When Montana State University’s football, men and women’s basketball, or women’s volleyball teams play in Bozeman, you may not know what the outcome is going to be at the outset, but you can always count on one thing.
Michael Jessup will be there.
He’s the guy seated right up front—behind the players and as close to the action as possible—dressed head to toe in Bobcat gear, cheering loudly and holding a big, bright, hand-lettered sign of encouragement above his head.
It’s a sign Jessup designs anew for every game and one that often catches the attention of television cameras.
“I can’t remember the last time that hand wasn’t there for us,” said Tricia Binford, head women’s basketball coach, recounting how Jessup high-fives each of her players at halftime as the team trots off the court and into the locker room.
Unlike “bandwagon fans,” the term to describe individuals whose support of a team surges only when the team is doing well, Jessup’s dedication is unconditional, whether the teams he loves are winning or losing.
“They’re my team,” he says proudly of the Bobcats.
That fact has made an indelible impression on Binford and her fellow Bobcat coaches.
“You need those fans that are going to be there for you in thick or thin and not just when things are going well. It’s a good reminder for life.”
“He’s a breath of fresh air. I know he does not judge,” said Kyle Weindel, head coach of Bobcat women’s volleyball.
When he’s not coaching, Weindel often sits with Jessup in Brick Breeden Fieldhouse or Shroyer Gym to watch the basketball teams in Jessup’s favorite spot, the front row bleachers.
No matter what happens on the courts or throughout the season, Jessup “always greets me with a smile,” Weindel said.
“He does really live for Bobcats Athletics.”
In the 12 years MSU’s Athletic Director Peter Fields has known him, Jessup has also buoyed the spirits of the entire athletic department’s administrative staff, during the weekly afternoon visits he has made to their offices for more than a decade.
Greeting Fields with a hug, high-five, or both, Jessup makes his rounds to check in about all things Bobcat, and to model the newest Bobcat logo sweatshirts, T-shirts, caps and other fashions, as well as joke around and laugh with the staff.
Jessup “just brightens your day,” Fields said. “From a department standpoint, we are excited to have him around. He brings light to the athletic department.”
It is a light that was nearly extinguished the day Jessup was born.
“They would just come in with their little white coats and say, ‘We’re taking him,’ said Jessup’s mother, Lalla Chadwick, recounting the events that unfolded, 44 years ago in Las Vegas, Nev., after she gave birth to a son with Down syndrome.
Hospital staff told Chadwick she would need to institutionalize her child, labeled by the medical establishment in those days as “mentally retarded.”
But first her baby needed immediate surgery to repair a plugged duodenum. A four-inch incision was cut across Jessup’s tiny belly, which became infected after the operation.
Rather than treat the infection, hospital staff removed Jessup from the nursery and placed him in an incubator in an isolation room, where even his mother could not visit.
“They were going to let him die,” said Chadwick, who was eventually informed her infant would likely not make it to the next morning.
Chadwick said a tense and heated situation resulted when she ignored orders not to visit her son. An orthopedic surgeon advised Chadwick that if she wanted her son to live and be placed under his care, she needed to take Jessup out of the incubator and walk out the front door of the hospital, thus discharging him against doctors’ orders.
She was then to turn around, walk back into the hospital and take the elevator to the orthopedics ward on the third floor where the surgeon would be waiting.
Chadwick followed the instructions, with hospital security guards in pursuit, threatening to have her arrested. Once she made it safely to the third floor with her son in her arms, the orthopedic surgeon told the guards that Michael Jessup was now a patient under his care.
The doctor gave Jessup life-saving penicillin, but the infection in his stomach had already spread to his hip, eating away the cartilage and bone.
As an infant, Jessup underwent surgery to repair the damage and, by the time he was 14, had endured multiple hip surgeries.
“They didn’t think he would ever be able to walk,” Chadwick said.
But as soon as he was a toddler, Chadwick began duct taping her son’s feet to the tops of her own, so the pair could practice moving in unison.
A slight limp is the only lingering reminder of that early trauma. Jessup has never allowed it, or anything else, to slow him down.
Eventually, he and his mother, along with Jessup’s six brothers and sisters, moved to Missoula, where he graduated from Sentinel High School in a special education class.
When he was 22, Jessup and his family moved to Bozeman, where he and Chadwick, along with all of his siblings, have lived ever since.
It was in Bozeman where Jessup not only grew into an avid sports fan; he became an accomplished athlete himself.
Jessup has competed in the Special Olympics numerous times in multiple sports, including basketball, track, swimming, biking and bowling.
“Michael can out-bowl any of his family,” his mother said.
When he’s not playing or watching sports, Jessup, who travels to each home game—rain or shine—on a blue and gold bike custom built by the Round House, a Bozeman sports shop, can be found working each weekday with Reach Inc., a nonprofit that provides a variety of services to adults with developmental disabilities.
With Reach’s assistance, Jessup lives independently and, according to the organization’s Community Relations and Development Director Dee Metrick, Jessup is a highly valued member of the Reach Work Center, which employs clients to assemble materials and pack products for a variety of local businesses, including Gibson Guitars, Mystery Ranch and Blackhawk.
“He’s really great at learning new tasks,” and is “definitely dependable,” Metrick said.
“Michael made himself,” Chadwick said. “He followed his own interests and became his own person.
“He just makes me proud.”
And though he works hard, Metrick said Jessup is always the person who is quick with a smile or a joke to cheer someone else up.
“He’s popular down here. I think of him as a really positive part of the Reach community,” she said.
For the Bobcats, Jessup belongs in a whole other category.
“He’s not only a part of our community,” Binford said. “He’s a part of our team.” ■