James Markovich still worthy of a smile

When I think about James Markovich, my heart breaks a little bit.

James took his own life on June 1, 2018, leaving behind a wife and two children. He should have turned 39 the following month.

When I think about James, I also cannot help but smile a little bit, too.

I remember the first time I was sent to cover a Montana Tech football game. It was a night game on Halloween 1998, and the Orediggers were taking on Carroll College in what was legendary coach Bob Petrino’s last game on the sideline.

The pressure of covering the storied rivalry on a tight deadline had me nervous as could be.

One of the first players I saw was James, and he was happy to see me. He was thrilled that I would be writing about the game, even though he was not playing because of a back injury.

Talking with James actually helped relieve that pressure. It helped me relax and enjoy what turned out to be a very good game.

The Orediggers beat the Saints 21-14, and I somehow managed to get a story and boxscore typed before deadline.

It was too bad that I did not get the chance to write about James that night. I told him there would be many other chances.

Unfortunately, I was wrong.

While he had a very promising seven-game start to his career with the Orediggers, James did not play another down for Montana Tech. The next year, he transferred to the University of Montana to play for the Grizzlies, and it did not work out for him.

His football career was soon over.

When I think about James, I cannot help but wonder about what could have been.

James, you see, ran into some bad luck with his career. Some of it he brought on himself, like the decision to walk away from Tech. Some of it was beyond his control.

Through seven games with the Orediggers in 1998, James ran for 387 yards and three touchdowns on 75 carries. He ran for 105 yards in his final game, a home win over Montana Western.

The week before that, James scored two touchdowns in a 41-0 win at Carroll College.

He did that while splitting time with a fellow freshman named Jay LeProwse.

LeProwse had 433 yards on 107 carries while sharing the load with James through those seven games.

Then James injured his back in the weight room, where he was always a beast.

Once he no longer had to share carries, LeProwse took off. He ran for 417 yards on 85 carries the rest of the way, earning the first of his four Frontier Conference rushing titles.

Jay LeProwse went on to become an Oredigger legend. James Markovich ended up a footnote.

James grew up in Butte and attended Kennedy Elementary and Butte Central Elementary. Unfortunately for the Maroons and Bulldogs, he moved to Great Falls and became a star for the Great Falls Bison.

After switching from receiver to tailback as a senior, James broke the school record by running for 244 yards in a 28-0 homecoming win over Missoula Sentinel at Memorial Stadium. He scored on runs of 45, 59 and 5 yards on that Sept. 20 night.

The previous record was 224 yards by Scott Spraggins, set in 1990.

“He ran hard and broke tackles,” Great Falls coach Dale Pohle explained of James’ big game. “He gave extra effort.”

James told Great Falls Tribune writer Mike Towne that the game was a dream come true.

“I’ve been dreaming for the last two years that I’d have a game like this,” James said. “It’s unbelievable.”

Unfortunately, the next night turned into a nightmare for James, who suffered bruises, cuts and torn muscles in a 15-foot fall from a bridge east of Belt.

When he fell, James and a friend were running from a deputy sheriff who was investigating the possession of alcohol by minors.

The two boys had beer in their car when a police officer pulled up. The two took off running, and both fell onto a landing of rocks and boulders.

After falling off, James broke his friend’s fall. He was transported by Mercy Flight to the hospital in Great Falls, and he was released the next day.

He also had a story about his incident on the top of the front sports page of the Great Falls Tribune. Every major newspaper in the state picked up the story, too.

James said he was not drinking, and tests at the hospital backed him up. He was still guilty of possession and some bad breaks, and he had to pay a steep price.

On Oct. 18 of that year, James returned to the Bison lineup in time for a game against Butte High on Silver B’s Night at Bulldog Memorial Stadium. He caught a 78-yard touchdown pass from Robb Syzmanski before suffering an ankle injury that forced him to leave the game.

Butte High won 18-14, but James finished the 1996 season as the leading rusher in the Class AA.

The next spring, James signed to play football at Montana Tech. He redshirted one season and then fought in the smoker with Montana Western in March of 1998.

That was the year before the riot ended the smokers between the Orediggers and Bulldogs.

James dropped a unanimous decision to Western’s Sean Roebuck at 175 pounds, but James did not go down without a fight.

The crowd took notice, and the bout was voted “Fight of the Night.”

By the time I saw James on the Montana Tech sideline, I had known him for many years. His father, Joe, used to take him to the Elks to play basketball, play handball and work out.

My dad took me to the Elks, too.

Joe was an intense father. He saw the potential his son possessed, and he convinced James that he would be great if he worked hard. He was right.

As a boy, James stood out in track meets and other youth events. He tied the record for 12-year-olds by running the 30-yard dash in 4.4 seconds during the 1991 Montana Jaycees’ Run, Punt, Pass & Kick state finals in Butte.

James was a little cocky, even as a young boy, but he was always likeable. He used to terrorize my friend Chris Campbell, who lived a few doors down from James on O’Neill Street, and that made me like James even more.

It is still hard not to smile when I think about Chris losing all those arguments to a boy who was half his age.

James has been on my mind since I saw his dad was one of the men to be inducted as a Golden B during Butte High’s football game with Kalispell Glacier on Friday night.

I looked for Joe at the game because I have not seen him in more than 20 years. I always enjoyed talking to Joe and hearing his theories about working out and raising a son.

Joe marched to the beat of a different drum, as they say, but was always really nice to me. So, I wanted to see if he was doing OK.

I wanted to tell Joe how sorry I was about James’ passing. I wanted to tell him how much I liked his son. I wanted to let him know that while James might be gone, he is not forgotten.

Unfortunately, Joe did not make the game, and that is too bad.

I really wanted to let Joe know that thinking about James still makes me smile.

— Bill Foley writes a column that appears Tuesdays on ButteSports.com. Email him at foley@buttesports.com. Follow him at twitter.com/Foles74. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-TALK.