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By aiming high, he got the fairy tale ending

10 years later, Blue Pony legend Gary Wagner recalls winning a national championship at Carroll College, and how all his dreams came true

 

Last updated 12/7/2020 at 11:40am

Helena IR

Havre native Gary Wagner points to the sky after scoring the only touchdown of the 2010 NAIA national championship game. That night in Rome, Georgia, Wagner quarterbacked the Fighting Saints to their sixth national championship.

You know what they call a storybook ending? Usually those are reserved for just that, books and movies. Usually, they don't exist in real life that often.

That of course, wasn't the case for a quarterback from Havre. And in fact, Gary Wagner didn't just write one storybook ending, he did it twice.

Next week will mark the 10th anniversary of the second of those magical endings for Wagner - the 2010 NAIA national championship in which he led Carroll College to its sixth and last title with a dramatic 10-7 win over No. 1-ranked Sioux Falls.

For Wagner, who also did the same thing five years earlier, when he helped Havre High to its first football state championship in 32 years, that night in Rome, Georgia, was the culmination of a dream, his dream, and probably the dream of anyone who's ever played quarterback.

"Calling that final play call in the huddle (Ace Right Victory) will be one of the best memories of my life," Wagner recalled of winning the national championship with the Fighting Saints in 2010.

Of course, the path to get to that night in Georgia was a long one for the former Blue Pony star, who began playing football with his best friends in parks all over Havre, before the forming of the team that would ultimately bring a state title back to Blue Pony Stadium in 2005. That process started in middle school, and would ultimately become a reality on a warm November day 15 years ago when Havre topped Billings Central for the state championship. That day was the culmination of a brilliant run for Wagner, who was a two-time Class A All-State quarterback, while also playing basketball, and becoming a two-time doubles state champion, and four-time team state champion for the Blue Pony tennis team in the spring,

Yes, to say the least, Wagner achieved about everything one could in high school. But, he wasn't done, and he took his talents to play for the most prestigious NAIA football program in the country at that time, Carroll, and to play for legendary head coach Mike Van Diest. And that is how, four years later, Wagner wrote his second storybook ending.

So, to celebrate the 10th anniversary of Wagner's national championship night, the Havre Daily News sat down with the former Havre star, who is now married to another former Blue Pony, Morgan (McCann), and the two have a baby girl, to recall that game, that season, and his dreams as he pursued them.

HDN: Describe what the 2010 season for you and Carroll was like.

Wagner: "It was an interesting one. First game of the year we played Rocky Mountain College. First quarter I was throwing a slip screen to our running back and was slammed into the ground, separating my throwing shoulder. We struggled offensively and couldn't get much going. Thankfully, one of the best linebackers I have ever played with, Thomas Dolan from Billings West, intercepted a pass from Casey Peters and ran it back for a TD which basically solidified the game. I'm not sure we would have won without that play. To earn a win opening weekend set the tone for the rest of the year. Overall, we had a very talented team. We were loaded at most positions. We were able to continue our win streak throughout the Frontier which was tough back then since you had to play each team twice. That presented its own challenges, not being able to call everything you want in the first game because you want to save it for the second time around. Playing in the Frontier was like a chess match, always setting yourself up for the next move. After winning the Frontier Conference we were able to continue that success and had plenty of momentum moving into the playoffs. A few wild games in loads of snow and below zero temps were the norm for our playoff wins. The best part was obviously winning a national championship and going undefeated. That isn't easy. Another great memory from that year was being able to complete a pass to my younger brother Billy in Blue Pony Stadium where we both started playing football. That's a pretty special deal and not many can say that."

HDN: Rewinding a bit, you had a really bad injury right after you became the starting QB at Carroll and missed that season. How tough was that, and how much did it motivate you to come back and lead the Saints to a national title?

Wagner: "Yeah, that was tough. I really worked hard to earn the starting spot in 2008. There were a lot of good quarterbacks and the competition was tough, but fun. We started out that season in California against Azusa Pacific. They were a great football program and we went into their house and stomped them. Next game, I break the pocket and get tackled from behind. Ended up with a spiral fracture on my left fibula requiring a 10-inch plate and 10-metal screws that are still in there today. Having that season taken away from me was hard. I reached a super low point in my life. All of that hard work was completely taken away with one play. But I specifically remember my parents telling me that everything happens for a reason and that God has a plan. Boy did he. I grew mentally and physically. I rehabbed hard, I never missed meetings or a team function, attended all of my classes (via Joe Spieker's golf cart) and just tried to stay as involved as possible. It definitely helped motivate me to work even harder than I had been because I had some seriously talented backup quarterbacks behind me and I knew that I could be replaced at any moment."

HDN: Back to 2010, In the national championship game, you had the play of the game, a really long run at a crucial moment. Describe that play and what you remember about it.

Wagner: "Well, the play call came in ... Quarterback Draw. Anytime that happened I got excited. Nine times out of 10 we would hand the ball to any of the super-talented running backs we had, John Camino, Chance Demarais, Bubba Bartlett, Ryan Egan, Jeff Deal ... but when your number gets called, it's exciting. I was able to get some good blocks and broke one tackle, then it was off to the races. I was able to beat the last defender and make it a solid 83 yards. The cool thing about that whole story is that the night before the game, Marc (Mariani), a best friend of mine, called me and said he kept having visions of a big play from me. Well, the run was 83 yards and Marc was wearing 83 for the Titans. Crazy. I don't remember the roar of the crowd, I just remember thinking that I need to score. Points were tough to come by that day and any opportunity had to be capitalized on."

HDN: As the clock wound down on that game, and you knew you guys were going to win, what did that feel like for you?

Wagner: "They had a chance to force it into overtime. They had a great kicker and our defense held strong to force him into kicking a long one. When the referees signaled the kick was no good, I about died. All of those years of practicing, all of those liftings, every minute of every long, drawn out meeting, every moment away from family and friends, every broken bone and injury, every success, every heartbreak, every sacrifice was washed away. It made it all worth it. Now, any competitor will tell you that they want to be on the field when the last whistle blows and that is exactly what happened. There was still around three seconds left so the offense took the field and knelt the ball. Calling that final play call in the huddle (Ace Right Victory) will be one of the best memories of my life."

HDN: You won a state title in high school with all of your best friends in 2004, five years later you do it in college. That has to feel pretty special to be able to get to the mountain top at both levels like that.

Wagner: "Isn't that cool? How awesome is it to be able to win a state championship with your best friends? Again, we had a very solid team. A few went on to play college football, as well. One of them played eight seasons in the NFL and is a Pro Bowler. I have always set my goals high ... always. I knew we would win a state championship. I knew it. I believed it. I dreamt about it. We talked about it. We knew we could do it. So to be able to accomplish that was awesome. Still to this day, I set my goals high. ... I mean, I married someone way out of my league ... so set your goals high. We were never the biggest, fastest or strongest, but I can promise you that we would outwork everyone and wanted it more. After winning a chipper in high school, I wanted one at the next level and when Coach Van Diest came recruiting and was wearing four National Championship rings, I figured I knew where I wanted to go. - a place where they believed in perfection. Where family, faith and football came in that order. Excellence was second nature. You were either great or they found someone who was, and you were out of a job. I had to be part of that. I wanted to earn a national championship."

HDN: Carroll had such an incredible run of great quarterbacks and national championships, and you are part of both of those traditions now. That has to mean a lot to you.

Wagner: "It does. As a player, you don't realize how truly special it is until you step away from it. Robb Latrielle, Tyler Emmert and John Barnett were the guys before me. Just to be mentioned in that group is an honor. Who wouldn't want to be named with their idols? These guys were phenomenal, I wanted to be, as well. They had success, I loved the success. I have always lived this way. If I do something I want to do it well. It is OK to want to have success. It's OK to want to score the game winner. There is no need to push away the joys of success. Yes, be a good teammate. Be a good sport. Be accountable. But, enjoy success. Enjoy it because of all the hard work you put in to earn it. You don't have to be arrogant but it's okay to be confident. It is ok to want to be great and be the best. Don't stop working hard. Don't treat others poorly. Just keep being great. If everyone wanted to be great at everything they did we would live in such a wonderful place. You can be a great brother or sister. You can be a great student. You can be a great choir member. You can be a great artist. You can be a great listener. Being great is ok. Whatever you want to do ... be great and try to be the best."

HDN: Looking back now, how special a part of your life was football, and in particular your years at Carroll?

Wagner: "Football played a huge part in my life. It brought me close to so many. Memories I will never forget. I found my best friends through football. Football also provided me an opportunity to offset some of the costs of college and attend Carroll. I earned my bachelor's degree and built relationships I still have today and will until the day I die. Carroll College football helped me learn how to compete. Taught me how to handle the grind of a packed day. It showed me how to become a true leader and through all of the ups and downs, brought me closer to my faith in God."

HDN: It's 10 years later, and yet, it seems like yesterday that you were playing in that national championship game. How proud of that day are you and what do you like to remember most about it?

Havre Daily News File Photo

Gary Wagner ended his Havre High football days with a state championship. He also won his last game in college, too, the 2010 NAIA national championship.

Wagner: "It doesn't seem like that long ago ... but it was. I will remember the fun times I had with my buddies. I will remember the 13-hour bus rides to Eastern Oregon. I will remember the training room and goofing around with my training buddies. I will remember driving my QB coach crazy in meetings with the other quarterbacks. I will remember looking up into the stands ... at every game, even if I was not going to play, even if it was across the state and sometimes across the country, and seeing my parents. They didn't miss a game or event. I couldn't start a game without seeing my dad prior. I will remember singing the Carroll Fight Song after a victory in Butte. I will remember the heartbreak and the hard work it takes to get back to where you want to be. I will remember the stupid things I did and continue to learn from them. I will remember my coaches, teammates, training staff, administration and all of the fans. I was incredibly fortunate and blessed. I was a lucky guy and still am. I have a beautiful wife, Morgan, and an incredible daughter, Harper Marie. I have always wanted to thank people for their support of the teams I was on throughout my high school and college career and this just seems like the right time ... so, if you have made it this far ... thank you. I appreciate your support more than you will ever know. Go Ponies and Go Saints."

 
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