Montana will never be mistaken for a soccer factory, but Nicholas Downs hopes to remind the sporting public that it can produce some gems once in a while.
Sam Werner, a native of Bozeman, made some headlines in December, scoring the game-winner for Stanford University in a 1-0 extra time victory over Indiana University in the NCAA Division I men's final.
Downs hopes to turn some heads himself of his own at the fourth annual National Premier Soccer League Player Showcase in Kissimmee, Fla. Jan. 13-15. He’s a blue-collar player who usually finds a way to get the job done.
The Tulsa Athletic defender didn't grow up in Montana, but he lived there for five years. He forged his reputation at C.M. Russell High School in Great Falls, as he scored a school-record 45 goals and was named the 2011-12 Gatorade Player of the Year, among his many other honors.
"Not a lot of kids go out and play," he said. "Soccer's not popular there. So, playing well and representing them [Montana], I do feel proud about that."
Downs literally went to great lengths to play club ball. While he was a member of the Montana Olympic Development Program, his parents still had to drive him as many as 12 hours to play in tournaments in Seattle, Wash., Oregon, and Idaho to find challenging competition on a regular basis.
"There's a lot of good programs around in the Oregon, Washington, Idaho area," he said. "So, I traveled to get better playing and more playing [time] since it snows nine months out of the year in Montana."
If the 23-year-old Downs has learned anything, it has been how to adapt quickly.
He has moved several times, living in six states. He was born in Oklahoma and resided in Arkansas, Texas, Montana, Utah, and North Carolina, where he attended and played soccer at the University of North Carolina-Greensboro.
His father Mark has worked as a civilian contractor for the U.S. Army and Air Force, necessitating the frequent moves.
"It was kind of pick up and go," he said. "We weren't anywhere any longer than four years. Sometimes we were there for two. It was a lot of making new friends, getting to know the program and then it was taking off and learning a new one."
For example, when the Downs family moved from San Antonio, Texas to Montana, they went from 95- degree weather to 22 degrees in two days.
"I just learned that how easily I can adapt to situations," he said. "Having to move, going to different schools, sometimes as soon as we moved, we would live in a hotel until we found a home. So, I was jumping from school to school. So, it was easy to make relationships for me."
So, the 5-foot-9, 160-lb. Downs has a history of making positive first impressions.
"We never had seen him kick a ball," UNC-Greensboro coach Justin Maullin said. "And at our level, we don't usually recruit kids we don't see kick a ball. One of our friends had seen him at an ID camp and one of my former players had coached him. We flew him in for an official visit. I just fell in love with him. He conducted himself in such a mature, positive manner than I made him a scholarship offer sight unseen and the rest is history."
Part of that history was converting Downs from a striker to a left back during his sophomore season, a seamless transition.
"He came in as any young freshman kid, was undersized," Maullin said. “We converted him into a left back. In my 22 years of college coaching, probably the hardest working kid I've ever coached. Just roll the sleeves up and he goes."
Added Downs: "It suited my characteristics a little bit more. I just kind of loved it. I stuck with it."
Maullin recommended Downs, a Greensboro team captain in 2017, to Tulsa Athletic. “We're a blue-collar team,” general manager Matt Boullt said. “So, he fit in really nicely.”
Not surprisingly, Downs had a similar experience in Tulsa.
"Right off the bat. Who is this kid? We found a gem," Boullt said. "The very first game he came in, the very first practice, he was throwing in tackles, went in for 50-50 balls. I believe got the assist on the first NPSL goal of the 2017 campaign. He beat his man and sent in a cross and we finished it."
Downs was comfortable in Tulsa. He was born in Lawton and lived in Edmond – Oklahoma cities -- when he was a boy.
"I felt I was going back home," he said. "I was kind of familiar with the area. As soon as I got there, they made me feel like family. Tulsa Athletic is definitely the place to be if you want to play anywhere in the NPSL. I just loved my experience there. It was great."
Since he graduated from UNC-Greensboro in December, Downs can pursue playing pro soccer immediately without it affecting his academics; he earned a degree in kinesiology (sports medicine). So, the showcase is an important stage for him.
"It's my dream," he said of playing professionally. "I've been working hard since I've been a little boy. Every step of the way if I didn't succeed, I would always push harder and get over that barrier and get to the next one. This is a dream of mine. This NPSL Showcase is also a chance to showcase myself to other professional teams and possibly earn a spot somewhere to earn a tryout."
Downs has two big boosters who feel he can turn a few heads in Kissimmee.
"Knowing Nick, he's going to come in, if not the most prepared and in-shape kid there, then definitely the top two or three," Boullt said. "He knows his position and that he's got to have a good showing. I'm confident that he absolutely will. He's deserving at least a look on some preseason camps. If he gets his foot in the door, his work ethic will keep him in camp."
Maullin said scouts and coaches needed to watch Downs for a few games to truly appreciate him.
"He's the type of kid that you might not see those intangibles in two hours," he said. "He's not going to be the flashy No. 10 who is going to do the step over and put it in the top shelf and you immediately you take a number; that's a kid you want right away. He's a kid that will be the first name on your team sheet. He's going to get it done, day-in and day-out. You're going to rely on him. He's going to grind, he's going to sweat, he's going to lead."
Photo Credit: Brett Rojo