MISSOULA — Knowing what sophomore linebacker Vika Fa’atuiese’s favorite moment as a Griz is tells you a lot about his character.
No. 12 Montana was at the No. 1 North Dakota State 1-yard line on fourth-and-goal with six seconds left on the clock.
With “Cotton Eye Joe” blaring over the loudspeakers, the Griz took to the field after the Bison called their final timeout. Brady Gustafson was under center and as the ball was snapped, he turned around and handed the ball to Joey Counts. Counts juked to the left, running around the scrum of offensive and defensive lineman to break into the end zone to boost the Griz over the reigning national champions.
“The crowd went nuts,” Fa’atuiese recollected. “It was packed. It was crazy. It was such a close game and to upset the No. 1 team, that was great. Just shows you what Montana is all about. That’s my most memorable moment by far.”
Fa’atuiese had nothing to do with the play or the game. He was standing on the sideline watching his first game ever in Washington-Grizzly Stadium as a redshirt in 2015.
Fa’atuiese truly has the team's best interests at heart, no cliche intended.
That team-first mentality is something coach Bob Stitt preaches with the Griz, but it’s something Fa’atuiese takes to another level, in part due to his maturity.
“He’s a very respectful young man,” defensive coordinator Jason Semore said. “He carries himself like he’s 40 years old. He takes everything serious and his personality, you gravitate towards. … Vika, as a person, he’s a very mature young man. He knows who he is. He knows what he wants, not just in football, but in life too. Vika is a unique young man in that way.”
Almost exactly two years from when Montana upset North Dakota State, Fa’atuiese is getting ready to take the field as a starter.
He’s taken a large amount of reps with the first team offense going back to the spring and has been an integral part of the defense lining up at middle linebacker. In the first scrimmage of Griz preseason camp, Fa’atuiese led all tacklers with eight.
“We really like what Vika’s put on tape so far, especially taking ownership in that role with (Connor Strahm) being out for a couple games,” Semore said. “He’s taking that in stride and has a lot of respect for what everybody expects him to do. We’re very pleased with Vika right now.”
Like Semore said, Fa’atuiese is taking things seriously and is doing whatever he can to prepare himself for Sept. 2 and beyond.
“He still takes a ton of notes in meetings,” linebackers coach Travis Niekamp said. “If Coach Semore and myself say something to him, he kinda takes it as the gospel. He’s trying to soak up as much as he can and I think that’s awesome. It’s not only good for him, but I think it’s good for the other guys to see in our room because I think they understand how important it is and he’s invested in this. He’s invested in his ability to try to play and keep playing. It’s fun to watch him prepare like a professional athlete.”
But Fa’atuiese almost wasn’t a Griz.
Straight out of high school in Vista, California, Fa’atuiese was committed to play linebacker for Colorado. Two weeks before signing day, the Buffalo staff got in contact with him, and told him that they were effectively pulling his offer because they decided to go with someone else in that position.
“It was pretty rough,” Fa’atuiese said. “Once they did that, I honestly didn’t know where I was gonna go. Then I decided I was gonna go to junior college and then move my way out of there. Montana called me up and told me if I can get the paperwork done and if I could wait on one result. That result came in and they offered me.”
Fa’atuiese didn’t take a recruiting visit to Montana, but he committed and came to Missoula anyway. He just trusted his gut and said he would have gone anywhere for an education.
"(Colorado) pulled out on me, but it's the best thing that's ever happened,” Fa’atuiese said. “I'm here now.”