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The Front Row with MARK NELKE Dec. 23, 2010

| December 23, 2010 8:00 PM

You never forget your first, but the second time around was pretty sweet for former Lakeland High standout Bubba Bartlett.

On Tuesday night, in a phone conversation from Helena, Mont., Bartlett said he was still “on that emotional high” after helping Carroll College win the NAIA football championship with a 10-7 victory over Sioux Falls last Saturday in Rome, Ga.

Bartlett, a 6-foot-1, 246-pound senior tight end, also played on Carroll’s national title-winning team as a freshman in 2007.

“The second time I was more of a contributing member to the team than the first time,” Bartlett said. “The first time I was mostly a lead blocker for (former Coeur d’Alene High star) Gabe (Le) and some of the running backs then, and this one I was more of a passing target and blocker for the running backs.”

Bartlett, who is attracting interest from NFL scouts, caught 67 passes for 694 yards and six touchdowns this year. Last year, as a junior, he caught 85 passes for 951 yards and seven touchdowns, and was named first team AFCA All-American.

BUT WHAT got Bubba and his teammates excited last week was Bartlett lining up in the backfield on occasion and carrying the ball five times — four more times than in the rest of his career at Carroll.

“It was kind a wrinkle (offensive coordinator Nick Howlett) threw just in case we wanted to try it out,” Bartlett said. “It’s something I’m not used to in college ... it brought back a quick memory of what that was like (running the ball at Lakeland). The coolest part was all my teammates were like, ‘Let’s let Bubba run the ball.’”

Carroll won four straight NAIA titles from 2002-05, then won again in 2007. In ’08 the Fighting Saints lost in the title game and last year, Carroll was upended in the semifinals.

Talk about having the bar set high.

“Losing in ’08 was an eye opener; people always thought we would always dominate,” Bartlett said. “Last year we lost in the semifinals ... this one was pretty special because it had been a while.”

COMING OUT of high school, Bartlett attracted some interest from Division I schools, talking to coaches from Idaho and Boise State. He figured if he played in college, it would be at linebacker.

So he said he was “shocked” when Howlett paid a visit to him at Lakeland and said Carroll was interested in him as a tight end.

He took a visit to Helena and said he “felt at home right away.”

Bartlett said he had some offers to walk on from some of the bigger schools, like Idaho, Montana and Eastern Washington, but was a little leery, especially with some instability among the coaching staffs at the time.

Carroll was obviously a smaller school, but appeared more stable.

“A lot of guys out of high school get really excited what the Division I offer is, and all the stuff that comes with it,” said Bartlett, who was named Justin at birth, but quickly earned the nickname Bubba for being the largest baby (8 pounds, 2 ounces) out of the five kids in his family. “But if you’re not playing, that stuff isn’t that fun. That stuff gets old pretty fast.”

BARTLETT IS on track to graduate in May. He’s majoring in community health services and minoring in business.

Prior to his senior season, Bartlett gave little thought to a potential shot at the NFL. Then, starting last spring, scouts began showing up to watch film and meet with him. They kept coming during the season — all told, a total of about 20 of them, Bartlett estimates.

“It’s pretty cool,” he said. “I didn’t think anything of it at first and then more scouts came and I was starting to think, ‘Oh man, what’s this all about?’”

So, while he finishes up work on his degree, Bartlett said he’ll continue working out, start training for some of the events they have at the NFL Scouting Combine — not that he would necessarily be invited, but in case he takes part in “pro day” somewhere, where NFL team reps show up to put groups of players through a workout.

AT FIRST, Carroll was just a place for Bartlett to play college football, and Helena a town to spend four years in while maturing from teenager to young adult.

And now?

“I was first attracted to Carroll College through football, but after playing football I also like the place and what it offers, and football is just a cool part about it too,” he said.

So why is Carroll such a successful football program, seemingly always in the hunt for a national title over the past decade?

“This might sound kind of cheesy, but we’re a team of brothers, not really a team of individuals,” Bartlett said. “We don’t have running backs that are worried about how many yards they get per game, we don’t have receivers worried about how many touchdowns they score per game ... we have 11 guys on the field who are working toward one goal.”

That includes a tight end willing to carry the football a few times in the biggest game of his career to date, if it will help his team win a national title.

Mark Nelke is sports editor of The Press. He can be reached at 664-8176, Ext. 2019, or via e-mail at mnelke@cdapress.com.

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