Class of 2017
The Brotherhood and the Business:
Through thrills and trials in the NFL, gridiron greats find family in Griz Nation
Some nights, after a long day of fishing or working in his garden, Kirk Scrafford will fall asleep and dream, ever so briefly, about football.
It’s not the NFL he dreams of, even though his nine-year career as an offensive lineman with the Cincinnati Bengals, the Denver Broncos, and the San Francisco 49ers is what earned him the quiet, peaceful life he’s living now on an 85-acre piece of land nestled in the Bitterroot Valley between Lolo and Florence.
To Scrafford, the NFL was a business: lucrative, competitive, exhausting, and thrilling. But in the end, just a business, as ruthless as the next. When he decided the game had abused his body a bit too much, he was done with it, content to walk away even though he probably could have kept playing, and there have been no lingering questions that his decision was rash.
In his dreams, however, Grizzly football will occasionally appear, even though this fall will mark twenty years since he put on a Grizzly helmet. In describing this strange phenomenon, Scrafford can’t help but laugh at himself. There is playfulness in his voice that, on the phone, makes him sound like he might still be a big goofy teenager.
“Every once in a while, I dream that somebody tells me I have an extra year of eligibility and I’m going back to play,” Scrafford says. “But in the dream, I always end up looking for my uniform, or looking for my shoes, and I can’t find them and I’m panicked. I hear it’s pretty common.”
Grizzly football, to Scrafford and countless others, is a family—a big, messy, diverse, loyal family that is constantly evolving, but also forever remaining fundamentally the same.
As is often the case with big families, there is no easy way to tell their entire story. There are too many roads to travel, and too many tales to digest. But you can get a sense of some of it if you’re willing to pause, just for a moment at each generation, and listen to the stories.
Kirk Scrafford prepares to attack an opponent during his third year playing for the San Francisco 49ers in 1997.
Every generation of Grizzly football dating back to the 1920s has produced a handful of NFL players—some of them Pro Bowlers and many of them journeymen. And while Scrafford doesn’t quite represent the genesis of that lineage, he’s darn close. It was, after all, his sophomore year in 1986 that ushered in the modern era of Grizzly football with the introduction of Washington-Grizzly Stadium.
“When we used to play at Dornblaser Stadium, we’d be lucky to get 1,000 people. A lot of them would put bags over their heads because we weren’t very good,” Scrafford says, laughing. “We would change into our uniforms someplace on campus and then be bused over before the game. I remember we had a little hut next to the field where we went for halftime. To see how huge it is now, to see them filling up that stadium every week with all those people, for me, it’s just amazing.”
The stadium isn’t the only thing that’s changed over the years. Scrafford was 210 pounds when he graduated from Billings West High School, and throughout his NFL career, he rarely weighed more than 275. During his rookie year with the Bengals, his first start came on the road against the Los Angeles Raiders and Raiders defensive end Howie Long, a future Hall of Famer.
“I remember Howie said to me, ‘Shouldn’t you be playing baseball instead?’” Scrafford says. “LA was an intimidating scene in those days. Everyone in the stands looked like they’d just gotten a ticket out of jail. There were more fights in the stands than there were on the field.”
Scrafford, though, was a fighter with superb technique, and over the course of his career, he regularly held his own against some of the best defensive ends of his era. A persistent neck injury eventually bothered him enough that he decided to retire after the 1997 season with San Francisco, but midway through 1998, his 49er teammates talked him into coming back for one more playoff run.
Scrafford was in charge of blocking Reggie White on the final play when Steve Young threw his game-winning touchdown pass to Terrell Owens to beat the Green Bay Packers in the NFC Wild Card game.
“Everybody remembers that catch, but people forget (Owens) dropped about five passes before that,” Scrafford says. “If he’d have caught those five passes, it wouldn’t have come down to that last play.”
Scrafford spends most of his time outdoors these days, fishing one of the many ponds and creeks on his land and hunting white-tailed deer. He works in his garden often, mostly because he enjoys the serenity of it. Occasionally, he likes to listen to Grizzly games on the radio, and he keeps in touch with several of his old teammates. He tries to take his daughters, ages ten and eight, to a couple of games a year, in part because he wants to show them where their father came from.
“I think they like watching the mascot more than the football,” Scrafford says.
Kevin Van Valkenburg is a senior writer with ESPN The Magazine and ESPN.com. Born in Montana, he has lived in Baltimore for 16 years. For a big man, he has surprisingly good moves on the dance floor at weddings.