On the wall just outside of the football locker room at Flathead High School hangs a plaque.
Donated to the school by Brock Osweiler, a former Flathead quarterback and the school’s most famous football alumnus, the plaque holds the names of each football captain in Braves history.
Osweiler’s name is on it. So are Lex Hilliard, a running back who set school records in rushing yards, all-purpose yards and touchdowns and went on to play in the NFL, and the names of other Flathead greats.
This year, six Flathead seniors — offensive linemen Daniel Long and Hunter Wellcome, quarterback Taylor Morton, defensive lineman Michael Lee, linebacker Tucker Nadeau and defensive back Eric Reyna — will add their names to the plaque after dreaming for years of doing so.
“Hunter and I looked at each other one day — it was like our sophomore year — and we said, ‘We’re going to be on that our senior year,’” Morton recalled.
Fast forward two years to today, and Flathead’s six captains have not only added their names to the plaque outside the locker room, but they’ve each played a major role in putting the Braves football program back on the map after a decade of rarely interrupted losing.
Bringing Flathead back to prominence — more than putting their individual names on a plaque — has always been the group’s long-term goal, dating back even further than Morton and Wellcome’s exchange as sophomores.
“It was a lot of motivation for us as a freshman team,” Reyna said. “Our varsity, they had a pretty good season and then went down to a decent season, and we had bad seasons, of course. I think our mindset was, like, we’re not going to be like that. We’re going to work our hardest to ensure that we’re a great team.”
On Friday night, Flathead will host Helena Capital in a first-round playoff game at Legends Stadium. It will be the first home playoff game for the Braves since 2005, when this year’s captains were in kindergarten.
“Just all the history that’s come down through captains like Lex and Brock, it’s cool carrying on their tradition,” Nadeau said.
Long before they came together on the football field, the captains first forged their relationships in another sport — wrestling.
They competed together in the Kalispell Wrestling Club and at Kalispell Middle School, but only Morton and Long crossed paths on the gridiron before high school. (Morton and Long started at quarterback and center, respectively, just as they do now, in fourth-grade football.)
The group first converged in football as freshmen, and they immediately realized their potential if they stuck together.
Their freshman team went 6-3 in 2014 — ironically, Flathead’s record in 2017 — and five of this year’s six captains were also captains on that team. The lone exception was Long, who was already playing up on varsity.
“We all had that confidence,” Reyna said. “We were like, ‘We’re going to be good. When we’re seniors, our team is going to be great.’”
At the time, Flathead football was anything but great.
As the freshman team excelled three years ago, the Braves’ varsity squad finished 3-7 and missed the playoffs for the third consecutive season. Over those three years, Flathead stumbled to a combined 7-23 record.
“We kind of expected to lose there for a while,” Nadeau said.
But even then, there was hope among the Braves’ future leaders.
Flathead hired Kyle Samson, formerly the offensive coordinator at Montana State-Northern, to lead the football program before the current senior class’ freshman season, and he delivered a message early in his tenure that resonated with the group.
“He told us from Day 1, (the tradition is) gone away, and we need to bring it back,” Long said. “We really bought in with that and were like, ‘Oh yeah, we could be that class that brings that back.’”
Samson also focused on one word — win. It was repeated constantly, and it can still be heard often at Flathead practices.
Win your matchup. Win in the classroom. Win the week. In all things, win.
It may sound overly simplistic now, but the current captains say the importance placed on that word planted the seed of belief at a school mired in its role of the perennial cellar dweller.
“He drilled that word into our heads,” Reyna said. “He said, ‘If you don’t mean it, don’t say, but if you mean it, say it.’ All of us mean it. That’s what we expect now.”
Samson’s approach, as well as the idea that their’s could be the class that helped turn Flathead’s football fortunes, convinced the captains to stick together at the school, even as their crosstown rival emerged as a Class AA powerhouse.
“We didn’t want to just go to Glacier just to start out on a good team,” Nadeau said. “We liked the challenge.”
The six players began to taste varsity success as sophomores, but their junior campaign resulted in another 3-7 record.
They decided their final season would be different.
After teammates selected the six seniors as team captains in the preseason, the group that had stayed together through thick and thin felt even more responsibility to turn things around.
“To me, it’s the ultimate honor in sports to be named a captain, because it’s not voted on by anyone other than your peers, your teammates,” Samson said. “They deserve it.”
The captains have done more than right the ship. They’ve led Flathead through a historic season that will not soon be forgotten by fans of the Braves.
Flathead defeated Glacier and Bozeman for the first time in eight years. The Braves did not lose at home for the first time since at least 2001. And, of course, there’s that home playoff game still to come.
Regardless of the playoff outcome, the careers of the six senior captains who have long fantasized about this year will soon be over.
When all is said and done, what will their legacy be? When people see their names on the plaque outside the locker room, what will they think?
Standing on the snowy track wrapped around Legends Stadium, they all pause to contemplate, looking around at each other with smiles on their faces as they do.
“He’s really built this program from the ground up,” Reyna says of Samson, “and we’re a part of that. We’re a part of that history now. We’re that team that’s bringing Flathead back.”
For Samson, the answers to those questions are not quite as simple.
“It’s still being written,” the fourth-year head coach said. “I think it’ll just be that group of kids that stuck through the good times and the bad and just never gave up. They kept fighting for four years. They just put their nose down and kept working hard.
“They knew they might not be the most talented or the biggest group in the state of Montana, but I’d put them against anybody.”