Former high school wide receiver and track "legend" prepares for his final season at ASU

After a health scare that nearly ended his career, Bernie Montoya has high hopes for his senior year

Widely considered one of the number-one recruits in his 2013 high school graduating class, two-time Gatorade Arizona Athlete of the Year Bernie Montoya has earned collegiate honors, holds Arizona high school records, and has won multiple high school state titles. 

He even garnered the term “Arizona legend” from ASU head coach Louie Quintana for his laundry list of accomplishments in cross country and track.

But Montoya initially started his career as a football player at Cibola High School in Yuma, Arizona despite growing up behind two siblings who both ran for their high school, defying family tradition.

“I was the black sheep that didn’t want to do (cross country) at first, I just wanted to do football,” he said. “It was just kind of in the family."

At the end of his freshman season of football, the Cibola cross country team had one meet remaining: the Foot Locker West Regional Meet at the well-known Mt. SAC course in Walnut, California.

Already told by many of his football coaches that he should look into running because of his skill set, Montoya gave in and followed the example of his older siblings by taking part in the final race of the cross country season.

From that point, he was hooked.

“After that, I was like ‘yeah, I think I like this,’” Montoya said. “Once football was done I just did the one race and fell in love with it.”

For his parents, it was clear that cross country was where he belonged, not just because their two oldest children had taken part in the same sport but because of his clear ability and love for the sport. Ever since, they’ve followed his career as tightly as any other parents.

“We always support him, and follow him in all of the races, in Phoenix, Lake Havasu ... we don’t miss it,” said his father, Leonardo Montoya. “He always puts a lot of energy into the sport.”

The next several years were a whirlwind for the wide-receiver-turned top track recruit. Winning races left and right and continuing to drop his impressive times, Montoya garnered the interest of schools all across the country, essentially having his pick of where to spend his four years of college.

Not only were schools taking notice, but fellow runners, friends, spectators and more all recognized the talents of the exciting young athlete. At certain races, he’d even have people coming up to him for autographs.

But, as the most respected athletes tend to do, Montoya stayed humble amidst the accolades, modeling himself off of the likes of Lionel Messi and Jerry Rice so as to continue getting better and not settling for his past achievements.

“As a freshman, a lot of the football players were really cocky, they thought they were the man,” he said. “I didn’t really like those kind of guys, so I always made a promise to myself that if I ever did something big in sports, it was like, ‘look, you can make a difference in the way you act.’”

With two siblings and two parents who all went to ASU, Montoya could have easily gone “black sheep” again and chosen one of the many elite programs who had expressed interest, like ASU’s Pac-12 foes Oregon and Colorado.

Instead, he chose to follow his family the same way he did in joining cross country, signing on to head coach Louie Quintana’s Sun Devil squad, and capping off one of the most fun experiences of his life.

“It was a scary decision to go somewhere else,” he said. “My family wanted me to stay close. Deep down inside, I always had this thing in the back in my mind, that if I have talent in this sport and I can bring it Arizona State, man it would just be a sunset to my career here. I think going through the recruiting process, I had that vision."

When Montoya finally made the decision to run at ASU, the experience became fun for Quintana, who immediately ran around his house “like a little kid” after hanging up the phone with his newest commit.

Aside from scoring a number-one recruit, it was also the relief of sealing the deal on a difficult recruiting battle that gave Quintana such joy.

“We’ve been involved and in battle with some of the best recruits in the United States, but with Bernie it was a little different,” he said. “It was just so much work in a good way, we were constantly in communication and there was a lot of time investment on our end to lure him here.”

Over the four years since that phone call, Montoya has been a force for the Sun Devils.

As a freshman, Montoya kicked off his career with a phenomenal 24:34 time in the 8K at the Wisconsin Invitational, and won the Husky Indoor Classic that winter. As a sophomore, he continued to improve, earning top thirty at NCAA cross country West regionals.

It was following that sophomore cross country season, however, that Montoya was informed of a significant health issue — scar tissue found on his heart — that kept him out for the entirety of ASU’s winter and spring track seasons.

“The hard part was being patient with the doctors and letting them do their work,” he said. “If you asked me how I felt, I’d tell you ‘I feel fine, I feel like I could go run.’ The worst part was seeing your teammates run and you know you can't run.”

Despite the setback, expectations haven’t changed for Montoya with one season remaining as a Sun Devil. Although his development may have been stalled, his coach knows he still has the talent and work ethic to achieve the same goals he had sat out at the beginning of his ASU career.

“There was a four or five month stretch where we thought he would never run competitively again,” Quintana said. “The fact that he’s running 110 miles a week is an amazing thing. He’s such a hard-working, blue-collar kid, and given a second opportunity, he’s been able to connect with why he’s doing what he’s doing, and you just see it everyday.”

“He’s reconnected with his goals, and that’s very exciting,” he added.

And while many seniors would be forcing the issue and making sure they do whatever it takes to finish their careers strong, Montoya is continuing the same pattern that’s gotten him to this point–taking it one day at a time and not worrying about distractions.

“I’ve always thought that if it’s your last year, you would probably go for the whole enchilada,” he said. “But the process to that is just winning the day, winning in practice, winning in the weight room, winning in whatever it is you’re doing. Make sure at the end of the day, you got better somehow.”

Related Links:

ASU cross country opens up season in Flagstaff

From Ross to rings: An ASU cross country love story


Reach the reporter at jeff.griffith21@asu.edu or follow @Jeff_Griffith21 on Twitter.

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