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Valley / Ventura County Sports

Tropical Freeze

Ah Yat, who came all the way from Honolulu and warmed up Montana, suddenly has gone cold.

October 09, 1998|DAVID WHARTON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

No one wants to blame Brian Ah Yat.

No one wants to criticize a guy who ranks among the best quarterbacks in Division I-AA football. A guy who was an All-American as a sophomore and as a senior is second in the nation in total offense.

But his team, the Montana Grizzlies, a premier I-AA program, is 3-2. Ah Yat has thrown nine interceptions, three more than all last season.

So the regulars at the Press Box, a bar near campus, are growing concerned.

"We're awful spoiled here," said Gordie Fix, the bar's owner. "When Brian throws those interceptions, wow, we're not used to that."

And the people of Missoula, who can be fanatical about their football, are asking questions.

"Anywhere you go in this community, people know who you are," said Raul Pacheco, Ah Yat's friend and top receiver. "If you win, they congratulate you. If you lose, they want to know what is going wrong.

"That falls hard on Brian."

*

With Montana coming to Cal State Northridge on Saturday for a Big Sky Conference showdown, maybe the only person in Missoula not talking about Ah Yat is Ah Yat himself.

"Brian has elected not to do the interview," a university spokesman tells a reporter. "He's never really been very comfortable doing this stuff."

His coach, Mick Dennehy, explains midterms are coming up. And Ah Yat is busy rehabilitating a back injury, the result of a Portland State linebacker planting a knee in his back last week.

"Brian would be the first one to tell you he has made a couple of mistakes," Dennehy said. "But there have been some things beyond his control. A tipped ball here and a great defensive play there."

Not that anyone should have to make excuses for this guy.

Ah Yat, 6 foot 2 and 190 pounds, came to Montana from Iolani High in Honolulu, moving thousands of miles to a small city by the Clark Fork River, a city whose name is taken from a Salish Indian word meaning "near the cold, chilling waters."

Snow fell the first morning Ah Yat and Pacheco, also from Iolani, arrived in Missoula.

"It was culture shock," Pacheco said.

But it was their only shot. Montana was the only school to recruit them.

Ah Yat suffered through homesickness and not playing his freshman season. He became the starter as a sophomore, replacing Dave Dickenson, who led Montana to a national title in 1995 and is referred to by Press Box patrons as "The Governor."

The new quarterback went about his business quietly. Naturally shy and never a rah-rah type in the huddle, Ah Yat asserted himself with a strong arm and fearless scrambling.

"Any time a quarterback puts his head down and lowers his shoulders, you've got to respect that," Pacheco said. "Most quarterbacks hook-slide at the end of a run. Not Brian. He never backs down."

Ah Yat passed for 3,615 yards and a conference-record 42 touchdowns in 1996, leading Montana back to the Division I-AA title game. The Grizzlies lost, 49-29, to Randy Moss and the Marshall Thundering Herd, but Ah Yat finished second in voting for the Walter Payton Award, the Heisman Trophy of I-AA football.

"He had such a great year," said Fix, the bar owner. "He's got that Hawaiian personality. Humble. People really liked him."

Their respect grew as Ah Yat played through a painful knee injury last season. His numbers dipped--2,691 yards and 21 touchdowns--but he took an inexperienced Montana team to the playoffs, where it lost to McNeese State in the final seconds of a first-round game.

"He matured an awful lot after that," Dennehy said. "He made a firmer commitment."

For the first time in his college career, Ah Yat spent the summer in Montana, rehabilitating his knee, sweating in the weight room, throwing to his receivers.

"Obviously, there aren't as many distractions in Missoula as there are in Honolulu," Dennehy said.

This fall, with a healthy quarterback and 16 starters returning to the Grizzly team, everyone expected big things.

*

And the 1998 season began so gloriously.

Ah Yat threw for six touchdowns and ran for a seventh, leading Montana from a 20-point deficit to a 49-42 victory over Stephen F. Austin. No one was surprised when he was chosen I-AA player of the week.

But then came three interceptions in a 45-35 loss to Southern Utah.

"Turnovers killed us," he told the Associated Press.

Then came a 27-20 conference loss to Weber State, which held Montana to half its usual offensive output.

"He's going through a hard time," Coach Jerry Graybeal of Weber State said of Ah Yat. "Everyone's putting that pressure on him because he plays at a national level."

All of which makes for a crucial game against Northridge on Saturday.

"A huge game," Graybeal said.

Montana is fighting to stay alive in the Big Sky standings and Ah Yat is fighting to protect his reputation against the new kid on the block, quarterback Marcus Brady of Northridge.

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