The receiver whipped his head around to face the quarterback, his hands forming a diamond no larger than a cocktail napkin, a target for a pass already on its way. Ryan Burke's helmet, engineered with the latest technology for safety, also acted to blind him from the oncoming assault.
With the crack of shoulder pads and the clanging of heads, linebacker Jeremiah Kose dislodged Burke's cleats from the turf with the kind of hit seen less and less in football games today -- a sport being eroded from the inside out by head injuries and, more so, the fear of them -- let alone during an early August practice.
Two days later, amid a cool morning scrimmage in preparation for Montana's much-anticipated 2015 season opener against North Dakota State, Burke incurred a similarly jarring impact at the mercy of the same linebacker. The collision ended both players' days, a woozy Burke headed up the tunnel with obvious injury concerns in tow while Kose sat for disciplinary reasons.
A problem once belittled in America's gladiator game by cartoonish labels -- think "seeing stars" and getting one's "bell rung" -- football is wandering farther and farther down a road of less contact in attempts at protecting its players and its future. Nowhere has that been more evident than in college football's Ivy League, where a unanimous vote by its coaches struck full-contact practices from the books, a move that has programs from the NFL to the Montana Grizzlies pondering.
"With all the head stuff coming out and us witnessing it firsthand with our boy Ryan, it hits home," said senior quarterback Brady Gustafson, a classmate of Burke's and a fellow Billings native. "It would make sense to phase that out in unnecessary times."
Mounting concussions forced Burke to retire from football this offseason. Such circumstances are exactly what the Ivy League hopes to eliminate, but at what cost to the game itself?