The Bonner County community of roughly 500 residents had a strong tie to the Joe Montana-led dynasty, warranting the media’s localization of the nation’s most-watched game.
When 49ers tight end and special teams enforcer Ron Heller returned to his family’s mobile home near Clark Fork Junior/Senior High School – home to one of the region’s most unique mascots, the Wampus Cats – he brought back his Super Bowl ring.
He regaled locals with stories about his playing experience at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami, which 31 years later is also the home of Super Bowl 54 on Sunday between the 49ers and the Kansas City Chiefs.
In what was essentially Ron Heller Day near scenic Lake Pend Orielle, he talked about the wild Super Bowl week – the parties, the celebrities who hung around the team, the media frenzy and the emotion that came with holding the Lombardi Trophy.
“The town was all decorated in 49ers colors,” said Heller, who graduated from Clark Fork in 1981 before playing at Oregon State. “It was pretty cool.”
Now a 56-year-old director of partner development at PlanMember Financial Corporation in California, Heller still wears his commemorative ring, which has served as a consistent conversation piece in the business world.
Heller, who hauled in 14 passes for 140 yards during the 49ers’ championship season, did more of his work blocking and on kickoff and punt teams.
His five-year NFL career included 87 receptions for 871 yards and five touchdowns in stints with the 49ers, Atlanta Falcons and Seattle Seahawks.
Coming from a tiny school in Idaho’s smallest high school sports classification is among the most interesting parts of Heller’s journey.
“I always knew if I got the opportunity to get my foot in the NFL door, I could make the team,” Heller said. “It was a big jump, like going from little Clark Fork to starting in the Pac-10 for Oregon State.”
Clark Fork, which now plays 8-man football, didn’t have a true home field in the 1980s, playing their games 27 miles west in Sandpoint.
Once a season, Heller said, the Wampus Cats would play a home game on a makeshift field near the highway that featured just one goal post, where he and his brother Don would face such teams as Mullan, Kootenai (Harrison) and Lakeside (Plummer-Worley), who still comprise the North Star League.
Back then the state’s smallest division didn’t offer a state football tournament, but with a 15-man team that featured eight players who went on to play various level of college football, the Wampus Cats would have likely contended for a title, Heller said.
“We had big guys and good athletes who loved to work out,” Heller said.
He and his brother Don, who went on to play running back at Eastern Oregon, shared a bedroom in their small trailer home after their parents moved the family to the isolated North Idaho town from California in 1976. They loved the freedom the lakes and wilderness offered.
Heller, who was a star multi-sport athlete at 6-foot-3 and 225 pounds as a senior, generated most of his college exposure at Boise State summer football camps.
“Half the Pac-10, all of the Big Sky and other Power 5 schools” recruited Heller, he said, once they discovered his powerful combination of speed, size and strength.
Johnny Majors, then the head coach at Tennessee, went as far as paying Heller a home visit, he said.
“Getting to and from Tennessee from a poor Idaho logging family would have been tough, so I chose a more local school,” Heller said.
He signed with Oregon State, which was at the bottom of the Pac-10 standings in each of his four seasons in Corvallis.
Heller started at five different positions in his college career, including defensive tackle, defensive end, tight end, outside linebacker and inside linebacker.
When he exhausted his eligibility he moved to Moscow to live with his brother at the University of Idaho, where he trained for pro day alongside then-Idaho coach Dennis Erickson’s players.
Heller said he ran a 4.5-second 40-yard dash in front of Dallas Cowboys scouts. They soon signed him to a three-year minimum salary contract with a $2,500 signing bonus.
He was eventually cut but soon landed in the 49ers training camp, where he was an immediate fit.
“It was amazing. (Head coach) Bill Walsh and the ownership treated the players like kings,” Heller said. “Joe Montana would invite us poor rookies to his house and we’d drink tequila. You get a little star struck at first, but you realize that guys like Montana, Jerry Rice, Ronnie Lott and Roger Craig were true professionals who were always working.”
Being the new guy also came with some ribbing.
Heller said a teammate cut a picture of Heller’s face and put it on another picture of the 1980s TV character “Alf” because he and the alien both had big noses.
Pro Bowl defensive back Eric Wright also offered some words in the heat of practice battles.
“(Wright) would say, ‘Come on, Idaho boy,’” Heller said. “You sheep-loving country boy.”
Heller still frequents Idaho and purchased his family’s old property a few years ago. His son, Mitch Heller, was an offensive lineman for Idaho in 2018 after playing his high school ball in Santa Barbara, California.
He’ll be tuned in to the Super Bowl on Sunday, hoping his former team can win the franchise’s sixth world championship.
“It was a surreal experience. The crowds were massive,” he said. “I was happy to be a part of it.”
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