David Montgomery's escapability is special, and it goes way beyond the field at Iowa State
Montgomery's accomplishments in football may be the least interesting part of the burgeoning star
AMES, Iowa -- Every two weeks, Iowa State running back David Montgomery dutifully takes stock of his expenses -- primarily his utilities, rent and groceries. Every two weeks, Montgomery dutifully decides whether there is enough money remaining for his brother.
Montgomery is living the dream as an All-Big 12 performer for the Cyclones. As a sophomore, he rushed for 1,146 yards. Only two other Big 12 players scored more rushing touchdowns than his 11.
That hardly matters when Montgomery thinks about his brother. Maceo Feltha, 22, is in prison doing 15 years-to-life for a 2015 murder.
"I give him $100 every two weeks," said Montgomery, a junior from Cincinnati. "I pay for my bills. Then the leftover, I send to him. I try to keep low key with it."
Both Montgomery and Iowa State football have been humbled to their foundations.
The Cyclones are coming off only their third season with at least eight wins in the last 40 years.
Montgomery is a huge part of that. Coach Matt Campbell knew the moribund program was trending upward when he saw Montgomery – then a freshman former two-star high school quarterback -- working out in the facility on a Friday night in January.
"That kid is the reason why this program changed," Campbell said.
This story started as an offseason look into why analytics are in love with Montgomery. The Cyclones' star enters the 2018 season propped up as Pro Football Focus' No. 1 returning Power Five running back. He is their No. 2 returning Power Five player.
For now, understand that Montgomery realizes he has obligations that go beyond football. Also understand there is an 8-year old fan in nearby Boone, Iowa, who worships him.
Primarily, understand that $100 goes a long way in the joint. Montgomery says Feltha is able to spend it in the commissary for personal items. Some of it goes to buy phone minutes to communicate with the outside world.
And no matter what you think of why Feltha is in prison, in situations like these there is always a proportionate impact on that outside world.
"That's why I'm trying to flip this whole script around," Montgomery said. "I don't want to say I feel obligated. My family doesn't hold me to any obligation, but I hold myself to an obligation. I don't want to see my family hurt."
That includes setting an example for three brothers and a sister back in Cincinnati. It includes getting close to an uncle who was recently released from prison. It includes becoming the first in his immediate family to graduate from college. The ultimate obligation Montgomery feels is that he can be the one who breaks a pattern.
"Typical average African-American family living a religion of poverty, a place of poverty, a fear of poverty," Montgomery said of his upbringing, which included occasionally having the water, gas and electricity shut down at his home.
"If the electricity got turned off, we'd always open the oven and stay warm," Montgomery recalled. "If the water got turned off, we'd get gallons of water from Speedway [service station] and boil water on the oven and put it in the tub."
If part of this is beginning to sound repetitive, that's kind of the point. Montgomery wouldn't be the first athlete to drag himself out of indigence with the help of a scholarship.
Montgomery is not the first athlete who doesn't know his biological father, either. His mother, Roberta Mitchell, works as a dialysis tech. She thinks nothing of driving nine hours from Cincinnati to Ames for her son's home games.
That doesn't mean we should ignore another commonality of abject poverty.
How many players got news of their brother's murder charge via a mugshot blasted all over TV?
"I go to school the next day and all the kids are looking at me weird," Montgomery said.
According to court documents, Feltha shot a man three years ago in what may have been a drug deal gone bad. Feltha appealed, claiming his confession was false and his trial counsel was ineffective. That appeal was denied.
"The trial didn't take that long," Montgomery said. "They sentenced him fast. What I think doesn't matter. They say he's the one that did it. We don't have the money for lawyers. It didn't work out the way it needed to.
"It hurt like a knife to the heart."
The brothers haven't hugged since Feltha went to prison three years ago. But they talk frequently by phone about, well, everything.
"I know he's got [a lot of] tattoos," Montgomery said.
All of this trivializes any mention of stats, but it should not distract from Montgomery's on-field success and bright future.
A known commodity in the Big 12, he finished the 2017 season ranked 42nd nationally in rushing. The player himself admits the nation still "doesn't really know who I am."
But the PFF numbers have made Montgomery somewhat of an analytics superstar. PFF takes into account everything from every snap in every game -- running, explosiveness, pass blocking, receiving.
"He would be one of our best receivers," Campbell said of Montgomery. "He's one of our better route runners."
The PFF folks are fascinated with the entire package. Montgomery finished No. 3 in pass blocking among running backs last season. He was the seventh-rated best player overall, just a few spots behind future No. 1 overall pick Baker Mayfield.
"Essentially, he's doing a lot with a little," said Steve Palazzo, a PFF senior analyst. "They didn't have an offensive lineman above 150th in run blocking. They're just not good in front of him."
A lot of it has to do with Montgomery's elusiveness. His 109 forced missed tackles were the most recorded by any player since PFF started in 2014.
Google the highlights from the Iowa game last year. Montgomery was credited with causing Hawkeyes defenders to miss 18 tackles. That was while playing against three starting senior linebackers, including All-American Josey Jewell.
"The goal isn't just the draft, it's to paint a picture," Palazzo said.
This year, the analytical picture shows Montgomery as a potential first-team All-American. The only backs rated higher overall last season were USC's Ronald Jones, a second-round pick of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and FAU's Devin Singletary, a two-time 1,000-yard rusher.
In that sense, PFF is writing Montgomery's resume for him. He was third in Big 12 rushing and the only first-team all-conference running back from Iowa State in the last 16 years, but that's not exactly a conversation starter.
"I don't like, I guess you could say, publicity," Montgomery said. "I try to stay away from it."
Montgomery's story actually started when he showed out at a Toledo camp. There was no room for an offer at the time, but Campbell, then the Rockets' coach, made a promise: We're coming back to get you.
When Campbell took over at Iowa State, he followed through with that promise.
"He was, bar none, the best running back that we've ever had in camp," Campbell said. "It has minimal to do with football. It has everything to do with work ethic …
"[Where he comes from] is as tough as it gets, as bad as it gets, as hard as it gets. The kid, somewhere down the line, has decided, 'I'm not going to be like everybody else.'"
A character forged in poverty also was refined by service. In high school, Montgomery rose to Eagle Scout, the highest honor achieved in the Boy Scouts.
Former Cyclones running backs coach Lou Ayeni, now at Northwestern, described Montgomery as "a captain without the 'C' on his chest. … He's the engine of the team right now."
Ask Stephanie Erb. On a whim last November, the mother of two sent an email to Iowa State football. One of her son's dreams was to score a touchdown for the Cyclones.
Hunter Erb is as rambunctious as any 6-year-old. He also has been diagnosed with pulmonary vein stenosis, a heart condition. Hunter has endured three open-heart surgeries; his heart is regulated by a pacemaker.
At one point, doctors told the Erbs to "take him home and love on him whatever time he has left," Stephanie shared. Hunter had a 5 percent chance of survival.
Within two minutes of sending that email, Stephanie got a response. It was Campbell telling her to bring Hunter over to the facility. In a practice, the Cyclones designed a run with Hunter in the backfield. With Montgomery as the lead blocker, the kid scored a 25-yard touchdown.
The two have been inseparable since.
"That boy keeps me going," Montgomery said. "He's so excited. He's so happy. You know, he can't do what all the other kids do, but he still smiles."
During a December hospital visit, doctors had trouble finding a vein in Hunter's arm to start an IV.
"After five pokes, David showed up," Stephanie said.
Hunter: "You made it!"
Montgomery: "Of course, little buddy."
It took six more pokes to start that IV, but Montgomery was there to hold Hunter's hand.
"Hunter never cried again," Stephanie said.
Doctors have now labeled Hunter's condition "clinically stable."
"David just told me, 'I need to be a part of this little boy's life,'" Stephanie said. "We've kind of adopted him as his home-away-from-home family.
"David has overcome a lot. He is truly that person, if you want to change your life, [who] says, 'Watch me.'
"We know a rough childhood."
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