‘You don’t see many like him’
By Bill Foley
Colt Anderson and Tommy Mellott are fantastic role models for young athletes.
So, too, are Butte icons Rob Johnson and the Wilson brothers, Bryon and Brad. The list goes on and on when it comes to good examples from the Mining City.
Jake Larson, well, not so much.
You can ask him.
“I didn’t lift weights until my sophomore year at Western,” Larson said. “That’s the difference between me and Colt Anderson. He’s the guy people should look to see how to do things, not me. Colt and Tommy.”
Larson says he was cocky and not always the nicest competitor in his days playing for Butte High and Montana Western. He would tell his competitors “you’re running for second” at the starting line, and he was known to taunt defensive backs as he broke away for a touchdown.
Now 38, Larson, admittedly, still walks on the brash side.
Larson, though, is without question on the short list when talking about the all-time great athletes to come out of the Mining City. Boy, could he run, jump and catch.
“Jake was a good one. You don’t see many like him,” long-time Butte High track coach Charlie Merrifield said. “He ranks with the all-time best in the state. I don’t know anybody else that you’re going to say who is a better hurdler.”
This coming Tuesday marks the 20th anniversary of one of the great individual performances for any athlete from Montana.
Twenty years ago, Larson set the Montana all-class state record in the 300-meter hurdles by posting a blistering time of 37.66 seconds. The race was run on Friday, May 26, 2000 at Van Winkle Stadium during the Class AA State meet in Bozeman.
It also marks 20 years of his father, Andy, checking the results from track meets around the state to see if anybody has a chance of breaking it.
“I just love the track season,” Andy Larson said. “I love to watch. (Records are) all made to be broken. It’s just a matter of who.”
So far, nobody has touched it for two decades.
Of course, nobody had a chance to break that record this spring because the coronavirus complete wiped out the high school track season.
Cleet Wrzesinksi of Ennis and then Baker made a run for it in 2016 and 2017. He set the Class C record at 37.90 in 2016 before winning the Class B title in 38.35 in 2017.
“He was knocking on the door,” Andy said. “But a second is like forever in the 300 hurdles.”
The only time an official record can be broken is at the state meet. Still, the 37.66 posted by Larson is the fastest 300 hurdles in Montana recorded anywhere.
Here’s Jake Larson’s record setting run in the 300-meter hurdles with a time of 37.66 on May 26, 2000 in Bozeman. pic.twitter.com/9ow76wysuu
— Bill Foley (@Foles74) May 23, 2020
The greatest race Larson ever ran was one he nearly missed. That is because he was as sick as a dog.
“I was puking on my way to the blocks,” he said. “I wasn’t going to run, but Merrifield made me. He said I had to at least get in the blocks and false start. He knew I wouldn’t false start.”
Merrifield always specialized in coaching the hurdles, and he still helps Butte High and Central athletes in the hurdles. He was Butte High’s head coach then. He was pretty blunt when Larson told him he didn’t want to run.
“He was almost crying because he was too sick to run the race,” Merrifield said. “I told him to quit being a baby and run. You can be sick tomorrow and your mother can give you all kinds of sympathy.”
Run, Larson did, and he got out of the blocks like a man possessed.
“It almost looked like a false start,” said Andy, who videotaped all of his son’s races from the stands. “He got out, and he was gone.”
“He sure surprised some people to go from fourth in the divisionals,” Merrifield said. “He was pretty amped up.”
Jake was running out of lane No. 9 because he stumbled in the event during the Western AA Divisional meet the week before in Kalispell. He placed fourth at the divisional with a time of 40.15.
“It was my start that got me it,” Jake added. “They might have thought I jumped.”
“They” are Greg Carothers of Helena Capital and Ty Felton of Missoula Hellgate. Carothers finished second in 38.41, while Felton took third in 39.45.
“Those two beat me all year,” Jake said.
Larson broke the record shared by Lucas Fowler of Harlowton and Kurt Sager of Shields Valley. Both ran 38.04 in 1998.
The next day, Larson won the 100-meter hurdles with a time of 14.42. Felton took second at 14.49.
The victory marked the first time he beat Felton in that race, too.
Larson was a little brash after the win, telling Montana Standard writer Matt Vincent, “I should’ve broken that, too.”
He was referring to the 1988 record of 14.29 set by Kalispell’s Jamie Banna.
“I delayed my trail leg on the last hurdle, and that slowed me down,” Larson said.
That 110-meter record was later eclipsed by Matt Larson (no relation) of Helena Capital with a time of 14.21 in 2004. The fastest mark ever set by a Butte High runner in the event was a 13.92-second time run by Kelly Davis in a dual meet in 1982.
“That’s a great performance,” Merrifield said. “It’s one of the very, very few times a kid has won the 110- and 300 hurdles.”
Merrifield pointed out that Davis did it. So did Tony Cunneen (2007). The coach also mentioned the name of Don McAuliffe, who was a great hurdler for the Bulldogs in the late 1940s, when trying to think of the very few whose names should me mentioned with Larson.
Davis and McAuliffe have been enshrined in the Butte Sports Hall of Fame. Larson will be some day.
Larson also placed third in the 200 meters in 22.56. Bulldog classmate Zach Ueland won that race in 22.31.
“He’s a big part of what I did,” Larson said of Ueland before mentioning classmate Ross Richardson. “We had three of the top five fastest kids in the 100.
“It helped having Zach and Ross and Merrifield. He just let us run. He just let us go, and that was a big contributor to our success.”
Butte High finished third as a team in a meet that was a preview of an even better one in 2001.
As good as Larson was in 2000, his performance at the Class AA state meet the next season in Great Falls was even more impressive.
He returned home with seven medals, and five of them were gold.
Four of those gold medals came on Day 1 of the meet. Larson again won the 300 hurdles (37.89) on Friday to go along with a victory in the 100 meters (11.08) and the 400 (49.01). Ueland finished a hair behind in the 400 at 49.3.
“I think he would have broken the 300 record again, but I think he was pointing toward those seven golds,” Merrifield said. “I think he loafed the first corner.”
Larson, Ueland, Richardson and Tim Boyle captured the 400-meter relay with a time of 42.70.
On Day 2, Larson defended his title in the 110-meter hurdles in 14.43. His silver medals came in the 200, where he barely lost to Ueland (21.85 to 21.90) and the 1,600-meter relay team.
He ran with Ueland, Richardson and Matt Choquette in the long relay. Larson ran the last leg, and he was gaining ground.
Newspaper accounts seem to back up his claim that a Bozeman runner cut off Larson with about 50 meters to go. A stutter step in Larson’s stride, Joe Paisley of the Standard reported, was the difference in the race.
Bozeman won with a time of 3 minutes, 19.41 seconds. Butte High was just behind at 3:19.73.
“I got cut off at the end of it,” Larson said, still clearly irritated by the loss 19 years later. “We appealed it, but it didn’t work out.”
Kalispell defended its team title with 163 points. Butte High second at 98. If Larson was a team, he would have been fourth.
Larson scored 52.5 points for the Bulldogs that meet, 48 of which he scored by himself. He got 10 points apiece for his individual wins, eight points for his second, two and a half points for his share in the 400-meter relay title and two points for his part in the 1,600-meter relay.
The 52.5 is still a Montana record, according to the Montana High School Association’s records page.
During the 2001 season, Larson went unbeaten in both hurdles, as well as the 100 and 400.
“I don’t know how many events he would have won in track if he could have entered them,” Merrifield said, referring to the limit of five individual events. “Long jump, high jump, triple jump. He could have done whatever he wanted.”
That record page also shows Larson’s name high on Montana’s all-time list with 16 career medals.
Harry Clark of Stanford/Cascade has the most with 20. No Class AA competitor in the last 100 years has more than Larson.
However, the list is wrong.
Larson, as can be seen in the photo atop this story, has 17 medals form state meets. He also has 16 from divisional meets. He apparently has not been credited for running a leg of Butte High’s third-place team in the 1,600-meet as a freshman during the 1998 Class AA State meet in Butte.
He was an alternate whose name was called.
“That race is what got me the letter,” Larson said.
Andy Larson keeps the medals, along with other mementos such as batons from big races, in a plastic container. He is a proud father.
“When you look at the 17 medals sitting over there, most guys would be happy with one,” he said.
Those medals and times — especially the 37.66 — also got the attention from some big-time schools.
“Every Pac-10 (now the Pac-12) school, ACC schools and some SEC schools,” Jake said when asked which universities he heard from.
He made a visit to Arizona State.
In the end, however, all those schools did not turn out to be an option for Larson, and he is not shy to share why, and it goes back to his statement about Anderson and Mellott.
Jake did not have the grades or test scores to get in. That, he said, was part of not working hard enough in the classroom. He was spoiled by his easy success in the sports arena.
“I never brought a book home,” he said of his high school days. “But I got good grades at Western.”
Jake turned a degree from Montana Western into a license in addiction counseling. He worked in that field for eight years before deciding to move to another job for more money and less headaches. He is now serving a plumber apprentice for Lockmer Plumbing in Butte.
Larson was much more than a track athlete. Actually, if you threw out his decorated track career, he would still be long remembered for his days playing football and basketball for the Bulldogs.
He left Butte High with 11 varsity letters — four in track and basketball and three in football. Until Mellott receives his fourth track letter this spring, no male athlete had more letters at Butte High than Larson.
On a run-first team, Larson played receiver for the Bulldogs in football. He moved to quarterback his senior season and threw 13 touchdown passes. That ranked in the top 10 in Butte High single-season history until Mellott came along and knocked him to 11th.
In basketball, Larson saw varsity time from the start. He played in 72 varsity games in his career.
He could dunk with the best of them.
Here is Jake Larson taking an alley-oop from Noah Thatcher at Missoula Big Sky during the 2000-01 season. pic.twitter.com/rW7vGZKOba
— Bill Foley (@Foles74) May 23, 2020
Larson played football at Western in 2002 and 2003 and again in 2005 and 2006. In between, he spent a spring on the University of Montana football team while running track for the Grizzlies. He qualified for the Big Sky Conference meet in the 400-meter relays.
On the football field, Larson was perhaps the scariest receiver in the Frontier Conference. He made sure opposing defensive coordinators were shot on sleep, racking up 176 catches for 2,966 yards and 23 touchdowns in 40 games playing for head coach Tommy Lee’s Bulldogs.
At least 50 of those catches would fall under the category of “acrobatic,” too.
Larson, who could run down any deep ball, could also got up high to catch a pass. He was never afraid to go up high over the middle, either.
And he seemed to have his biggest games against his hometown team, Montana Tech.
During his freshman season with the Western Bulldogs, Larson caught eight passes for 154 yards in a 21-14 win over Montana Tech in Butte. That include a 91-yard touchdown reception from Travis Kirby.
As he was closing in on the end zone, Larson turned around to show the ball to Oredigger T.J. Ramaeker, taunting the defensive back.
That drew a 15-yard penalty for taunting.
In 2005, Western opened the season with a 40-24 loss to the Orediggers in Butte. In the losing effort, however, Larson hauled in 12 passes for a school-record 230 yards and touchdowns of 61 and 11 yards.
Despite dropping what would have been a 33-yard touchdown pass, Larson eclipsed the record of 202 yards set by Steve Galley in 1983.
After the game, Larson showed a humble side, praising quarterbacks, Travis Blome and Justin Hartman.
“They just threw me the ball and gave me a chance to catch it,” he said. “I had a good day, but I’d like to win, though.”
Larson also took a nasty hit from Kyle Schindler. Known for his toughness for playing through pain throughout his career — which includes his days playing in adult softball — Larson missed just one play because of the vicious hit.
“He always played us tough,” Tech coach Bob Green said after the game. “But boy did he get hit.”
Added Tech quarterback Aaron Johnson, who admitted to watching Larson play while the Oredigger offense was on the sideline, “That guy is just a phenomenal athlete. He’s tough to cover.”
Larson’s last game against Tech saw him grab nine passes for 142 yards and two touchdowns. It also included a couple of crazy catches in an even crazier 30-27 Montana Tech victory in Dillon.
As a sophomore in 2003, Larson caught three passes — all for touchdowns — in 54-20 non-conference loss at Idaho State. He scored on receptions of 66, 84 and 13 yards while racing up 163 yards.
He also showed that he might be too brave for his own good after taking a big hit from Jared Allen, who went on to star in the NFL for the Kansas City Chiefs and Minnesota Vikings.
“I told him he hits like a b—-,” Larson said. “But I wasn’t looking at him.”
Larson capped his college career by playing in the East Coast Bowl in Virginia. He was the only NAIA player competing against FCS players from around the country. He also played in the NAIA All-American Game.
After college, Larson took part in a professional tryout at the University of Montana, and he was briefly a member of the Boise Burn in the Arena Football League.
Jake apparently took some athletic ability from both sides of his family.
Andy, who is known in town and well beyond for his music, graduated from Butte High in 1972. After playing center for the Bulldogs, he played collegiately at Montana State and Montana Tech.
He tried out for the Seattle Seahawks multiple times.
Andy was a lineman, so where did Jake’s speed comes from?
Perhaps that is from his mother Roxie (Kalafatich).
“The first race I lost was to my mom in middle school,” Jake said. “Me and Zach Osborne. It was just a race to the car, but she beat us.”
His aunt Laurie (Larson) Jesson, was also a standout track athlete.
Truth be told, Jake probably got his attitude equally from his mother and father. Jake, who recently lost all of his hair from Alopecia areata, wouldn’t have it any other way.
“I did it my way, and I’d do it the same way again,” he said. “To be a great track athlete, you’ve got to be at least a little cocky.”
Sure, Jake would probably work a little harder in high school if he had to do it again, but his attitude during competition would be just the same.
He says that knowing that it cost him along the way.
For instance, Larson seemed like a shoo-in to win the 2000-02 Gatorade Montana Boys’ Track & Field Player of the Year award.
Instead, that honor went to Kalispell’s David Vidal, who won the 800- and 1,600-meter races in at state in 2001. The award also recognizes high standards of academic achievement and exemplary character on and off the field.
“I didn’t get the Gatorade because I was a (expletive deleted) a—hole,” Jake said.
“Not for me he wasn’t,” Merrifield said. “We understood each other pretty well. I looked at him one time and said, ‘Jake, I’m going to do the thinking and you do the running because it’s obvious we can’t switch roles.’”
The one thing nobody has been able to take from Larson, however, is that 300-meter hurdle record. The clock does not judge and it does not lie.
In 2021, Andy Larson’s watch will resume. He will again check the results of every meet in the state to see if somebody has a chance.
He and Jake hope it will fall, too. Just not yet.
Jake’s son Braylon, who is about to graduate sixth grade at Hillcrest Elementary in Butte, will be a junior — the same year Jake was when he set the record — on the 25th anniversary.
Braylon, whose mother is former Helena High and Carroll College basketball star Amy Brooks, is tall, athletic and very fast.
“Another four or five years,” Jake said, “and hopefully he’ll break it.” 1 comment