The wide receiver position at Havre High has been deep and star studded over the years. It seems like no matter who the Blue Ponies graduate the previous season, there is always a senior wide out ready and willing to step up and take over.
This season, that senior happens to be 5-6, 160-pound Thomas Gruber.
Last season Gruber was a junior starter, but may have gotten lost in the shadows of First-Team All-State receiver Zach Plum and First-Team All-State tight end Thurman Holdsclaw. Gruber earned Second-Team All-Conference honors even in the shadow cast by the two HHS greats, and should be well on his way to earn more honors this year, as he has helped lead the Ponies to yet another Class A postseason.
"He is a great kid," Havre High head coach Jason Christenson said. "He has had to move positions some, but he really is our go-to guy on offense and defense. He is a guy we feel comfortable putting on a team's best wide receiver or even moving to safety. He is a smart kid and understands the game, so we feel comfortable wherever he plays. That is pretty rare to have in a high school kid, so it is nice to have that."
With the regular season wrapping up last week, Gruber led the conference with 38 catches for 733 yards. He also averaged a league-high 19 yards per catch and a league-high 81 yards per game. Gurber was also fourth in scoring this year, scoring 66 points, more than seven a game.
But Gruber is also a classic iron-man football player, playing both ways. As a defensive back for the Ponies, he has made a name for himself on defense as well. He was one of the top tacklers for the Ponies this season, but also led the team and league with four interceptions as the Ponies finished as the No. 2 seed in the Central A (3-1, 4-4-1).
As a four-year player for the Ponies, and a football career that dates back to seventh grade, it was only a matter of time before Gruber burst onto the scene. But he wasn't always a receiver and defensive back, as he began his career at the middle school as a running back and linebacker.
"Being a running back gave me ways to improve my running game," Gruber said. "Which is a big part of being receiver, running after the catch. And it has been a great experience playing for Havre High, especially as a wide receiver. It is great getting to play for this type of offense where we actually throw the ball more than we run it. It just makes it a lot more fun to be more involved than some wide receivers get to be. My whole career I have been playing for great quarterbacks (Justin Jensen and Dane Warp). Honestly, I have been lucky and would be disappointed if I had anything less. I think I might take it for granted sometimes, but it has been great having that good of quarterbacks in the backfield."
And just because he may be undersized in some matchups, doesn't mean he doesn't know how to take care of business on the gridiron.
Coaches always say speed kills, and that you can't teach speed. But fortunately for the Ponies, and Gruber, speed has made him a dangerous weapon against the opposition the last two years. With his ability to catch the ball and outrun the defense, Warp and Gruber have become quite the connecting duo.
"Being shorter," Gruber said. "You definitively have to rely on your strengths and advantages, and my speed is definitely one of them. I have to get off the ball quicker, I have to turn quicker after catching the ball, make fast decisions and make a move. That is a huge deal because a bigger guy can go up and get the ball and maybe use a stiff arm or run though people, being smaller, I run around and by people. I think it is a little tougher at times.
"I can always count on Gruber to be open," Warp added about his favorite weapon. "He knows me well and I know his tendencies. When he isn't our first read I know he is there as our second. He is deceptive and kids underestimate him, so he just burns them and he enjoys that. He looks forward to blowing by kids every week, but we joke with him about not breaking tackles. But half of that is he arms are too short to stiff-arm anybody."
Thomas Gruber, left, isn't just a great receiver, he's also a tough, hard-nosed defensive back. And he'll try and help the Blue Ponies knock off Miles City in the Class A playoffs Saturday at Blue Pony Stadium.
Gruber's numbers on defense may not quite stack up to his impressive numbers on offense, but he has still made his mark there as well. And while he admits to liking the offensive side of the ball slightly more, he enjoys the rush playing defensive gives him too.
And with his experience of taking plenty of big hits, he knows how important it is to make the contact instead of just taking the contact. Gruber plays with a level of fearlessness. He flies to the ball, and he fills in the run stop very well. And finishing several games this year as one of the top team tacklers, he too can deliver a hit.
"Some people are scared to get hurt or to hit hard," Gruber said. "But on defense you can't be scared. We know our assignments and we know we have to play quick, so if you are scared that just makes it worse because they initiate the contact instead of you. You can't have fear on defense."
It has been a great career for Gruber, but he has at least one game left in a Blue Pony uniform. Making the state playoffs, Gruber and the Ponies will host Miles City on Saturday at 12 p.m.