The teenage kid rode the North Dakota State team plane to the University of Montana like any other Bison football player for the 2015 season opener. Robbie Grimsley made the travel squad as a true freshman, but wasn’t expecting to play.
Defensive backfield coach Joe Klanderman, also, wasn’t expecting to use a rookie safety against Grizzlies quarterback Brady Gustafson, a 6-foot-6 slinger who was operating Montana’s high-tempo aerial attack.
“I just thought it was cool to see the atmosphere, see the field and everything and I thought I would just be on the sideline,” Grimsley said.
The Bison defense, however, was having trouble. They were banged up with cornerback CJ Smith missing the game. Cornerback Jalen Allison got hurt during the game. Safety Tre Dempsey and cornerback Jordan Champion were playing out of position at times. Gustafson finished 30 of 55 passing with three touchdowns and at some point, with the Grizzlies running a high number of plays, the Bison needed to go to their bench.
Head coach Chris Klieman went over to Grimsley and told him he was going in for the next series.
“I just got thrown into it,” Grimsley said.
The reigning Minnesota Mr. Football from Hutchinson practiced with the first stringers during fall practice, so it wasn’t like he was totally blind to the Bison’s Tampa 2 defense. Still, it wasn’t easy. Montana wore down the Bison defense in the second half to take a 38-35 victory.
For Grimsley, it was an eye opener.
“I thought I knew a lot and realized I didn’t know anything,” he said. “You only know so much when you’re a freshman and I thought I had the playbook down and thought I knew it all. But I was just breaching the surface of everything. It’s so awesome looking back on it now but I didn’t know what I thought I knew.”
Now? He’s no longer thrown into anything. He knows about as much as anybody, if not everybody, at the strong safety position in Division I FCS football. That’s a comfort factor for Klanderman and the rest of the Bison defensive coaches heading into Saturday’s title-game showdown with high-powered Eastern Washington.
A case can be made that Grimsley has been preparing for moments like these since the day he touched a football.
That’s life in Hutchinson, Minn., population 14,178 located in south central part of the state. During varsity football games, youth players can often be found playing the game in an adjacent field. Grimsley was one of those kids.
His Class of 2015 was one of the better athletically in a town that has had plenty of them.
“Growing up, we knew we had a special group of guys,” Grimsley said. “We were always competitive and always trying to win and we were always successful. And we had a coach who produced that great tradition.”
The head coach, Andy Rostberg, is no stranger to tradition. His father, Grady Rostberg, started the victorious trend at Hutchinson in 1970 and accumulated 277 victories and three state championships until giving way to Andy in 1999.
Grady grew up in Gilby, N.D., and is in the Mayville State Hall of Fame. The North Dakota connection wasn’t over when he took the job at Hutchinson.
Andy played at NDSU from 1985-89, during a time when the Bison won NCAA Division II national titles in 1986 and 1988. Grimsley has FCS title rings from NDSU championships in 2015 and 2017.
“Competitor, he does whatever it takes, however it needs to be done,” Klanderman said.
Said Klieman: “Grimz has made our life on defense so much easier. He understands the game so much. Tell him something once and he’s going to remember it. He remembers game plans from previous years.”
He will not soon be forgotten by the legions of NDSU fans. He may never be forgotten in Hutchinson, not only as a Mr. Football winner but everything else as well.
“There are players that affect games, there are players that affect seasons, and then there are players that affect programs, Robbie has put his stamp on both Hutchinson football as well as NDSU football,” Andy Rostberg said. “There are attributes that make players great, durability, strength, intelligence, courage, speed, most players are lucky to have one or two of these attributes, Robbie has them all. When towns talk about players years after they're done playing you know their impact was great.”
Saturday will be Grimsley’s last game as a Bison. He plans on giving the NFL a shot, hoping to continue to add size to his speedy frame.
Always one of the fastest guys on the field in high school and college, adding bulk to his 6-foot, 194-pound frame has never been easy. But there’s more to his game than size, and certainly more to his knowledge since that first game in Missoula.
And perhaps even more impressive: he hasn’t missed a game.
Grimsley played in all 15 games as a true freshman making 10 starts. On Saturday, he’ll be making his 53rd consecutive start and will finish his Bison career playing in 59 games.
It’s something he was grateful for thinking about it over Christmas break.
“I’ve been fortunate in my career to avoid injuries and to avoid major things happening to me,” Grimsley said. “It’s crazy, I remember that first game like it just happened. And just everything that has happened between then and now is just ridiculous.”