UMW News Bureau
As University of Montana Western’s Chris Wells suits up for the Bulldogs’ first 2010 football game against rival Montana Tech, the trials and stress of his busy life will fade as he walks to the field.
The 23-year old senior has seen his fair share of life-changing events in the past year, including the birth of his son and the loss of his best friend, former Bulldog wide receiver Michael Guelff.
Wells first came to Montana in 2004 from Marks, Miss. to Billings where his brother Anthony was playing indoor football.
“I came for a visit and ended up staying,” Wells explains.
Wells enrolled at Billings West High School and immediately began playing football as a running back and linebacker. He was living with his brother at the time, but when Anthony started a family and decided to move, Chris needed a new home. After staying with several families, his offensive coordinator and teacher at Billings West, Steve Guelff, invited Wells into his home.
“Once he moved in my wife said he wasn’t going anywhere until he had a permanent place to live,” Guelff remembers.
Although Wells still had a family in Mississippi, he soon became family with the Guelffs as well as great friends and brothers of sorts with their son Michael.
“We spent quite a bit of time together,” Wells recalls. “We lived together in Dillon and then we lived together when we went back home to Billings.”
In 2005, Michael Guelff enrolled at Montana Western and began playing football for head coach Rich Ferris. One year later, with the help of Guelff, Ferris also recruited Wells.
“He wasn’t just a good running back,” Ferris says of Wells, who also played high school basketball, track and in Mississippi, baseball. “Not only did he play all of those sports, he excelled at all of them. He excels at everything he does athletically.” Though the distance was great, Wells was becoming used to life in Montana after two years here, and the transition to the smaller town of Dillon was a natural one for him.
“A lot of where I’m from in Mississippi is the same as Dillon,” Wells says. “There is ranching, hunting, a lot of woods. Billings was a lot bigger than Marks, but I was really used to both the bigger and smaller places. I lived close to Oxford and we always went to OleMiss games.”
Still, nothing could prepare him for the cold.
“They told me to prepare for it, but that first practice wasn’t good,” Wells says of practicing in nearly two feet of snow.”
Wells red-shirted for the Bulldogs his first year and soon saw more and more minutes for the Bulldogs. Though he is a “running-back at heart,” Wells primarily plays corner and linebacker as well as kick returner.
Michael Guelff had already made a name for himself as a receiver at UMW. The two continued to live together in Dillon, going back home to Billings on their time off.
Then, ahead of the 2009 season, Guelff told Wells goodbye in Billings and headed to Dillon the day before practice would begin. Wells would follow the next day, but he would never see Guellf again; Michael died in an auto accident just north of Dillon on Aug. 1, 2009. He was 22 years old.
“It was especially hard having seen him the night before thinking I would see him the next day,” Wells says. “He was a very unique guy. The only thing you can say is there’s not another Michael Guelff.”
The loss of Guelff, coupled with the recent loss of another member of the team, Zac Marold, took the wind out of the Bulldogs’ sails before the season even began.
“It had a big effect on the team,” Wells explains. “We weren’t prepared for it. I mean, when are you prepared for it? But it couldn’t have happened at a worse time.”
Coach Ferris had the difficult job of holding an emotionally fragile team together.
“It was really crushing for the team,” Ferris remembers. “It was hard for them to focus that first game. Eventually, just playing together lifted us up, just replacing the sorrow with some camaraderie.”
Now, just over one year later, the wounds have healed some. Wells has dealt with his grief while continuing his own busy life. He is now a senior majoring in K-12 health and physical education. He plans to be a teacher and a coach and now has a family of his own to support: his girlfriend Leah Simpson, stepson Malikye, 6, and Wells’ seven-month old son Michael, who Wells named after Michael Guelff. Wells also plans to stay in his adopted home of Montana.
“I’ve become very fond of Montana,” Wells says.
He still has a key to the Guelff’s home in Billings, and Steve Guelff looks forward to anytime Chris returns home.
“It’s been a real awarding experience,” Guelff says. “Chris is just amazing at how he attracts people. They just fall in love with the kid. Everything he does and says is for the good of other people.”
Guelff says Michael’s death was hard on Wells, but that he dealt with it well all the while navigating his own life in pursuit of a college degree while supporting a family. Guelff is also adamant that the love and respect Wells had for Michael Guelff was mutual.
“Everyone likes Chris,” Guelff explains. “There wasn’t a person who didn’t like him, and I really think Michael felt the same way about him, that there isn’t another Chris Wells. Deep down, there was a lot of love and respect there.”
Coach Ferris says Wells’ positivity has given him the strength to succeed amid the difficulties of the past year.
“He’s always been more than willing to help the team in any way,” Ferris says. “He’s always positive too. I’ve never heard him say anything negative.”
Wells says he gets his stubborn positivity from his mother.
“That’s the way my mom is,” Wells says. “Forget and forgive. That’s how she raised me.”
Wells also deals with his challenges through football.
“I’m an energetic person,” he explains. “When I’m on the field there are a lot of opportunities to express myself. That’s the great thing about football: it allows you to express yourself the way you want.”
This season, Wells is averaging 16.3 rushing yards per game and 18 yards per game on kick returns. He is also especially looking forward to expressing himself to his friends on the Orediggers football team Paul Klaboe, Kevin Schey, Shawn Harcharik, Jason Russell, Drew Savage and Matt Komac.
“We all graduated the same year and played against each other in high school and in all star games,” Wells says with a smile. “We’ve been talking smack already. I’m really looking forward to playing them and hanging out in Butte with them afterwards.”
As Wells prepares for that game, the memory of his friend and former teammate Michael Guelff will be close to his heart. Though it’s still hard, Wells says football is the best way to manage the loss.
“I deal with it with football,” Wells explains. “Football helps a lot. Every time I button up and go out onto the field I’m happy. No matter what I’ve just gone through, I’m happy.”
The University of Montana Western Bulldogs face the Montana Tech of the University of Montana Orediggers at 1 p.m. in Butte at Alumni Coliseum.