Recruiting after a 3-9 debut season, Iowa State head coach Matt Campbell came back from dinner on a Friday night in January 2017.
He noticed the lights in the indoor football facility were on. As he got closer, he heard music blaring. He walked through the doors, and found running back David Montgomery, who was coming off his freshman season, working out alone.
“I talked to our coaches the next morning and said, ‘You know, we got a chance — This is our best player and he’s willing to do this on Friday nights,’” Campbell said. “The next Friday, there’s three people with him.”
ISU went 8-5 the next two seasons. Even now, after Montgomery decided to leave school a year early — the Bears traded up to draft him in the third round last week — Cyclones players work out on their own on Friday nights.
The Bears, for once, don’t need a culture change. They just need Montgomery, who practiced for the first time during Friday’s rookie minicamp, to be a dynamic back
Campbell senses he’ll bring that attitude with him nonetheless.
“What that young man did for this program and for the future of Iowa State football was unbelievable,” he said. “The character and the work ethic that he went about day-to-day literally changed the course of that entire football program.”
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Montgomery was a freshman at Mt. Healthy High School when the team scrimmaged another Cincinnati school. His coach, Arvie Crouch, challenged his running back to be physical — he used to tease him that he didn’t have “bop-bop” — and use his freakishly strong core to go through tacklers.
Then Montgomery took a handoff and ran toward a future Div. I linebacker.
“David crumbled him,” Crouch said. “It looked like a ceramic doll. At that point I told the coaches on the earphones, ‘That kid’s going to be really good.’”
He was. In four years — as a running back and, later, a dual-threat quarterback — he ran for 6,666 yards and 91 touchdowns.
He didn’t become a serious prospect, though, until before senior season. That’s when Campbell, then Toledo’s head coach, spotted him at the Rockets’ area camp in Cincinnati. His skillset — his hands, vision, the way he cut in drills — screamed out at the coaching staff.
“One of the best players I’ve ever seen go through our camps,” Campbell said.
Campbell talked to Montgomery and his mom for 45 minutes afterward. Toledo didn’t have a scholarship to offer, but he vowed to find room.
When Campbell took the ISU job after the 2015 season, he had a new cache of scholarships.
“He was one of the first people we called when we touched down here in Ames,” he said.
• • •
Crouch’s phone rang at Mt. Healthy on Monday.
Two days after being drafted, Montgomery said he was on his way to his old high school.
“He got some teachers emotional — him saying thank-you for what you did for me,” Crouch said. “It was incredible … I’d like to see how many players taken on Day 1, Day 2, or Day 3, would do that.”
His teachers and friends helped shepherd Montgomery through trying times.
The summer before Montgomery’s senior year, his older brother Maceo Feltha was arrested and charged with murder. He was convicted and is in prison for 15 years-to-life. Montgomery grew up in poverty, where his family often had water, power and gas turned off. They used the oven to stay warm, and heat bottled water for baths. He eventually moved in with a friend, but stayed close to his family.
“It definitely affected him,” Crouch said. “He’s one of those kids that wants to take care of his mother.”
That motivates him.
“I think a lot of that comes from home and feeling like an opportunity to make a difference for his brothers and his mother and his family. … ” Campbell said. “As I got to know his mother and knew their trials and tribulations and what David went through, I knew we had a young man that was coming with a purpose.”
• • •
Before the draft, Campbell asked Montgomery where the best fit would be.
He named one team: the Bears.
“I think this is a marriage that is going to start on a really positive note,” Campbell said. “David has a great sense of loyalty to people who are loyal to him.”
He compares well to another physical, do-everything back: Kareem Hunt, who played for Campbell in Toledo and Nagy with the Chiefs. Hunt led the NFL in rushing in 2017 before the Chiefs cut him after a physical altercation surfaced on video.
“I always said this about Kareem and I say the same about David: if you came to practice and watched Tuesday and Wednesday practices, there’s no question about who the best players on the team are,” Campbell said.
Or the Friday of rookie minicamp, where Montgomery jumped out.
“I thought he handled himself great,” Nagy said.