“Don’t go past the streetlights.”
That was the warning that Montell Cozart often heard. But being a kid, he tested boundaries.
He was about 7 years old, hanging out with some kids a few years older outside their Kansas City apartment complex. They saw a car slowly heading their direction, its lights off for a reason.
When the bullets started flying, they luckily were aimed the other direction, but the car was just a few yards away. Cozart reacted with what he did best — he ran.
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“I got home, I was shaking, I could hardly breathe,” Cozart said. “If they were aiming at someone on our side of the road, who knows. They probably wouldn’t have seen us.”
[Air Force at Boise State, 8:15 p.m. Saturday, ESPN2. Click here for game matchup]
Cozart, a senior quarterback at Boise State, said it was not unusual to fall asleep while hearing the police sirens or ambulances.
“It was just the norm, we got accustomed to it,” his older brother, Wade, said. “I know that one incident stuck with him, but truth is, I remember several.”
Kids that Montell knew dipped their toes into the gang culture that surrounded them. He saw the drugs and the struggles of people young and old all around. But the family knew the boy they called “Money,” though they like to pronounce it “monnie,” was special.
Wade made Montell promise to stick with sports. Montell stood on the sidelines of his older brother’s football and basketball games, wanting to be like him. He always had a ball in his hands, and he would tackle pillows set up by Wade throughout the house.
The speed Montell has used to become an immediate fan favorite at Boise State was evident right away.
“He never walked anywhere, he’d always run,” Wade said. “When he was real little, my grandma was getting him out of the bath, changing him. The guy jumped up, went flying down the hall. I was taking out the garbage, so I’d left the door open. He just ran out the door with powder on, nothing else.”
Not long after Montell saw the drive-by shooting, the family moved to a safer part of the city, and the young athlete blossomed. His promise showed in basketball and football, and he decided to enroll at Bishop Miege, a private high school in Roeland Park, Kan.
Wade, 10 years older than Montell, and the family put in a few extra hours of work to help pay for tuition.
“They were able to see the big picture. It wasn’t easy, but they knew what it was for,” Bishop Miege quarterbacks coach Justin Hoover said. “He could’ve just as easily fallen into those negative things, but he’s a strong kid, and his family wasn’t going to let it happen.”
Cozart thrived, earning first-team all-state honors while leading the Stags to a state runner-up finish. He signed with Kansas over offers from Indiana, Kansas State, Minnesota, Northern Illinois and West Virginia.
With the Jayhawks, Cozart started 18 games from 2013 to 2016. He never was set in the starting role — something that prepped him for his role at Boise State. Kansas won just eight games in his time there.
“His smile is contagious, and there were moments you couldn’t find it,” Hoover said. “Part of me wishes it would’ve started off different. He wanted to be the one to get things back on track.”
Cozart decided to leave Kansas as a graduate transfer in February, then waited until May before he found his landing spot. He knew he would compete with junior Brett Rypien in Boise, where he had a familiar face in first-year receivers coach Eric Kiesau, a Kansas assistant in 2014.
The Broncos’ two-quarterback system has been one of the rare ones that have worked, in part because of the maturity of Cozart, a captain at Kansas.
“We feel lucky,” Boise State coach Bryan Harsin said. “We didn’t know we were going to get such a fantastic person. I knew he could play, I knew he could help us win games, but very rarely does a guy come in and make that big of an impact in a short amount of time. That’s because of who he is.”
Boise State (8-2) has won as many games in this, Cozart’s lone season with the Broncos, as the Jayhawks did in his four years in Lawrence.
“I knew when the opportunity came, I was going to be ready,” Cozart said. “What I was looking for ... it’s exactly what my plan was, getting back to success.
“I was talking to my family a little bit. They were telling me, ‘You’re back to yourself.’ ”
The joy is clear to his older brother, watching proudly back home in Kansas City. He credits Montell with being a positive figure in the life of his daughter, Quayae, who has shown some prowess at track and field.
“Montell’s at peace again,” Wade said. “He’s having fun, looking like that little boy who loved to play football.”
Cozart’s 329 rushing yards and four touchdowns are No. 2 on the Broncos, he has two receptions for 40 yards and he’s completed 53 of 82 passes (64.6 percent) with nine touchdowns and one interception.
He had nine TD passes in 295 passes his last two seasons at Kansas and never had more than 214 rushing yards in a season there.
“You look at how effective of a runner Cozart’s been ... and yet he’s still completed a bunch of (passes), too,” Air Force coach Troy Calhoun said.
Cozart said with the Broncos, “it’s been nothing less than a blessing. I feel like me again.” His personality, forged through some trying times, enabled him to fit immediately in a program that emphasizes embracing your role.
“He’s a charismatic guy,” senior tight end Jake Roh said. “There’s something about him, people just are drawn to him. He works his butt off, too. It’s just been a good fit from the get-go.”
That personable attitude is intentional. Cozart said he wanted to be a “people person” after seeing some of the things he saw — that he didn’t want to be a victim of circumstance, but instead a positive product of it.
“It made me who I am,” he said. “You can’t shy away from it. I’m here because of that environment. It made me want to make the most of the chances I get.”
Five questions with Montell Cozart
You were a really good basketball player. Did you consider playing in college?
“When I was at Kansas, my sophomore year, things were rough and I thought about switching. I talked to an assistant, and he said they’d love to have me walk on. The football coaches didn’t love it. I wanted to have fun again. It was close, I even talked to Bill Self about it, but I stuck with it.”
What’s something that inspires you off the field?
“I love fashion. I have tons of shoes, try to wear different ones all the time I come into the locker room. They always ask if my scholarship check is different than theirs. It isn’t! I think I’m one of the better Madden players on the team, too. I still look to shoot hoops a little bit.”
What did you enjoy about Boise, coming from Lawrence?
“Boise has more of a city feel, Lawrence was definitely a college town. We have a downtown here, you can go to a nice restaurant, go shopping, all that. The community has been great, people want to talk to you. I’ve started to enjoy the outdoors, too. Hiking Table Rock is fun.”
Do you have a favorite famous Montell?
“It has to be Montell Jordan. ‘This Is How We Do It,’ that’s a good song. Actually, it’s funny, my brother picked my name (their mother, Melinda, was deciding between two names, and his older brother, Wade, said Montell was the best one).”
If you could pick a pro wrestling-type walk-up song when you come in, what would it be?
“It would have to be Meek Mill’s ‘Dreams And Nightmares (Intro).’ He starts out rapping, it’s calm and it just builds up and builds up, the beat comes in and he just goes crazy. In that song, he talks about all the hardships he’s seen and where he is now. I can relate a little bit.”
Air Force at Boise State
When: 8:15 p.m. Saturday
Where: Albertsons Stadium (36,387, FieldTurf); Boise State reported about 30,500 tickets out as of Thursday evening
TV: ESPN2 (Roy Philpott and Tom Ramsey)
Radio: KBOI 670 AM/KTIK 93.1 FM (Bob Behler, Pete Cavender)
Records: BSU 8-2, 6-0 (beat Colorado State 59-52 in OT last week); Air Force 4-6, 3-3 (lost to Wyoming 28-14 last week)
Series: Air Force leads 3-2 (Falcons won 27-20 in Colorado Springs on Nov. 25, 2016, in last meeting)
Vegas line: Boise State by 17 1/2
Kickoff weather: Upper 30s, partly cloudy