This is Christmas in July for Clay Dean. The recent Butte High Bulldog football star wished at Christmas to be named to the 2015 West Shrine Team and the honor materialized.
Dean has been practicing this week with the West squad at Bob Green Field on the Montana Tech campus. He will line up with his all-star teammates Saturday in Great Falls (kickoff 7 p.m.) for the 69th annual Montana East-West Shrine Game. The yearly contest is a fundraiser for the Shrine Children’s Hospital in Spokane and the recent renewed interest in the classic has brought more than $200,000 in funds for the cause the past two years.
Dean was not immediately named an West All-Star, though he certainly wasn’t lacking in the credentials department. The teams are announced on Christmas Day each year and are made up of the preceding fall’s Montana senior football stars of high school football.
“This was a goal of mine, big time,” Dean, a 5-foot-10, 175-pound safety, remembered after Wednesday’s afternoon practice. “I was (picked) an alternate. So, then I was hoping somebody would back out, or couldn’t play and I’d get to be in it.”
His wish came true.
“I got the call from Jeff (Hartwick) just a few weeks ago,” Dean said, emitting he was extremely happy to respond.
Hartwick is the operations manager, a sort of athletic director, for the West Team.
Dean is a high-energy football player and student. He will take his game and his grades to Montana Tech this fall, looking to major in petroleum engineering. He graduated last spring as a class valedictorian with a straight-A, 4.0 grade-point average.
On the field, the “Hit Man,” as dubbed by fans, earned Class AA All-State second team as a safety and first team as a special teams athlete. Along the way, he totaled marquee-worthy numbers of 94 solo tackles and 40 assists in 10 games – averaging almost 13 ½ tackles a game. Dean also forced a fumble, tackled a ballcarrier for a loss of yardage once, sacked a quarterback once and broke up seven passes.
The Orediggers have invited Dean to continue at safety to jingle some bells on the college gridiron. He seems to be staking out that territory this week at the Montana Tech facility.
“It’s nice to come out and play football again,” Dean said, smiling widely after his second practice session for the day, “after not having played all summer. I’ve lifted some weights, but this gives me some actual football practice before I start my college career.”
Dean is a physical player and readily admitted the contact is what drew him to the game. He is the first in his family to play football, but said he has been well-supported by his relatives and a Dean contingent will sit in Great Falls’ Memorial Stadium on Saturday night.
“I liked to hit a lot as a youngster,” he said about his Mining City Little Guy Football start. “It was something I really enjoyed. I could hit well, but I’m not so good at catching the ball. Being strong in one part of my game allowed for me to work on getting better on other parts.
“I need to work on catching the ball. That’s the main attribute a safety should have.”
The standout said he has had to adjust to a new defense this week, one that is under the direction of Helena High coordinator Scott Evans. Don Peoples Jr. of Butte Central is the team’s head coach.
Dean seemed to welcome the change, if only because it has taught him even more football. The biggest difference from what he has done before, Dean said, is the press coverage with the defensive backs up tight on receivers at the line of scrimmage.
“It’s good to learn,” the expert learner (4.0., remember) said. “At Tech, they use six DBs, so it’ll be tough learning what all they’re doing there.”
The adrenaline rush the playing of football provides is also a draw to Dean, he said, confessing he is on constant quest for the big play, but not only looking for it from himself, but also anticipating one will be made by a teammate.
“Big plays bring everybody on the team together,” he said. “Big plays are what’s exciting. They change games. They keep you from losing your focus.”
Dean started two years at safety for Butte High and was a sub on the 2012 state AA championship team as a sophomore. As a senior, he saw some duty at running back, but defense owns his heart. It’s a pretty big one.
“I had seen this game the last time it was in Butte (2013) and I knew then I wanted to be in it,” Dean said. “I wanted to be playing with these high-caliber players. It’s awesome.”
This week’s thoughts and reverence has brought it home even a little bit more. Dean spoke about West teammate Chad Peterson’s younger sister being a Shrine Children’s Hospital patient, and how former schoolmate Tucker Thatcher, a Butte High basketball player, also benefited from treatment at the Spokane facility and has plans himself to play football this fall as a senior.
“For me, this has been all about getting to play with these guys,” Dean said, “getting to play for the hospital.”
Ever the competitor, though, the goals for the weekend show some familiar designs for Dean, so energetic, so enthused to play as an all-star and for a noble cause.
“I just want to go out and have fun,” he said, “beat the East and end my high school career with a great game and playing well. Hopefully, everybody plays well.”
The West won, 34-10, last year in Laurel, but trails the East by a 37-31 count in the series.
Next year’s game will be played in Butte.
Note: ButteSports.com will profile all six players representing the Mining City in the July 18 Montana East-West Shrine Game in Great Falls. Other players from Butte are Kaemen Richards, Danny Peoples, Chad Peterson and Marcus Ferriter of Butte Central and Dalton Daum of Butte High.