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- Icons By Maria Maldonado
Etu Molden, the charismatic, afro-sporting, gapped-tooth-grinning wide receiver who helped lead the Montana Grizzlies to the 2001 national championship, was known for scoring touchdowns—many with a flair for the dramatic.
He scored thirty touchdowns as a Griz, but one in particular resonated a bit louder—literally—for the 19,000-plus folks in attendance at the 2001 Homecoming game against the Saint Mary’s Gaels.
The game was a rout from the get-go, with the Griz going up 49-12 by halftime. However, Molden, who scored three times, clearly had the highlight.
“After breakfast that morning, we were walking to the stadium,” recalls Molden from his Sacramento, Calif., home. “And we ran into the ROTC dudes, and I said, ‘Hey man, when I score a touchdown today, I’m going to run over and fire the cannon. And he said, ‘OK, man. Let’s do it.’”
Molden was a fan favorite, especially by those seated just above the cannon in the notorious North End Zone bleachers at Washington-Grizzly Stadium.
He snared a screen pass from Brandon Neill and “saw an opening a mile wide,” Molden says. “I knew I was going to score, and it just happened to be on the side where the cannon was.”
He made eye contact and pointed at the ROTC cadet he met earlier, crossed through the end zone, and yanked the cord. BOOM!
He didn’t get flagged for it, and he didn’t feel the wrath of Coach Joe Glenn, either.
“I’m fun-natured and fun-hearted,” Molden says. “Coach Glenn was a cool dude—he didn’t say a word. And I wasn’t trying to show up the other team. I was in the midst of playing ball, man, having a good time.”
The ROTC cannon first appeared at Griz games in the late 1980s, just after Washington-Grizzly opened, and has celebrated nearly every Grizzly score since.
The first person to fire the cannon was Dan Ashmore ’89, who just so happens to have a family connection to it.
“My brother and I were looking through the classifieds of the Missoulian, and we saw an ad for a cannon for sale from a guy named August Muru. So we decided to buy it as a gift for our stepfather, Keith Wright.”
Wright, who owned and operated Wright Lumber in Missoula, was an avid Griz fan and booster. He loved the gift and displayed it on the lawn of his Polson home, where he would entertain guests by firing golf balls into Flathead Lake.
“He liked it so much he bought another one,” says Ashmore, a shop teacher at Stevensville High School and self-described cannon nut. “And he donated this one to the UM athletic department. They needed someone to run it, so of course, I was excited to do it.”
Ashmore, an ROTC cadet while a student at UM, says people didn’t like it at all at first.
“It was loud. People jumped out of their seats, people were scared, babies cried,” he says with a laugh. “Not many people wanted to talk to me.
“But it became famous,” he says. “And when I tell people I was the first to fire it, they look at me like I’m nuts. My students don’t believe me. But I assure you, it was me.”
Ashmore ran the cannon for a couple of seasons, and then it was taken over by UM’s ROTC program. In the years since, it has become one of the best jobs available to ROTC cadets.
“It’s probably one of my most memorable college experiences,” says Cadet Andrew Visscher, a senior from Bozeman studying literature. “It’s a rare opportunity to be right there on the field, watching the game, firing the cannon, and then doing push-ups.”
The Boom Crew, as it’s called, is a group of five cadets and one cadre member who are in charge of the cannon on game days.
“For the kids who love football, it doesn’t get any better than this,” says U.S. Army Major Kris Pyette ’05 of UM’s Department of Military Science. “It’s an honor. Just last year the cadets got to meet UM President Royce Engstrom, Montana Congressman Ryan Zinke, and Governor Steve Bullock. It’s an opportunity to be in the spotlight.”
But after nearly thirty years of celebrating Grizzly scores, the cannon is starting to show its age.
UM’s ROTC program will celebrate its centennial anniversary next year, and recently kicked off a fundraising effort to honor and celebrate ROTC’s history and its more than 1,800 graduates.
Plans include renovating part of Schreiber Gym—ROTC’s current home—into a Hall of Fame. They also hope to replace the cannon with a more functional model.
Once retired, the current cannon will become a monument outside Schreiber, where it will symbolize the strong traditions the department helped build within the community.
“The cannon is something everyone can relate to,” Pyette says. “We get 25,000 people at a football game. They all know about the cannon, they’re excited about it, and they look forward to hearing it.”
John Heaney is the editor-in chief of the Montanan. An Anaconda native, John graduated from UM in 2002 and took the helm of the Montanan in 2010. In between, he worked for the Missoulian, the Spokesman-Review, the Coeur d'Alene Press, and the Anaconda Leader.
Todd Goodrich is the University of Montana's photographer. He graduated from UM's School of Journalism in 1988, and has captured images on campus for more than twenty years.