MISSOULA — Jace Lewis had no stars and no scholarship offers in high school.
Personally, the Montana senior linebacker didn’t care about the stars. He feels that rating system is overrated anyway.
He did care about the offers. All he needed was one team to believe in him so he could get a shot to show what he was capable of on the field.
Lewis got that opportunity with the Griz, the team he fell in love with as a little kid by watching games on television or at Washington-Grizzly Stadium. Now in his sixth year, he’s gone from a walk-on player out of small-town Montana to a preseason All-American recognized as one of the best defensive players in the FCS while never losing the gratitude for everyone who’s helped him along the way.
“You can’t just come into a place like this and expect to come out and play right away,” he said. “You have to work your butt off to get where you’re at. I think that’s a testament to what I’ve done.
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“I thought I could play here because I saw the guys around me, and I was like, ‘I think that’s just hard work and a blue-collar work ethic you need.’ I think that’s what you have to have coming into college. You can’t back down to anybody and just have to do your thing.”
Lewis’ rise took some time. He walked on in 2016 for former coach Bob Stitt and received a partial scholarship after one year. He became a special teams standout, earned more playing time on defense and advanced his scholarship to full-ride status in 2019. He had a meteoric rise that year as he became a starter and All-Big Sky talent while playing in the heart of the defense.
Lewis is now tied for ninth in program history in tackles for loss, tied for 13th in total tackles and tied for 23rd in sacks. His defensive coordinator and linebackers coach at Broadwater High School in Townsend, Joe Horne, who was an All-American at Carroll College, felt in his heart that Lewis could achieve what he has at UM if he just got a shot.
“There’s been a lot of struggles, and he’s come through every one of them,” Horne said. “He always just went back to work and was never satisfied and never said, ‘I got here.’ We put those expectations out there that if you want to be the best, you have to put in the time and earn it.”
Lewis’ hard work, dedication and team-first attitude also netted him UM’s No. 37 legacy jersey his senior season. He got the jersey passed on to him from Jesse Sims, a best friend of his who died over the summer in an ATV accident.
The loss could’ve broken him, but his resolve to keep pushing forward has shown through. He’s peaking at the perfect point in his career and showing others what it means to be a fighter.
Nothing has ever been handed to Lewis, and his rise from being a walk-on draws a smile from Montana coach Bobby Hauck.
“I think it’s just sort of the American way,” he said. “You start out with an opportunity, and you get what you earn. That’s what I like about him.”
Lewis doesn’t foresee himself ever leaving the state of Montana.
He loves the outdoors, especially hiking, hunting and fishing while being surrounded by stunning scenery and people who share his passion for working hard. He even wants to be a crop adjuster, working around agriculture by inspecting fields for insurance claims.
Lewis’ blue-collar work ethic stems from his family. His father grew up on a ranch and his mother grew up with a father who was a carpenter, he said. He learned about that type of demanding, disciplined work first-hand while he grew up pitching in on a family ranch his uncle and cousins ran by fixing fences, branding livestock and baling hay.
“My parents were always like, ‘You can try whatever you want, but if you’re going to do it, you’re going to stick with it and be the best you can be with it,’” he said. “They encouraged me and supported me with whatever I wanted to do.”
Lewis loved watching football every Saturday and Sunday after playing on Friday. He also enjoyed the tough coaching he first got in high school from Horne and head coach Travis Rauh. It prepared him for when he got to UM.
Lewis has also embraced the grind in the weight room. While it was demanding physically, he found a joy in pushing his teammates and getting pushed by them in his quest to try to be the best he could be. He’s gone on to become a 6-foot-1, 230-pound bruiser, a transformation that he credits to former strength coach Matt Nicholson, who was a walk-on at Houston.
“He saw something in me and always pushed me, and I put my trust into him,” Lewis said. “He’s part of the reason too why I’ve gotten my body right speed-wise, strength-wise to be able to play on Saturdays. If it wasn’t for him, I don’t think I’d be here today.”
Lewis also loved how supportive the tight-knit community was in Townsend, which has a population of about 2,100 people. He played quarterback in addition to linebacker as Townsend won the 2014 State B title, but the moment that stands out to Horne is the East-West Shrine Game Lewis’ senior season.
For one, Lewis wore the No. 26 jersey that his late high school teammate Dakota Kimbrough had worn. It’s a subject that he’s still not comfortable talking about, aside from saying that he plays with his friend on his mind.
It was at that all-star game where Horne was impressed with how Lewis treated the kids who were being helped by the Shriners Hospitals for Children. He had stayed out on the field after the pregame coin toss to shake hands and talk with each of those kids, Horne recalled.
“Jace is a once-in-a-lifetime player, and not just because of what he does on the field,” he said. “Everyone sees the sacks and tackles for loss, and coaches see his ability to read linemen and his closing speed, but the kid I see is who he’s playing for.
“He’s in it for so many of the right reasons. That’s the stuff that gets overlooked, but if you look for it, you’ll always see him doing it. His commitment isn’t just to the game but to everyone around him.”
Wearing the No. 37 legacy jersey is a special honor for a Montana native on the defensive side of the ball.
It’s taken on an even more important meaning for Lewis this season following the death of Sims, who passed on the number to him. It’s been different going through a season without his good friend by his side, but he’s tried to make Sims proud.
“It’s something you hold in your heart and cherish in your heart,” he said. “Every game day, you’re playing for something bigger than the game. Every game, I know he’s up there and he’s watching us and he’s there with us. I think he’d be proud of our whole team.”
Sims had taken Lewis under his wing when the latter got to campus. He also learned under Josh Buss and alongside Dante Olson, both former linebackers.
Lewis has tried to provide that same leadership because he knows football should be about trying to lift up others. A rough patch or two is bound to hit everyone at some point while playing.
Sophomore linebacker Braxton Hill is one of those guys who’s benefited from being around Lewis after not knowing him going into college.
“Jace was someone that I could learn from in the weight room, in the film room and on the field,” he said. “He’s also a guy who helps out the younger guys, encourages them, is a great leader, great guy and one of my better friends on the team now. He’s a guy that’ll do anything for you if you’d do anything for him.”
Hill, an Anaconda native, and junior wide receiver Mitch Roberts, a Missoula native, both feel Lewis has lived up to what the No. 37 jersey is supposed to embody: a hard worker who has a hard-nosed playing style.
“Jace is a guy that represents 37 perfectly, I think,” Roberts said. “I’ve gotten to know Jace pretty well within this last year getting closer with him, and he’s a great guy and great player for us. It’s cool to see him in the 37 because he definitely holds up that standard.”
Hill added: “I couldn’t think of a better player on this team to wear 37. Jace is tough, he’s hard working, he’s a hell of a football player, hell of a guy, hell of a teammate. I think he checks off all the boxes.”
Hauck has been impressed with how Lewis has handled wearing the No. 37 jersey and keeping up his high level of play while being in the tough situation of having a friend die just less than half a year ago.
It was another obstacle for Lewis to overcome, but he’s never been one to back down from a challenge.
“He’s a good guy and a good leader and works hard. That’s what it’s about,” Hauck said, meaning wearing the legacy jersey. “It’s a Montana guy who works hard and works his way and does a good job for his team. He’s certainly done that.”
Frank Gogola covers Griz football and prep sports for the Missoulian. Follow him on Twitter @FrankGogola or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.