George Ferguson Column: Twenty years of Pearl Jam, sports and memories


A week ago today, I had the privilege of seeing my favorite band in the world perform on their 20th Anniversary tour in Calgary. Two nights later, I saw them again in Edmonton.

In a year filled with exciting things I've seen, done, written about and covered, it was and will be very hard for me personally to top seeing Pearl Jam twice in one week, on their historical anniversary tour.

I get to see great things almost every day and that's quite simply how much that band, their music and the messages they have delivered have meant to me over the years.

In many ways, Pearl Jam to me is like sports, they are two constants in my life. I'm a lifelong sports fan and it's also how I make my living. Since 1991, I've also been a lifelong Pearl Jam fan and in a world and a life which is ever-changing, those two things have always been there for me.

I was introduced to Pearl Jam during my sophomore year of high school. I'll never forget the day I first heard PJ because it was February, and it was the day the Dairy Queen opened — that's always a landmark day in Havre. A friend of mine convinced me to cut class and go get the first Oreo Blizzard of the year. It was the one and only time in my four years of high school that I ever ditched a class, but in retrospect, I'm glad I did.

On the way to the Dairy Queen that fateful day, my friend, who was a junior at the time popped in a CD he had just bought and told me I had to hear it. I looked at it and thought, Pearl Jam? At a time when I was listening to Tone Loc and Kriss Kross I thought there was no way I was going to like this. Instead, we listened, mesmerized by Pearl Jam's Ten while eating our blizzards, and the rest is history.

History goes hand-in-hand when it comes to Pearl Jam and me, and while seeing two of their PJ20 shows last week, I couldn't help but reflect on my own history over the last 20 years. I've grown up, I've went to college, several times, I've worked a bunch of jobs, I've seen friends come and go, I've met new friends, I've grown up even more, I've gotten married.

And then there's sports during that time. In the last 20 years of my life, there's always been Pearl Jam and there's always been sports.

Some of my best sports memories span the same amount of time that Pearl Jam has been together, including that year, 1991. The most memorable night of Havre High sports for me was in the Havre High gymnasium, when our basketball team was playing Great Falls High for a chance to finally get the Ole Goat back to Havre. I didn't even know what an Ole Goat was until that magical basketball season, with so many of my friends playing on that team, giving Havre thrills every night for one, long cold winter.

That night against the Bison was special. I've never seen the gym that packed full of fans, and I haven't seen it that way since. We won, we got the goat, we celebrated by storming the floor before storming the floor was cool. Special just doesn't even cover it. And it was at almost the exact same time as when I was first introduced to the band, that like so many sports, would alter and change my life in so many positive ways.

There were other great moments in my high school career, including my own triumphs on the tennis court — the sport that was closest to my heart at the time.

Tennis, like Pearl Jam has been an important part of the last 20 years for me. Coaching the Havre High tennis teams has been like coming full circle. I get to give back what I got while I was a student-athlete at HHS. As a coach, there's so many special memories I couldn't begin to list them all. But I'll just say, every state team title, every individual state and divisional championship is as special as the next because you realize you've helped add to the pride and tradition at your alma mata. You have given back something very special. And you've also helped young people reach their dreams, you've helped them grow and mature and those are things you'll always cherish.

Missoula and the Montana Grizzlies also go hand-in-hand with my love of Pearl Jam.

I went to school there and I'll never forget the first time I saw PJ play in the UM Theatre, or the second time in the Adams Fieldhouse, or the third time in Washington-Grizzly Stadium, or the fourth time in the Adams Fieldhouse. I won't forget those shows just like I won't forget all the great memories of Griz football during those years.

Two special games include the 1995 Division 1-AA semifinal game against S.F. Austin. That was THE day to be a Griz a fan because not only did Montana trounce the Lumberjacks, but they also went to the national championship game for the first time in the school's a history. A week later, the Griz were national champions.

There was also a cold day in 1994, a playoff game against McNeese State. Blizzarding and frozen to the bone, Dave Dickenson went out with an injury, the Grizzlies fell behind and most of what was already a small crowd had headed for the exits. The season was over.

Instead, the Griz mounted a charge and a kicker named Andy Larson booted a field goal through the snow flakes to send the Griz on to the semifinals. I have seen over 100 games in that stadium to date and it's still one of the best finishes in stadium history.

And there's been great moments in that stadium in all the years since, and I've luckily been there for almost all of them, including all of the wonderful memories I have of watching and covering Havre's own Marc Mariani, but those 10-degree days on the then frozen tundra of Wash/Griz was truly special and will live on in all Griz fans hearts.

I've also had the great fortune of getting to cover sports in our great town and beyond during Pearl Jam's run as a band.

Again, there are so many memories I don't know where to start.

Ones that stand out right away however, include Havre High's historical 2004 state football championship win over Billings Central and MSU-Northern's 2006 victory over Carroll College. As a sportswriter, those two days in Blue Pony Stadium will forever be ingrained in my mind.

Early in my career, I had the opportunity to cover the MSU-Northern Lights win the 2004 NAIA national wrestling championship. It was a huge event and one that I truly enjoyed reporting on. Great sports memories for me also include covering the Montana All-Class State Wrestling Tournament each year as well. Next to the Cat/Griz football game each year, the state wrestling tournament is as big as it gets in Montana.

The state wrestling tournament is an event I think every sports fan should see, and it's been a big part of my career. Of course, it helps that the Havre Blue Ponies have been one of the dominant programs in all of Montana wrestling during my time covering the event. But whether you're a Blue Pony or not, the state tournament is a can't-miss event.

Thanks in part to the greatness of high school athletics on the Hi-Line and in Havre, I've been privileged enough to cover a lot of state championships in my years at the Havre Daily News, but a rivalry that will always stand out to me is the Hays-Lodge Pole/Big Sandy series in 2007.

The Thunderbirds and Pioneers, of which Pearl Jam bassist Jeff Ament is an alumn, battled it out five times that season, including in the 9C, Northern C and Class C state championship games. HLP won them all in the postseason and it was a great series to cover, to watch and to be a part of.

Those basketball games will be a lasting memory for me and so will last year's run by the Lights to the Frontier Conference men's basketball championship. In my most recent memories, that one really stands out. Chinook's first state title in football is another

moment which will last forever too as will the day Rocky Boy and Big Sandy won state boys basketball championships almost simultaneously in two different parts of the state. Talk about Hi-Line pride.

The point here is, there have been so many great sports moments in my life over the last 20 years, I could write five columns and I still wouldn't be done. That's the great thing about Havre, it's the great thing about the Hi-Line and it's the great thing about my job. I get to have these memories each and every day and I know new ones are just around the corner. Sports is a constant for me.

And so is Pearl Jam.

Together, PJ and sports around here have been a truly special part of my life, just like the other constants, my wife and my family.

And with 20 years under their belt, I know Pearl Jam is going to keep on keepin' on and so will the sports. I know both Pearl Jam and sports will continue to inspire me just as they have for the last 20 years. Just as they do each and every day.

I just can't wait to see what the next 20 years hold.


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