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Publish Date: 4/20/2005

Montana quarterback Craig Ochs drops back to pass during a game last season. Ochs, a former University of Colorado starter, led the Grizzlies to the Division I-AA championship game after throwing for 3,807 yards and 33 touchdowns in the regular season. More importantly, he has renewed his optimism and love for football after his high-profile departure from the Buffaloes. He holds hopes of being selected in this weekend’s NFL Draft.Photo courtesy University of Montanta

Healed spirit

A part of Craig Ochs cringes when he remembers the scorned teenager who walked away from the Colorado Buffaloes two years ago.

He looks back at how tightly wound he became, how insulted he felt. He recalls the humbling experience of going from golden boy to stock boy in a matter of months. He remembers how much the bitterness owned him.

But sometime between the day in 2002 when he left CU and the day last December when he led the Montana Grizzlies to the Division I-AA championship game, Ochs decided to let it all go.

Although he will probably never regain his love for CU, the Fairview High School graduate has made peace with himself and with Buffs coach Gary Barnett. With a healed spirit, one of the most controversial figures in Barnett’s regime is now focused on his life, his family and a possible career in the NFL.

“Ultimately, I had to come to a point in my life where I had to forgive. I had a lot of anger that was bringing me down,” Ochs said from his home in Missoula, Mont. “I had to become happy in life again.

“It sounds kind of funny, but I had to rediscover my smiles. It ended up being a wonderful thing.”

Last year for the Grizzlies, Ochs was in top form. He completed nearly 70 percent of his passes for 3,807 yards and tossed 33 touchdowns to only eight interceptions. The season put him back on the national radar and established him as a legitimate pro prospect.

Heading into this weekend’s NFL Draft, ranks him 19th at his position, and several other services have him listed in the top 25. Ochs’ agent, Ken Staninger, expects him to be selected on the second day or sign as an undrafted free-agent.

Ochs says playing in the NFL is his “ultimate dream.” But his progress as an adult the past two years has taught him life will be just fine if that dream goes unfulfilled.

“As a freshman it was such a huge goal,” he said. “But I now have the confidence to be successful in other aspects of my life. It will happen if it’s meant to.”

Such perspective has arisen from two years of self-examination — a process that began immediately after he left CU.

In September 2002, Ochs, a sophomore, was dealing with his third concussion and lingering irritation over losing his starting spot to Bobby Pesavento the year before. When Barnett interrupted him as he led the team prayer after practice, Ochs considered it a personal attack. His frustration reached its peak and he left.

He moved to Los Angeles to live with his brother who attended law school there. He soon took a job working nights at a nearby grocery store, where he had plenty of time to reflect.

“In a few weeks, I went from being the starting quarterback on the sixth-ranked team in the country to the stock boy of the freezer section,” Ochs said. “It was a wonderful and humbling experience and it made me think.

“A lot of athletes end up giving up their identity for the sport they play, and I didn’t want to do that. I decided I’d be all right if I never played football again.”

Coming to terms with that idea inspired him. From the day he watched his first game at Folsom Field as a toddler, all Ochs wanted to be was a Buff. The dream disappointed him, but he learned he still loved the game — regardless of the stage.

Instead of heading to the University of Washington to play for former CU coach Rick Neuheisel, who recruited him, Ochs joined first-year coach Bobby Hauck, a former CU assistant, at Montana. After two years in Hauck’s wide-open spread offense, the game was fun again.

“It had a lot of freedom to audible and change plays, and it allowed me to really orchestrate a game and learn to take what the defense gives me,” Ochs said. “But the greatest advantage of playing for Montana was I rediscovered the game.”

Unresolved conflict was still dragging him down, however. Last year, his then-girlfriend, Jesse, whom he married in January, talked him into writing a letter to Barnett to clear the air.

Barnett immediately responded. Even though Ochs said he never received an apology for the prayer incident, the two have reconciled.

“I hope the best for him,” Ochs said. “I’ve forgiven him and he’s forgiven me.”

Barnett agreed the issue is in the past and said he hopes Ochs someday feels comfortable enough to stop by his office.

“These things happen in every sport in every college in the country,” Barnett said. “People dismiss those things that happen and they go forward. ... We all look at things much differently at 22 or 23 than we do at 18 or 19.”

“Everyone here is hoping Craig gets his opportunity in the NFL and that he does well.”

In order for Ochs to succeed in the NFL, however, he must get teams to believe in him. Although his statistics last season were superb, most teams will account for the fact he collected them against Division I-AA defenses.

“It’s always an issue, but I think Craig of all people can overcome that,” said Staninger, who represents underdog Tennessee Titans quarterback Billy Volek, whom he compares to Ochs.

“But what I’m selling very strong right now is he started for CU, one of the premier programs in the country, as a true freshman,” Staninger said. “Also, you can make an argument for Montana as the premier I-AA program I in the country.”

Staninger said scouts often label a player who has transferred with character flaws, but it shouldn’t be a problem for Ochs.

“I think teams have checked into it and found that it was a situation where something wasn’t working for both parties, and Craig just moved on,” he said. “You don’t have to be around him for 30 seconds before you realize this is a quality individual.”

Whether Ochs ever takes a snap in the NFL is uncertain. However, he sees the fact that he’s even in position to imagine that possibility as a triumph.

And if he ends up a businessman or a lawyer instead of a football star, he’ll do so with a clear conscience.

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