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After junior college detour, Gillette graduate Austin Fort feels back at home at Wyoming

November 3, 2017 GMT

LARAMIE — Feather River College has an athletic backup quarterback this season. He’s about 6-foot-4, 230 pounds and played point guard in high school.

Nick Goulet, first-year head coach at the Quincy, California, junior college, wanted to find a way to get that athleticism on the field. So last week the Golden Eagles’ staff installed a set of plays from Goulet’s days as the offensive coordinator at Chabot (California) College.

They call it “Fort.”

“I actually was showing the kid clips of Austin last week in that formation,” Goulet said. “And it’s the exact same stuff that we did with Austin, the exact same formation, exact same everything, and we’re calling it the same thing after Austin.”

Austin Fort was in the same situation under Goulet at Chabot back in 2015. He had come to California to try to further his career as a quarterback, but he was stuck behind Jose Ferreira, who now owns just about every Chabot quarterbacking record there is.

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Fort played sparingly at quarterback, and his size and speed was going to waste.

“We were like, ‘Man, he’s too good of an athlete not to be using him somewhere,’” Goulet said, “and we started to build packages for him.”

In some of the “Fort” formations, Fort played in the slot. Sometimes he ran screens on the perimeter. Sometimes he was in the backfield. Sometimes they ran double-pass plays.

The name stuck.

That’s likely Fort’s biggest legacy at Chabot. He didn’t become the Gladiators’ starting quarterback. He didn’t even finish out the season, leaving early to attend to family issues, according to Goulet. But Fort’s time in community college did leave him with one important realization:

Wyoming was the place he wanted to be.

***

Fort moved to Wyoming from Florida when he was 15 years old, and in his two seasons as Campbell County High School’s (Gillette’s) starting quarterback, he earned two nominations to the Star-Tribune’s Super 25 team. Fort led the Camels to a 4A championship game appearance his junior year and to the state semifinals as a senior. The quarterback led the state in scoring his senior year and commanded the state’s leading offense in yards per game. He received recruiting interest from Colorado and Colorado State, and at one point Illinois.

Before his senior season of high school, Fort verbally committed to Wyoming and head coach Dave Christensen. After his senior season of high school, Wyoming fired Christensen. New head coach Craig Bohl honored Fort’s scholarship offer. The Cowboys’ top two quarterbacks, Brett Smith and Jason Thompson, chose to leave the program, but Fort redshirted in 2014.

In December, Wyoming brought in a junior college quarterback from Reedley, California, named Josh Allen.

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“I think the coaches kind of saw Josh’s future,” Fort said, “and we were in the same class, so with my athleticism, (offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Brent) Vigen pulled me aside and said, ‘Hey, you could wait here for a long time and then play quarterback, maybe, or you can play early, quicker as a tight end because of your athleticism, and the team really needs you at that spot.’

“So, that was the move, and I didn’t really know how to react to it. I kind of was blindsided by it.”

That pill might have gone down easier if Fort had known that in less than two years Allen would come close to leaving Wyoming for the NFL Draft. Regardless, Fort left the Wyoming football team in April 2014, shortly after being moved to tight end.

***

Fort connected with Goulet and Chabot through quarterback trainer Will Hewlett of National Football Academies. The tools that earned Fort Division I interest were apparent when he arrived.

“He was a big, strong-armed guy,” Goulet said. “There’s no doubt about that. What we really like about him was his athleticism on the perimeters. We run more of a spread option-type offense where we’re asking the quarterback to do some of those things with his legs, and that’s what intrigued me about him, quite honestly.”

Fort had the opportunity to compete for a starting spot at Chabot, but Ferreira won the job.

“Coming in, it’s like, ‘Well, I’m a Division I bounce-back guy. I should be able to come in here and take this job,’” Goulet said. “And then he realized like, ‘Wow, I’m competing with a guy who I’m probably physically more talented than, but they’re still going with this guy.’ So I think there was a little bit of a humbling experience, quite honestly, for him. I think he had to find out a little bit about himself in that process.”

In total, Fort completed 8 of 20 passes for 282 yards, two touchdowns and an interception at Chabot. He also ran eight times for 32 yards and three touchdowns and caught two passes.

Goulet said he saw a stress lifted off Fort when his focus was no longer on competing for the starting quarterback position.

“I think once he kind of flipped his mindset of, ‘I’m going to try to help the team in any way I can,’” Goulet said. “And when we started to utilize him in a different way, he became a little bit more receptive to the idea of team and doing whatever I’ve got to do to help.”

The problem was, Fort felt like his real teammates were a time zone away.

“I mean, I could have stayed in JUCO and probably gotten an opportunity to bounce back somewhere,” Fort said, “but I realized that I didn’t want to go to any other school, no matter what school it was. I wanted to be here (in Wyoming).

“So when I realized that I didn’t have to waste any time, I reached out to the coaching staff and asked for a chance to come back.”

***

Fort contacted Zach Duval, then Wyoming’s strength and conditioning coach, about rejoining the Cowboys. Duval told him there might be a spot for him, and mentioned it to other members of the staff.

Fort eventually had a sit-down talk with Bohl, who wasn’t necessarily accustomed to bringing back players who had left his program.

“I can tell you very rarely, for me as a head football coach, when a guy’s left (have) we had a guy back,” Bohl said. “I listened to how it was framed. And that’s why we don’t have set policies, because every situation is different. But I felt like Austin was either misinformed or misled on his ability to play quarterback, and that was the impetus for him to leave.

″... And it was something in my gut that said, ‘We’re going to roll the dice here and allow him to come back.’”

Two years earlier, Bohl had honored Fort’s scholarship from a different coach. Now, he was giving him another chance.

“I think their part in that loyalty, that was one of the reasons that Austin thought ... that he’d like to come back,” former Gillette head coach Vic Wilkerson said, “and show that loyalty to the home-state coaches that had given him that opportunity.”

This time, however, Fort was joining as a tight end. He was also joining without a scholarship.

“Going from scholarship to walk-on, that’s definitely a moment where you’ve got to swallow your pride and just stay quiet and work hard,” Fort said, “and that’s exactly what I did.”

With the exception of three snaps against Utah State, Fort’s playing time as a redshirt sophomore was limited to special teams. He said he “just wasn’t ready,” and with an all-conference senior in Jacob Hollister at tight end, opportunities would have been limited either way.

Nonetheless, Fort was put back on scholarship in January. Earning a scholarship two separate times at Wyoming isn’t a unique distinction — three members of the Black 14 did so when they returned to the team in 1970 — but it’s certainly an abnormal one.

“It was a moment of great gratitude,” Fort said. “Because when I came back, Coach Bohl, he wanted me to earn that right, and I just worked so hard for it.”

***

After redshirting, briefly changing positions, changing schools, changing positions and schools, and spending a year as a reserve, Fort was eager for his junior season. He had worked his way up to co-starter in spring camp.

“He took a lot of time in the offseason and studied some tight end film,” tight end coach Jacob Claborn said, “not only Jacob from last year but other tight ends around the country, and kind of figured out how guys move a little bit. So a lot of credit to him. He put a lot of that onus on himself.”

Then, in fall camp, Fort tore his PCL.

“I had come so far,” he said, “and I’m thinking, ‘OK, I’m ready. I’m finally going to get my first real game versus Iowa.’ And then next thing I know, they’re saying, ‘Oh, you’re going to be out for six weeks.’ That was hard.”

His journey already had been long and trying. There would be one more delay.

But when Fort finally did make it back on the field, he made up for lost time. In his second game of the season, he made the first catch of his career. It resulted in a go-ahead touchdown against Boise State. It came on a highlight-reel throw from Allen, the quarterback whose arrival had moved Fort to tight end in the first place.

“When I get asked, ‘Why’d you your position switched?’ I’ll say, ‘Well, the number one draft pick came to my school,’” Fort said with a laugh. “So it’s a good excuse for me.”

Fort’s next touches came the following week against New Mexico: a 4-yard touchdown catch, a 2-yard touchdown run, an 11-yard touchdown catch.

Four career touches, four scores.

“Some days it just felt like I was never going to make it out there,” Fort said. “It’s such a grind. Three games back and four touchdowns ... it’s surreal, but I’m just trying to have fun with it and take it day by day.”

After the New Mexico win on homecoming, Fort was asked what it meant to have such a game with family in attendance.

“Well, it’s not just family,” he said. “It’s extended family. Because when you’re from Wyoming, everyone’s so friendly, and everyone feels like family because they care. They care about the community. They care about you. So, all the friends and relationships I’ve made since I lived here, it’s like playing in front of a big crowd that’s all family to me.”

***

Fort’s road back to Wyoming has been an atypical one, but he doesn’t dwell on it too much.

“It’s just a part of my history,” he said. “I don’t necessarily carry it with me every single day, but the lessons that I’ve learned have definitely stuck.”

Sometimes you have to take a step back to realize you’re exactly where you want to be.

“The biggest thing was that I was able to learn what was most valuable to me,” Fort said. “And it wasn’t playing a certain position, but it was the teammates that I’m surrounded by.

“That’s the number one thing that brought me back here. It was a big life lesson, a big chance to mature. And the biggest thing was just what my priorities were.”