Class of 2018
In every sense, Rocky Klever was a football Renaissance man. Exceptionally versatile and athletic, he excelled at any position the coaches asked him to play. This innate ability would prove to be his standing trademark throughout his football career from the “Last Frontier” to the “Big Sky” and to the NFL.
Back in the 70’s, Alaska was not known as a hot bed for college football talent. So when the word got out there was a quarterback out of West Anchorage High School with size, speed and raw ability, only a few coaches from the Big Sky Conference took notice.
Pete Riehlman, first year head coach at Weber State, was one. He had heard “some good things” about this kid, Rocky Klever from the frozen tundra. Riehlman had a sister, who not only lived in Anchorage, but also worked at the school as a registrar. With her assistance he was able to get more information from the school’s head football coach, Don Larson.
Impressed, Riehlman sprang into action much like a prospector set to lay claim of a scarce gold-bearing vein by enlisting the help of his brother-in-law to go over to swoop up the prospect. He was too late. Montana had signed the 17 year old a few hours earlier.
To Montana and head coach Gene Carlson’s good fortune, this all came to fruition thanks to Tom Huffer, who suggested that Carlson recruit the youngster. The former quarterback standout for the Grizzlies in the early 60’s, had served as under Carlson as an UM graduate assistant coach, and was the head football coach at Chugiak High School, a West Anchorage High rival. He had seen and was quite familiar with the two-time All-State quarterback, who lead West Anchorage High to a state title and became instrumental bringing the Grizzlies their first-ever recruit from Alaska.
“It makes me sick, he should be here at Weber State,” charged Riehlman.
Born in Portland, Oregon, Klever grew up in Lake Oswego. After his freshman year at Lakeridge High School, his mother packed up the family and moved north to Anchorage. He quickly made his athletic presence known in “Last Frontier” as a multi-sport standout, excelling in football, basketball, and baseball, all the while garnering nine letters.
It was only three years, but in the eyes of Alaska, Klever was one of their own. In 2006, the state’s adopted son was among the inaugural class to be inducted into the Alaska High School Hall of Fame. He was also hailed as the 15th greatest athlete to come out of Alaska by Sports Illustrated in 1999.
The Alaskan bond would follow him throughout his football career even to the NFL. “Everything I did, it was the first by an Alaskan,” said Klever in the book, Thunder on the Tundra. “I was the first Alaskan to jump off sides. I was the first Alaskan to hold Lawrence Taylor. It was great. I loved it.”
Recruited as a quarterback, Klever was 6’ 3” and 205 pound freshmen with 4.8 speed. He was expected to spend the season on the bench learning his craft behind veterans Tim Kerr and Mike Roban, but that all changed in the Grizzlies first road game of the season against Northern Arizona, when Kerr left the game with a knee injury late in the second half.
The greenhorn was called into action with Montana down 22-10. The Grizzlies fought back to get within four points after a Monty Bullerdick touchdown and a 2 point conversion. Moments later Montana was on the move once again when Klever eluded a furious NAU pass rush to scamper 49 yards into the end zone for the go-ahead score. The last minute heroics would not hold as NAU would hit a clutch field goal to win the contest 25-24.
It was promising start to for the young freshman’s collegiate career. Although the team would endure a 4-6 season full of ups and downs, it proved to be maturation process for the young quarterback from Alaska. “Rocky will continually improve.” Shared Carlson with the Missoulian. He’s big, strong, and quick and should become an excellent Big Sky quarterback.”
The glowing appraisal became partially true. Klever did become an excellent Big Sky player, but it wouldn’t be at quarterback.
Over the next two seasons, The Grizzlies struggled for mediocrity posting 5-6 and 3-7 records respectively. In 1978, Klever split time playing quarterback and tailback and the sophomore responded with 514 yards on 112 carries and 1 TD, while completing 24 passes for 301 yards and 4 TDs. The following season, used exclusively at a tailback, the junior racked-up 679 yards on 156 carries with 8 touchdowns.
Recently voted into the Grizzly Sports Hall of Fame, Klever shared one of his most memorable moments wearing the old copper, silver and gold uniform with gogriz.com. It was the 1978 Griz-Cat game, where Montana State came to Missoula ranked fourth in the country. The Grizzlies were desperate. They not only were winless at home at that point of the season, but they also hadn’t beaten the Cats in the last six years.
Eager to change the tide, Klever recalled in an interview that Montana had a little surprise up their sleeve. “Dave Nickel (UM’s offensive coordinator) put in what he called the ‘shotgun flex’ offense, and it helped win that game and it was awesome.”
The strategy worked to perfection as Klever was on the loose and shredded the Cats’ defense for 111 yards and threw a touchdown pass leading the Grizzlies over Montana State 24-8, before a record crowd of 13, 044.
1980 became the dawn of a new era for the Grizzlies football program. Gene Carlson was replaced by Larry Donovan, who arrived from Kansas University where he served as the linebacker coach. A public relations machine, Donovan’s proclamation, “Team of the 80’s”, pumped new excitement into the program and community. He vowed to put Montana football back on the map and to do it, the offense would feature returning senior and Co-Captain, Rocky Klever.
Donovan resurrected the pass-run offense of the golden era of the Green Bay Packers and he built his entire offensive package around his multi-talented senior, who he felt was just the athlete to get it done. “Rocky Klever is a throwback to the Paul Hornung days of the triple threat back who can run, pass and kick” said Donovan.
So enamored with the plan, the first year coach declared it the “Rocky Klever Show.”
The “Show” got underway against lowly Simon Frasier and was it everything as advertised, as the Grizzlies rolled to a 60-27 drubbing. The main attraction rushed 18 times for 83 yards and 2 scores, then completed 4 of 6 throws for 89 yards and 2 touchdowns, and then booted 2 punts for an average of 41.5 yards. But the “Show” came to a crashing halt the following week against Portland State when Klever suffered a collarbone injury midway through the third quarter that would end his season.
Delayed a year after a dismal 3-7 record, Donovan’s “Team of the 80’s” affirmation would take root in 1981, when the Grizzlies found themselves ever so close to the conference title with a 7-3 mark. Leading the way was Klever, the preseason All-American candidate, who had been granted another year of eligibility on a medical redshirt. It would be his finest season wearing the copper, silver and gold uniform.
He missed the first two games of the season due to a nagging ankle injury suffered in preseason practice. Upon his return and two games later the Grizzlies improved their record to 3-1 and were set to host undefeated Idaho State, the second rank Division I-AA team in the country.
On that autumn day, over 9,200 fans at the “rickety, spindly legged Dornblaser Field” witnessed a thriller, when Montana stunned the season’s eventual national champions, 24-3.
The senior tailback had the game of his life. His ankle still tender and heavily taped, “Klever charged up the middle, around the ends and on occasions, leaped high over the line to gain a career high 185 yards,” wrote Rial Cummings of the Missoulian.
Number fifteen also threw a 52 yard bomb to Brad Dantic for a touchdown and caught two passes, in one of the greatest upsets in school history. Mr. “do-everything” was voted Big Sky Conference Offensive Player of the Week for the fourth time of his career high of five.
By the time Montana met Weber State, they were 7-1 with a shot at a share of the conference crown. Klever rushed for 91 yards in the game to become the school’s all-time career rushing leader, eclipsing all-time great, Steve Caputo, but it wasn’t enough, as the Grizzlies lost a hard-fought battle by a single point. And just like that, all hopes for a title had disappeared.
In a recent interview with gogriz.com, Klever said he was not one to dwell on past games, “but that game haunts me.”
When Klever hung up the collegiate cleats, the all-time leading rusher had amassed 2,228 yards, a record that stood for nearly thirty years until Yohance Humphery, another Alaskan standout, broke the mark in 2000.
After the 1981 season, Klever earned 2nd team All Big Sky Honors, and was voted to the AP’s All-Little American honorable mention team. He was the winner of the team’s Steve Carlson Award for the most valuable player, and was the recipient of the Grizzly Cup in 1982 for UM’s outstanding student-athlete. He won the Terry Dillon Award for outstanding back/ receiver for a record third time (1978, 1979, and 1981).
All of Klever’s accomplishments and athletic ability didn’t go unnoticed. In 1982, he was drafted by the New York Jets in the ninth round as the 247th pick. He was reunited with former Montana standout, Guy Bingham, who was drafted by the Jets in 1980.
Drafted as a running back, Klever was switched to tight end and spent seven years in the NFL, all with Jets. In a league where rookies are guaranteed zero, Klever’s professional career was slow to get traction for the first year and a half due to hand injuries and the player’s lockout.
By the mid 80’s, the former Montana star established himself as the Jets most versatile asset. “Drafted as a running back from Montana, Klever has evolved into a back up for just about everybody in the so called skills positions,” wrote George Vecsey of the New York Times.
Case in point he adds, “The depth chart does list him as the second-string tight end, third-string quarterback, second-string punter, kicker, kick-off man and third-string holder, and he is also a mainstay of the special teams.”
Klever’s career ended in 1988 after spending a year on the injured reserve with a back injury. Statistically for his NFL career, Klever played in 65 games and started 25. He caught 46 passes for 514 yards for an average of just over 11 yards per catch and scored 3 touchdowns.
After leaving the Jets, Klever has owned and operated several businesses and tried his hand at coaching football at Northern Arizona and Carroll College. He has four children, Jack, Allie, Kelly and Taylor and resides in Linwood, New Jersey.
By Bob Townsley, Historian