Former Havre Blue Pony Gary Wagner has done just about everything a high school and college quarterback can do on a football field.
After all, Wagner has been taking snaps at QB between Havre High and Carroll for the last seven years. He’s a Class A state champion, he holds many Havre High and MHSA passing records, he played in the prestigious Montana East/West Shrine Game, and now he’s even a Frontier Conference MVP. And that’s just the short list of all that Wagner has achieved in his illustrious football career.
Wagner also knows the history of Carroll College football and he knows it well. He’s already a part of it and it’s why he chose to play in Helena. He’s seen the great quarterbacks come before him, guys like J.D. Emmert, Tyler Emmert and Jon Barnett, and he’s watched them all hoist national championship trophies.
And holding one of those trophies as the starting quarterback, even playing in a championship game at quarterback is something that helped lure Wagner to Helena long ago, yet it’s something he’s still never done.
For all his career achievements at Carroll, there’s also been setbacks that have made Wagner have to wait a long time to get his moment as Carroll’s starting quarterback in a championship game. That moment will finally come Saturday when the Saints take on the Sioux Falls Cougars for the 2010 NAIA national championship in Rome, Ga.
“I can’t wait to just get down there, get out there on the field and play the game,” Wagner, the former three-sport star at HHS said. “This is something I’ve been waiting for for a long time. Having this chance to be the starting quarterback of this team, and to play for the national championship, it means everything. It’s a special moment for me.”
With how much the Saints have dominated the NAIA in the last decade, perhaps Wagner anticipated he’d have more days like Saturday when he signed with Carroll back in 2005. And he probably should have.
Wagner has seen the Saints play in three championship games, having watched Carroll win the 2005 title in his red shirt season, then being the backup quarterback and holder for a 2007 national championship. Then, in 2008, Wagner became the starter for the Saints, a team which had the potential to be an offensive juggernaut that year. But his junior season was derailed by a broken leg in the second game of the year, and while Carroll made it to the championship game with a pair of true freshman quarterbacks, Wagner could only watch as Sioux Falls took the Saints down that year.
And while there could have been more moments like this Saturday, that’s all in the past now. Wagner is a sixth-year senior, and despite still having to deal with injuries at times, he’s had a brilliant two-year run with the Saints, leading the NAIA in passer rating this season, and finishing second in the same category a year ago. He’s also quarterbacked Carroll to five playoff wins in six tries over the last two years, and now he has one shot to help put Carroll back in the history books, to help carve his own place in the annals of Saints football lore.
“This team is special,” Wagner said. “I think we accomplished a lot when we won that semifinal game, especially because we got so close last year. This is a special group and it’s why Mason (Siddick) and I came back for a sixth year. We really are a family and this is a great group of guys who care about each other on and off the field and want to do something special. And I have enjoyed being a part of that."
And when it comes to making the decision to seek a second redshirt after his broken leg in 2008, Wagner says he has no regrets, again because of moments like this.
“Coming back for a sixth year, I just felt like I could help this team,” Wagner said. “I knew we had a chance to be very very good on offense, we just have so many great players that do things the right way on this team, and so I wanted to be a part of that one more year. A lot of people my age are done with college football and getting on with their lives. But for me, I wanted to make sure I wouldn’t say ‘what if’ or anything like that. I didn’t want to look back and have any regrets or doubts. And I have really enjoyed playing with all of these guys the last two years. It’s been an amazing time in my life.”
And it’s not over yet.
Wagner has been stellar in his final season with the Saints and there’s no reason to think he won’t be on Saturday, even against a daunting Sioux Falls defense. He’s thrown for eight touchdowns and just two interceptions in the playoffs, and he’s made teams pay with his feet. In his sixth year of college football, Wagner had the highest QB rating in the NAIA and has been on a roll, even after suffering a scary shoulder injury early in the season against Rocky Mountain College.
“Gary has really played at a high level this season, he’s really only had one game where he struggled, but that was early in the season,” Carroll head coach Mike Van Diest said recently. “But for the most part, he’s had a great season and been extremely consistent for us. He’s had to overcome a lot in his career, and he’s really playing at a high level for us this season.”
And he’ll have one more chance to do so Saturday.
Through everything Wagner has done, through all the injuries and difficult times, and even what he’s seen, having to watch three other quarterbacks start in national championship tilts, Wagner has never looked back. He’s always looked forward. He’s looked forward to the day when he can help lead Carroll to a national championship. It’s what he’s been working for since he was Havre High’s kicker/holder as a sophomore. It’s what he decided to stay in college for and it’s what he’s been dreaming about for years.
And now he’s a mere 60 minutes away from making yet another football dream come true in what has already been a storybook career.
“This is what I came back for, this is what it’s all about when you play for Carroll College,” Wagner said. “Not just the national championships and the winning, but to be the best football player you can be. That’s part of what it means to play here. It’s a great place, it was home for me the minute I got here as a freshman and even through all the injuries and setbacks, this has been a special time in my life.
“And it’s a very special time for me now,” he added. “To be the starting quarterback for Carroll College in the national championship game, it means so much to me. To go out on that field for the last time with these guys, with my teammates, it means the world to me. And I couldn’t be more excited for Saturday to get here.”
The Saints and Cougars will kick off at 2:30 p.m. M.S.T. Saturday in Rome, Ga.