Whenever I see Kash or Billy Kelly doing something good for the Butte High Bulldogs, I nudge my son and proudly proclaim, “He’s a Crusader.”
I used to do the same to my daughter when Kasey Daily played at Butte Central.
Since the first day I walked into the doors as a student at Kennedy Elementary to start the 1983-84 school year, I have had tremendous pride in my grade school.
Oh, I hated the Kennedy kids the few years leading up to that.
You could see the Kennedy from our classroom windows at Blaine Elementary, and I just did not like the look of it. We did not know much about the kids at Kennedy. We just knew we did not like them. They were not as tough as the Blaine kids.
That changed when they closed the Blaine down and merged the two schools.
I just finished third grade at the Blaine and was starting third grade all over again at Kennedy.
(Leave me alone. Third grade is hard.)
It turned out to be the best move of my life because my third grade teacher the second time around, Betty Lester, saved me. While I still tried to fake sick three or four days a week, she taught me that school was not all that bad.
Even back in those days, the Kennedy got a bad rap, much like the Greeley school did. Kennedy had some rough-and-tumble students, and more than a few of the kids we used to roam the playground with us in those days spent some time in jail or prison.
Some are still behind bars.
A couple of days into that first year after the closing of the Blaine, Kennedy became my school. It is still my school, and I am proud that all three of my children either graduated from Kennedy or still go there today.
Kennedy still has its share of trouble, and it is not exactly the first choice for teachers when picking their next job at their career fair.
But I learned a long time ago to never write off a Kennedy kid. I also learned to make sure to point out the successful ones.
Last week, my friend Mike Parent posted some old school pictures of Kennedy kids, and several jumped off the computer at me.
Brian Farren was a key member of the 1991 Butte High state championship football team. He went on to a solid career playing football for Carroll College.
Before that, Farren was a stud athlete in a Kennedy uniform.
Mike did not post a picture of Chris Opie, who transferred into the school the next year.
Opie was also on that 1991 Bulldog title team, and he was the toughest kid at Kennedy. We know that because he told us, and we were all afraid of him.
I could not possibly mention a Carroll player without mentioning Opie, who went on to be a standout football player at Montana Tech. He is the exact opposite of a Carroll player.
In one of the photos, I also saw Brian Church. He was part of three state championship wrestling teams at Butte High.
Church was also one of the best wrestlers on the 1992 Butte High team. Coach Jim Street said that might have been the best team he coached, even though the Bulldogs failed to claim the state championship for the first time since 1980.
I scrolled through picture after picture from Kennedy in 1984 before I found Mrs. Lester’s class.
There I was, standing in the back row, right next to Jeff Hartwick.
Jeff was my first friend at Kennedy who did not also go to the Blaine. While we grew apart as we got older, we have still always been friends.
We have also always been linked by our bond as Kennedy kids. We continued that link as adults because his children went to Kennedy, too.
Like the Kelly brothers, Jeff is a Kennedy graduate worth bragging about.
At Kennedy, Jeff had a heck of an arm. I know that because he beat me out two years in a row — and with two different coaches — to be the starting quarterback on our flag football team.
In high school, Jeff was far from a star, but he was part of Butte Central’s 1992 team that went to Sidney to play in the Class A state championship game.
That, though, is not why he brought honor to our grade school.
Jeff is the West Team coordinator for the Montana East-West Shrine Game. He has held that position for the all-star football game since 2008.
He leads the way for the selection of the players and the coaches for the West, and he has had great success. Since Jeff took over for Albert “Turtle” Johnson, the West holds a 6-5 advantage over the East.
The East held a 35-26 all-time series lead before that.
Jeff will surely deflect credit for pulling the all-star game out of Great Falls and rotating it between Butte, Billings and Great Falls, but you better believe he was a key figure.
Too many members of Butte’s Bagdad Shriners played a part in that move to even begin to name them. Jeff, though, was one of guys who was not afraid to take a shot on something great.
Since that move, the Montana Shrine Game has become the No. 1 Shrine Game in the country. It has raised almost as much money for the Shriner’s Hospital for Children in Spokane, Washington, since 2010 as it did in the previous six decades.
Jeff was also a key figure in helping restore the luster of the game that had become an afterthought to those who were not coaching or playing in it.
One of his first moves was to get the rosters released on Christmas morning, like they were traditionally unveiled years before.
When the Christmas morning embargo was broken by some talking heads and a few newspapers, Jeff was the one who called to read the riot act to make sure it did not happen again.
Not only will Jeff be one of the Shriners’ characters in the Shrine parade on Saturday, he helped make that event great again, too.
You can say that about pretty much everything that comes to town along with the Shrine Game, which will play for the 73rd time Saturday night at Montana Tech.
More importantly, Jeff is in charge of making sure the players on the West Side know the true meaning of the game.
He made sure that Bob Schulte, who played in the first Montana Shrine Game in 1947, addressed the West players before he watched his last Shrine game last July. Jeff told the players about Schulte, pointing out that he is the only player to have his Shrine number retired.
Jeff also set up 7-year-old Kasey Morley’s magical 40-yard touchdown run at the end of practice that night.
If those West side players did not know why there were playing before, they certainly did after that, and that is all because of a former Crusader that should make every Kennedy kid — young and old — very proud.
This time every year, when the West Side is getting ready under Jeff’s direction, I inevitably nudge someone, motion to Jeff and proudly proclaim, “He’s a Crusader.”
Just to be safe, though, I should probably point out that Opie would be an even better West Team coordinator if he still lived in town.
He still scares me that much.