The ball flutters in the air, knuckling around in front of a big, blue sky. A crowd of 26,000 plus gazes on, nervous looks pasted upon each face. John Nguyen stands alone, the hopes of everyone in the stands weighing on his 5-foot-7 shoulders.
John Nguyen is in his junior year with the Montana Grizzlies, serving as the starting running back. He joined the Grizzlies after an unbelievable career with Bellevue High School, leading his team to a state championship and a 40-game win streak.
At Montana, he made an immediate impact, playing in 11 games as a true freshman. The name Nguyen on the back of a maroon jersey wasn’t a strange sight for Montana fans.
Peter Nguyen graduated from UM the year before John arrived on campus. Peter will go down as one of the best running backs in Griz lore, finishing his career with 1,985 yards, the seventh highest total in school history.
He is also in the Montana record books for his returning ability, totaling up the fifth most kick return yards in a single Grizzly season with 670 in 2010. Peter also served as the Grizzlies punt returner, and has the longest return ever, 90 yards, without scoring. In 2012, Peter was named the recipient of the Steve Carlson award, given to the MVP of the Montana football team.
“My brother was a great football player,” John said. “I watched him for a couple of years, and I definitely learned a lot from him. He’s a very popular grad here.”
The list of accolade’s for the elder Nguyen brother is long, but little brother isn’t just hanging in the shadows.
John rushed for 267 yards and a pair of scores as a true freshman, and also saw time as both a kick and punt returner. His sophomore season saw his rushing stats remain practically identical, with 265 yards and two scores, but he broke out as the best return man on Montana’s roster.
The sophomore, who played in 14 games, returned 25 kicks for 416 yards, averaging just under 17 yards per return. His biggest impact was in the punt game, where he returned 32 punts for 303 yards, including a 60 yard touchdown.
He quickly gained attention for his impressive agility, darting in and out of defenses with ease, sidestepping opponents as he pushed his way up field. He oftentimes makes defenses look silly with the ease of his elusiveness.
At times watching him, it’s hard not to see some of that same brilliance his brother displayed in his cat-quick escapes from the clutches of defenders.
“He has great lateral movement and is quick. He plays smart, he doesn’t waste many opportunities, he doesn’t waste space,” Peter said. “He does a good job of shortening the distance from where he gets the ball to the endzone.”
Running backs coach Justin Green, who began coaching when Peter attended UM and now coaches John, spoke the same praise of Nguyen’s craftiness.
“He could make you miss in a phone booth, as far as running the ball,” Green said. “That’s what he brings to the table, which is a neat deal to have a guy that has some wiggle and can make guys miss to get that extra yard.
The quick feet and impressive lateral movement is a trait both Nguyen brothers share. In fact, John shares many of the characteristics that made Peter one of the best in Montana’s history.
“I think I had an impact on his playing style,” Peter said. “I didn’t really teach him much growing up, but I think through competing with him all the time, he kind of incorporated my playing style into his.”
Another quality that the brothers share, one that leads to many of the connections between the two, is their size. Peter was once listed at 5-8, 180 pounds with Montana. John is officially listed as 5-7, 180.
That may be a bit undersized for many programs, but not for the Griz and running back coach Green.
“I think, if you look at the history of the backs that have come out of here, John Nguyen is perfect-sized,” Green said. “He’s done a great job as far as what we’ve asked him to do both running the ball and picking up the blitz. That’s the hardest thing that you worry about for guys, as far as out of high school, is will they pick up the pressure.”
The position of running back came natural for Nguyen, who had been carrying the football for years. As far as going back deep to return punts? That was something completely foreign to him.
“Honestly, I had never punt returned until I got to the university, so I didn’t really have that much experience back there,” Nguyen said. “It’s fun, but it’s a lot of pressure. Taking that role takes a lot of confidence and the ability to do good under pressure.”
The pressure riding on a punt returner is indeed immense, and Nguyen has been known to succumb to it on occasion. Once the ball is in his hands, he becomes an electric playmaker. But getting the ball there is another story sometimes, as Nguyen and the Grizzlies have struggled with muffing punts this year and in the past.
“Everyone in the stadium is hoping that you’re going to catch it, which causes a lot of pressure when you think about it,” Nguyen said. “It takes a man to be able to say, ‘I’m going to catch this, and if I don’t it’s all good, it’s not the end of the world.’”
The ground game got off to a slow start this season for the Griz, as they were held under 120 rushing yard in the first three games of the year, including an abysmal 21 yards against Liberty.
But the rushing offense righted the ship against Northern Arizona, exploding for 195 total yards. The change at quarterback, with the more mobile Chad Chalich filling in for the injured Brady Gustafson, helped, but Nguyen thinks that if his team can cut out some mistakes they will have rushing days like that more often.
“The new system is great, it’s really effective. Once we fix all the mental mistakes, I think our offense will be really effective,” Nguyen said. “I know lately we’ve been struggling in the run game, but, as you saw (against NAU), we rushed for almost 200 yards.”
The junior rushed for 72 yards and a touchdown on seven carries. He led a balanced attack that saw four different Griz running backs carry the ball, as well as 11 rushes from Chalich.
On the road against UC Davis, Nguyen had another tough game, carrying the ball 14 times for 38 yards, an average of just 2.5 yards per carry. Still, the Grizzly offense totaled almost 200 yards as a unit, as the carries are being split between a number of different players.
It is hard to look at the undersized back, shaking his way to every yard he possibly can, and not remember his older brother as unfair as it might be to John, looking to make his own name in Missoula. Their play style, size and appearance are all incredibly similar. But Peter doesn’t think that his career applies pressure to John. In fact, he believes the opposite.
“I think from me being there, just from talking to him, I’ve noticed that he seems comfortable and confident,” Peter said. “I think it could be that, from me playing there before him, he might have developed comfort and security with the Griz because people knew me.”
Coach Green sees the hunger to win in John, the same he saw in Peter.
“They both work really, really hard,” Green said. “They want to play, they want to be successful and football is very important to them. They are going to give you everything they have.”
This season is off to a shaky start, but Nguyen has big things in his future. And while John is honored to be compared to his older brother, who is one of the most respected Griz to come along in the past decade, he is writing his own story.
“Pressure-wise, I just try to be myself. I know people talk about filling his shoes, which is obviously the case, but in some ways I see it differently,” Nguyen said. “I see me being my own self, me creating my own shoes and not filling his.”