Venerable Grizzly

by AJ Mazzolini

Her stepfather has always had a mind that holds on to details, MaryAnne Dowdall explains, especially when it comes to football.

“If you want to know somebody who coached a high school team somewhere in 1950-something, he could tell you who it was and where they ended up,” she says.

So the way Ben Tyvand rattles off the Montana Grizzlies schedule from 1941 is no surprise to her. Still, at better than 94 1/2 years of age, it’s a neat party trick.

“We played UCLA a real decent game, 14-7,” he says in a soft, sometimes wheezy voice. “Then we played
Washington, 21-0, and Idaho. We won that 16-0.”

He stops, his pale blue eyes losing their focus across the living room of his south Missoula home. Tyvand’s fidgeting hands, frail and crisscrossed with blue veins, explore the edge of a maroon-and silver blanket that matches his loosefitting Griz polo shirt. He counts in his head, mouthing the numbers in silence.

Ben Tyvand

“Let me think for a second,” he continues. “We had a nine-game schedule and we won six and lost three. Yes, we lost to UCLA in the Coliseum.”

Few could navigate the 1941 Montana football season in such detail more than 70 years removed from the last game – even fewer played in it. Just one to be exact and that’s Tyvand, the only surviving member of that year’s team who is believed to be the oldest surviving former Griz football player.

“As far as I know,” he says.

Longevity runs in the Tyvand family, at least it did for this generation. Ben’s two brothers each reached the high 80s, Ray hitting 88 before passing in 2011 and Henry surviving to see 93 in 2013.

Turning 94 this past January was a point of pride for Ben. He and Henry were always rather competitive.

Tyvand graduated from Butte High in 1939 a star athlete, playing in three straight state football
championships – winning two – and adding track and field titles three years as well. But graduation
snuck up on the Butte boy. “I didn’t have any sort of scholarship, nobody recruited me,” he recalled.
“Life goes on and I didn’t know what the hell I was gonna do.”

After a brief stop in the Silver Star mine near town and then at the Butte Business College – a training school for office workers and an old uptown Butte staple for almost a century – Tyvand and a high school buddy headed for Missoula in hopes of playing basketball for the college.

It was Montana State University back then and Tyvand found his way to football practice in the fall of 1940. He played basketball and also ran track, but the thing he’d be known for – what earned him a spot on the wall of Missoula Club tavern, a Griz haven – was football.

The 1952 Montana Western Divisional Co-Champions. A photo inside his house shows Coach Ben Tyvand first on the left in the second row.

The 1952 Montana Western Divisional Co-Champions. Coach Ben Tyvand is first on the left in the second row.

Freshmen weren’t allowed to play on the varsity team back then, but Tyvand made a name for himself
as a walk-on wing back with the freshmen squad. Head coach Doug Fessenden even offered him a
partial scholarship for the next year. That turned into a starting spot by the beginning of the ‘41 season – a campaign that featured the last Grizzly victory over North Dakota State before this fall – though the first of many college injuries almost derailed the good news.

Tyvand and teammate Paul Kampfe collided while flying through the backfield in one of the fall’s final
practices on a double reverse.

“I tore my eye quite a bit, had to put some stitches in,” Tyvand said. “But Doug came down and said,
‘We got to get you ready for BYU and guess what? You’re starting.’ ”

The Grizzlies whipped Brigham Young 20-7 that day in Provo, Utah, earning themselves a spot on the cover of the next morning’s Daily Missoulian, sharing A1 with the latest news from Europe as the Allies battled the Nazis.

The back rushed for his first career touchdown in the first half. An interception set up the Griz with a short field before “an offside penalty on the Cougars aided in the trip and Ben Tyvand raced nine yards around (the) right end for the score,” the Daily Missoulian reported.

Tyvand loves telling that story, though he’s just as boastful of the bad luck that came in the second half. He wears the scars of his playing days like medals of honor: A handful of black eyes, a torn up knee, a dislocated shoulder.

Of course, he has actual medals, too, from his service days during World War II.

The latter injury came against BYU as he returned the kickoff after halftime. Tyvand tried to hurdle a
pile of players clogging the middle of the field.

“I wanted to jump over them so I jumped, but somebody caught my toe,” he said. “And down I went
on my shoulder. They didn’t do much for separated shoulders in those days.”

The BYU win is perhaps Tyvand’s fondest memory of his time in maroon and silver. That or the Grizzlies’ trip to Hawaii six years later, but he’ll get to that.

Tyvand took a break from school and athletics following his shoulder injury and was drafted in 1942, serving in the 361st regiment of the 91st infantry division. Tyvand fought his way across Italy, including the Battle of Monte Cassino that led to the capture of Rome for the Allies.

“I can’t say I enjoyed it, but it was nice to be in Italy,” Tyvand said simply.

The Grizzlies did not field a football team in 1943 or 1944 during the war, but Tyvand returned to the university in 1946, again with the intention of playing basketball.

“But I couldn’t do as well because I was older,” said Tyvand, 25 at the time. “And it seemed like
everybody in the whole state of Montana was trying out for basketball.”

He didn’t play much in ‘46 because of a hurt back, but was selected a team captain in 1947. The Griz
traveled by air twice that season, the first times in program history. The team rode in U.S. Forest
Service smokejumper planes for a game in Arizona before crossing the ocean to play Hawaii.

Tyvand played both sides of the ball against Hawaii, the Rainbows as they were referred to then. He scored a touchdown and recovered two fumbles, “one of which set up the Grizzlies’ first touchdown. The other halted a Hawaiian drive in the closing minutes of the game,” the Daily Missoulian recounted.

Or in Tyvand’s words: “I saved the day by taking the ball from their big end when they were marching
down.”

The Grizzlies won 14-12 on the island, then beat a Hawaii All-Star team five days later on Christmas
Day to finish the year 7-4.

Tyvand bounced around after graduating from Montana in 1948, but the Grizzlies never left his heart.

After stops in Dillon, Anaconda, Victor and Wallace, Idaho (there’s a scholarship named in his honor there) as a high school teacher, counselor and coach, Tyvand retired to Missoula in the late ‘70s to drive school buses.

And, of course, to follow the Griz.

“For years, he used to go over and watch them practice,” said Dowdall, his stepdaughter. “Every day
when Joe Glenn was there.”

In the ‘80s, Tyvand helped raise money for Montana’s football palace, Washington-Grizzly Stadium (in his day the team played in on-campus Dornblaser Field, located where the parking garage is today). He had season tickets long before that.

Tyvand and his second wife Mary, married 39 years, also took in countless Griz and Lady Griz basketball
games over the decades.

To him, the Griz were second only to his family, though the ordering sometimes fluctuated, joked
Dowdall. Her stepfather was a frequent sight at his grandchildren’s youth sporting events, though not a
constant one.

“If it didn’t interfere with the Grizzlies that is,” Dowdall said with a chuckle. “If the Grizzlies were playing, then they won out.”

His health failing – he had heart surgery to replace an aortic valve in 2011 – Tyvand is no longer a staple at live games. He still has the season tickets, but hasn’t used them himself in two years. His last outing came in 2013 when he flipped the pregame coin at midfield during a matchup against Weber State. Dowdall was there to push his wheelchair.

But when the Grizzlies beat North Dakota State in this fall’s season-opener, their first win over the Bison since Tyvand was in pads, he was watching.

And cheering.

Decked out in his maroon T-shirt and blanket.

No comments yet.

Add a comment