#MTTop40: Size, strong arms led to pro careers for Kalispell Flathead’s Brock Osweiler and Great Falls CMR’s John Leister

(Editor’s note: MTN Sports began recognizing some of the best football players in Montana history on July 2 with the launch of the #MTTop40. The series started with defensive backs and will run eight weeks, featuring one position each week, concluding with quarterbacks the week of Aug. 20-24 to coincide with Montana’s high school football season opener. We’ve wrapped up the defense, also profiling the defensive linemen and linebackers, and started the offense with the offensive linemen, tight ends, wide receivers and running backs. This week we focus on quarterbacks, two each day — one from the modern era and one who played pre-1980s.)

Defensive backs: No. 5 – Shann Schillinger, Baker; No. 4 – Greg Carothers, Helena Capital; No. 3 – Kane Ioane, Billings Skyview; No. 2 – Colt Anderson, Butte; No. 1 – Tim Hauck, Big Timber.

Defensive linemen: No. 5 – Kroy Biermann, Hardin; No. 4 – Pete Lazetich, Billings Senior; No. 3 – Mitch Donahue, Billings West; No. 2 – Dwan Edwards, Columbus; No. 1 – Mike Tilleman, Chinook.

Linebackers: No. 5 – Pat Taylor, Great Falls CMR; No. 4 – Mark Fellows, Choteau; No. 3 – Jason Crebo, Helena Capital; No. 2 – Jim Kalafat, Great Falls CMR; No. 1 – Corey Widmer, Bozeman.

Offensive lineman: No. 5 – Barry Darrow, Great Falls CMR; No. 4 – Mike Person, Glendive; No. 3 – Sonny Holland, Butte; No. 2 – Kirk Scrafford, Billings West; No. 1 – Pat Donovan, Helena High.

Tight ends: No. 5 – Will Dissly, Bozeman; No. 4 – Joe Bignell, Deer Lodge; No. 3 – Brian Salonen, Great Falls High; No. 2 – Mark Gilman, Kalispell Flathead; No. 1 – Casey Fitzsimmons, Chester.

Wide receivers: No. 5 – Gabe Sulser, Billings Senior; No. 4 – Mark Gallik, Stevensville; No. 3 – Matt Miller, Helena Capital; No. 2 – Marc Mariani, Havre; No. 1 – Sam McCullum, Kalispell Flathead.

Running backs: No. 5 — Steve Kracher, Columbia Falls; No. 4 — Kerry Porter, Great Falls High; No. 3 — Lex Hilliard, Kalispell Flathead; No. 2 — Don Hass, Glendive, No. 1 — Chase Reynolds, Drummond.

Quarterbacks: No. 5 — Paul Petrino, Helena Capital and Bob O’Billovich, Butte.

No. 4 quarterbacks – Brock Osweiler, Kalispell Flathead and John Leister, Great Falls CMR

Physically talented and blessed with strong arms, both Brock Osweiler and John Leister found success at the NCAA Division I level before enjoying their respective professional athletic careers.

Brock Osweiler stat sheet

Standing 6-foot-7, Osweiler’s stature was an added advantage against Montana prep competition, in both football and basketball. A talented four-time all-state performer on the hardwood, Osweiler gave a verbal commitment to Gonzaga during his sophomore year. Despite averaging a double-double, including 21 points and 14 rebounds his junior year, the quarterback decided to test his college football options, eventually committing to Arizona State after his junior season. One year later, Osweiler was named Montana’s Gatorade football player of the year, throwing for 2,703 yards and 20 touchdowns, while adding 700 yards and 13 scores on the ground.

As a freshman in 2009, Osweiler appeared in six games with the Sun Devils, starting one, while throwing for 249 yards and two touchdowns. One season later, he again played in six games, starting one, but upped his numbers to 797 yards and five touchdowns through the air, before enjoying a breakout season as the full-time starter in 2011. Osweiler completed 326 of 516 passes, throwing for 4,036 yards and 26 touchdowns. He also rushed for three scores and led ASU to the 2011 Maaco Bowl Las Vegas, falling to Boise State.

The Denver Broncos selected Osweiler in the second round of the 2012 NFL Draft, the No. 57 overall pick, where he became a back-up to the recently acquired Peyton Manning. Osweiler played sparingly his first three seasons, before replacing an injured Manning midway through the 2015 season. Osweiler won his first three starts, including a two-touchdown performance on his 25th birthday against the Chicago Bears, a 17-15 Broncos’ win. The following week, he threw for 270 yards and a touchdown in a 30-24 overtime win against the previously unbeaten New England Patriots. Osweiler started seven games, throwing for 1,967 yards and 10 touchdowns, while adding a rushing score, as the Broncos went 4-2 before Manning returned in the seventh game. Denver won Super Bowl 50, 24-10, against the Carolina Panthers.

In March of 2016, Osweiler signed a four-year, $72 million deal with the Houston Texans. After throwing for 2,957 yards, 15 touchdowns and 16 interceptions, including a 27-14 AFC Wild Card win against the Oakland Raiders, Osweiler was traded to the Cleveland Browns in 2017, then released in September. He returned to the Broncos that fall, before signing with the Miami Dolphins this spring. Osweiler holds career numbers of 584 completions, 31 touchdowns and 27 interceptions, four rushing touchdowns and a 13-12 record as a starter.

… on Osweiler

Former Kalispell Flathead football coach Grady Bennett: “I started working with him in sixth grade and he was already like, 6-foot-7 in middle school. He would come work out with our guys and most people, if you didn’t know, they would think he was already our high school starter. He was a good, good player. I got to work with him as a freshman and sophomore at Flathead before I came (to Glacier High). Obviously that was tough, but Brock, definitely, he has to go down on the list as one of the greatest (Montana) players of all-time with what he’s done, and he’s still playing in the NFL.

“I guess what was fun was, he always had the physical tools and he threw it so naturally that I never had to make many adjustments. It was mostly teaching him the drops and footwork that go with the various throws that you have to make, but he already had all the physical tangibles. Really it was watching him, and I didn’t get to be a part of this, unfortunately, but watching him develop as a leader. You could see that as a junior and senior in high school, but then when he went to Arizona State and then into the NFL, just watching him grow as a leader, and you hear comments about that and the type of leader he is. That was fun to watch. Unfortunately for me, it had to be from afar, but definitely.

“First of all, I’ll give you one of my proudest moments as a coach. The night that Brock was on Monday Night Football playing against the (New England) Patriots and led them to that comeback victory in the snow for Denver, that was during their Super Bowl season, I split-screened my TV, because another one of my all-time favorite quarterbacks that I coached, Mike Reilly, was playing in the CFL Grey Cup and winning the MVP and leading them to the championship. So I’m sitting there by myself, the most proud moment, maybe that I’ve ever had, watching Brock Osweiler on half of the screen and Mike Reilly on the other half of the screen. It was almost surreal. I’m sitting there going, ‘I coached both these guys. Both of these guys from Montana are playing at the highest level and winning incredible games.’ It just gives me chills to think about that I’ve been a part of those guys’ lives and helped them develop. The NFL is such a business, and you watch Brock’s career and you see, I think with Brock’s career you see the business defined. What’s happened with, ‘OK, he’s good, so let’s give him all this money. Oh, we don’t like him, now he’s on the shelf.’ It’s almost unfair how it works, but it’s truly a business, and I think Brock has, unfortunately, truly exemplified that for all of us.”

Former Kalispell Flathead football coach Russell McCarvel: “I saw him throw a corner route at about 45 yards on a dime and I was like, ‘Wow, that kid’s a sophomore.’ The spring of his sophomore year, he had already committed to Gonzaga at that time for basketball, but he came up to me and said, ‘Hey coach, I was thinking about maybe sending out some video to a few schools. What do you think?’ That was really the day I knew he would end up in football because I knew the kind of interest that an athletic, 6-7 kid would generate. There aren’t many kids from Montana that can say, ‘Hey, do you think I should send one out to Florida State? Alabama? Washington? Arizona State?’ and those kinds of places, and you say, ‘Yeah, that’s a good idea.’ I got a call back from Florida State in the middle of the summer and they asked me right away, ‘Is that kid really a sophomore? Is he really that big?’ That’s really what got the ball rolling. I had, on my whiteboard in my classroom, I had numbers of coaches that he needed to get a hold of that were calling me. It was long, a lot of big-time schools, obviously, and a lot of, at that time, (Western Athletic Conference) schools and so on. It was a pretty long list of schools.

“It was really in two parts. No. 1, physically he just didn’t look like everyone else. But his preparation was great. (No. 2), his knowledge and his want to be great, he definitely wanted to be great. He didn’t really talk about the NFL, but you knew it and definitely knew he wanted to be a big-time Division I quarterback. He had the tools to do it.

“We had a long visit before he was headed out and I talked about doing the right thing. ‘If you get in trouble in Kalispell, it’s a small blip. If you get in trouble at ASU, it’s going to be on the ticker on ESPN.’ He’s been a guy that’s always said the right things. I know a lot of people in Arizona and they love him down there. He still does a lot of charity work with Arizona State and things. But as far as his high school career, the biggest thing was that I enjoyed scheming with him. He loved dissecting and scheming, ‘What are we going to run this week coach?’ He loved putting in new things, he loved practice. He loved doing everything that you needed to do to be a great quarterback, he really did.”

John Leister stat sheet

The son of an Army colonel, John Leister moved to Great Falls from El Paso, Texas, where he would become an all-state quarterback under Jack Johnson with Great Falls CMR. Leister led the Rustlers to the 1978 Class AA state championship, a 13-7 loss to Helena Capital, which was led by quarterback Bobby Petrino.

Leister was drafted by the New York Mets in the 20th Round of the 1979 MLB Amateur Draft, but decided to continue his football career at Michigan State. He completed one pass, a 21-yard touchdown, during the 1979 season, before becoming a three-year starter for the Spartans. As a sophomore, Leister completed 103 of 247 passes for 1,559 yards and 10 touchdowns. A two-time captain at MSU, he threw for 2,418 yards and nine touchdowns the following two seasons. He can still be found in the Michigan State record book, where he ranks 10th in career pass attempts (686), 11th in completions (313), No. 12 in passing yards (3,999) and is tied for 11th in passing touchdowns (20). His 35 career interceptions are tied for the second-most in program history.

After his senior year, Leister was again selected in the MLB Amateur Draft, this time in the sixth round by the Oakland Athletics, but he would again choose to continue pursuing football. Leister signed with the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1983, but the team decided to continue starting Terry Bradshaw in what would be his final season, cutting Leister at the end of training camp. He was drafted by the Michigan Panthers of the United States Football League (USFL), but left the team after the Boston Red Sox selected him in the third round of the 1984 MLB January Draft. Leister spent five seasons in the minor leagues and two in the majors, with six starts and eight appearances. He owns a career record of 0-2 with 19 strikeouts.

Leister then entered the coaching world and in 1994 became an assistant football and baseball coach at Alma College in Alma, Michigan. Three years later he became the head baseball coach and eventually led the program to the 1999 Mid-America Intercollegiate Athletics Association championship. He served as the director of athletics at Alma College from 2007 to 2014. In December of 2017, Leister applied for the head football vacancy at MSU-Northern in Havre, though the Lights hired current head coach Andrew Rolin later in the month. Leister is currently the assistant head coach, offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach at Lindenwood University-Belleville.

… on Leister

Former Great Falls CMR football coach Jack Johnson: “John Leister was a great athlete. We lose to Helena Capital that year (1978) in the state championship in a snow storm, Bobby Petrino is their quarterback, and then John was recruited by a lot of schools, baseball as well (as football), but he chose Michigan State. He went there and was a three-year starter, two-time captain. They weren’t real good when he was there, but then he signed with the Steelers as a free agent, but they had their old starter (Terry Bradshaw) back, and I said, ‘You better pack your bags.’ He went to the Michigan Panthers for a while and then was drafted in the third round by the Red Sox and played with Red Sox for (some years). Unbelievable talent.

“He loved to play football. Football was his love and he was talented. He had a strong arm, a very strong arm. He had huge hands. He could go up, palming two basketballs, and dunk two basketballs at the same time. He had those huge hands. He was just a very gifted athlete, a great kid.”

Richie Melby

Richie Melby

A Hi-line native, Richie Melby enjoys telling the stories of Montana athletes, coaches and teams. Richie got his start in TV at KTVQ in Billings and worked as the Sports Director at KRTV. After a couple of years in Tucson, Ariz., Richie returned to his home state as the Sports Director at KTVH.
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