelle is heading into the third season of his second tour as an assistant football coach at Montana and is hard at work recruiting future Grizzlies. If anything, he has even more passion for the job than he had as a player.
“I love what I’m doing,” he said. “I can’t imagine doing anything else with my life. I am absolutely certain this is what I want to do with my life.”
And it comes as absolutely no surprise once you factor in his lineage.
Brunelle’s mom is Kim Brunelle, the long-time, very successful gymnastics coach at Central Valley – a mentor to a number of area gymnastics coaches. His dad, Steve, played quarterback at West Valley under Greg Gavin and was the only player to wear white cleats on the football field for the class of 1975.
Ross Brunelle was an All-State linebacker at East Valley who showed his flexibility by doubling as the Knights’ fullback.
He had a burning desire to play college football, so when no program came calling after his senior season, he headed off to the University of Montana as a walk-on.
Brunelle started off as a linebacker for the Griz, but for his junior season he was shifted to the offensive side of the ball and went on to be an All-Big Sky honorable mention fullback, lead blocking for Lex Hilliard, who rushed for more than 1,300 yards that season.
That one season as a starter was his last as a player. Team doctors diagnosed a pain in his neck as a disorder of his third cervical vertebra. There was nowhere for his vertebra to go on impact except into the spinal column. For his future health, he was advised to end his playing career.
“You play football as long as I did, you’re going to have some pain and I have my share,” he said. “It took me a while to come to grips with it. Thankfully, I’ve been able to get into coaching.”
Under head coach Mick Delany, Brunelle works with tight ends and is a special teams coordinator.
But now that spring drills are over with, he’s a full-time recruiter.
“I’m on the road all the time these days,” he said. “I have a lot of area to cover, and it’s all by car.”
To his delight, Spokane is part of his territory, so stopping in and schmoozing with coaches he’s known his whole life is something he considers a perk of the job.
“I love to stop in at East Valley or at CV and chat up Coach (Rick) Giampietri,” he said. “I played for (EV coach) Adam (Fisher) and I even played for (University coach) Rob Bartlett at EV before he got the job at U-Hi. And I’ve known Coach G for as long as I can remember.
“What I love about recruiting in Spokane is that I know these coaches that they shoot straight with me about their kids. If they don’t think a kid can play at this level, they tell me, and they make sure to point out kids I may have overlooked.”
Spokane has gone through a bit of a dry spell lately – sending a few Blue Chip players on to play major college football, but not a lot of next-level kids on to play at the Eastern Washingtons and Montanas of the world.
“Everywhere has cycles,” Brunelle said. “And I think Spokane is cycling back up. There are some excellent kids coming up right now. I can’t go anywhere these days without either running into a recruiter from another college or being told that I just missed one.
“That’s what I love about recruiting. It’s very competitive. But I think I have an advantage most coaches don’t have – I actually played football where I’m recruiting them to come play. Kids can tell that my passion for Montana football is genuine and it comes from my having been in their shoes.”
Having been a walk-on himself, he says, he has an extra passion for players who weren’t offered an initial scholarship, but who are convinced they can play college football.
“I love walk-ons,” he said. “There’s something special about that kind of mindset and I love talking to them and, more than that, working with them. It’s a tough thing to do.
“I’ve had parents ask me if, now that I’m on the other side of the conversation, if I would have offered myself a scholarship back then. I’ve thought about it for quite a while. I have to tell them that I wouldn’t have. Being a walk-on was exactly where I should have been and how I needed to be motivated to find the success I had.”