BOZEMAN, MONT. – The Montana air was crisp and clean in a way only it is as Troy Andersen waded waist-deep into a freezing cold river, fly fishing rod in his grasp. He couldn't feel his hands but that's normal, a welcomed relief from the bite of the Montana cold.
It's early March and snow and ice cover the ground, yet he's in the water. Content.
Not long after the 2022 football season ended, his first with the Atlanta Falcons and first in the NFL, Andersen packed up his Toyota Tacoma - the same one he's had for a while now - and drove the 2,000 miles from Flowery Branch, Ga., to Bozeman, Mont. When he was about a day out, he called his sister Holly, asking if he could crash with her and her husband, a friend and former teammate, for a little while.
As Andersen left the Georgia heat and Atlanta traffic behind - the latter of which he very much dislikes - he felt himself becoming lighter. As roads became flat through the middle of America and as pristine, white mountain peaks began popping up in the distance, Andersen started to decompress.
He was almost home.
That drive and its symbolism wasn't lost on Andersen. Green hills turned to white snow as he drove on. All the while, the stress and hectic nature of a rookie season thawed even as the temperature around him dropped, eventually melting away the closer and closer he got to his destination: Montana. Home.
"The whole year, you had never done it before, so it was all uncertain and I guess that makes it challenging when you don't know what to expect," Andersen said of his rookie season in Atlanta. "But then, you get back here and I know everybody. I know the place. I get set in my routine here. It's a little more comfortable."
Comfort. Peace. Contentment. A swirl of feelings coincide with the swirl of the river around him as he flicks his line back and forth along the top of the water. He's happy. He's relaxed, perhaps in a way he hasn't been in a while.
For the last year, he's been trying to prove himself at the highest level.
After he wrapped up his final college season, Andersen went straight into training for the year ahead. There was little time to waste as he declared for the 2022 NFL Draft. The All-American, two-way player from Montana State was going to try his hand in the league and jumped right in without hesitation.
Andersen went to the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala. He made his way to Indianapolis for the NFL combine, where he ran a blazing 4.42 40-yard dash. He came back to Montana, trained some more, worked out with NFL scouts and coaches at his pro day. His name was called in the second round of the 2022 NFL Draft by the Falcons. He moved to Atlanta. He went through rookie minicamp, OTAs, training camp and the entire 2022 season.
For a year, he was nonstop.
"You're proving yourself all over again that you deserve to be there," Andersen's mom, Nicole, said of her son's first year in the NFL. "... We didn't realize how stressful that was for him. It really was."
That's why that drive from Georgia to Montana was so important for Andersen. It's why the time away was healthy. It's why he could finally take a breath, breathing in the air that shaped him. Because that's what Montana did, and what it still does for him.
Andersen's dad, Scott, is a fourth generation cattle rancher. So, Andersen himself is no stranger to hard work, work that doesn't stop. It's all he has ever known, from the time he was five years old, hopping on a four wheeler to bring lunch out to his dad in the field.
Work on a cattle ranch is a discipline. It's early mornings in the frigid cold, but it's work that's rewarding. And from a young age, Andersen had the example of what hard work could yield.
"Watching our parents work and do this job that's nonstop, 24/7, there's not really weekends when you're taking care of animals," Andersen's sister, Holly, said. "I think watching that work ethic really played into both Troy's and my futures moving forward."
Andersen's work ethic wasn't lost on anyone throughout his life, not those in his hometown of Dillon, Mont., or his college town in Bozeman. That work ethic is something that is in him because it's the example he was raised with, by a family that was always around.
Join us as we visit the Andersen family cattle ranch in Dillon, Montana, as part of a long-form Atlanta Falcons feature exploring the origins of Troy Andersen's Montana roots.
"He embodies a work ethic that is pretty common for Montana ranchers, particularly southwest Montana ranchers," said Zach McRae, Beaverhead County High School's current head football coach. "... It's a part of leadership, too, that you just go in and work. That's what he means to us. He embodies a guy that no matter what, he works his tail off and still loves home."
Home. Dillon. Bozeman. Montana. It's all a part of Andersen as much as anything, and perhaps that's why his story is so captivating, and why people there appreciate him so much.
"He's just our guy," McRae said.
And that's why Andersen means so much to Montana. It's because he is Montana, born and raised and excelling. The successes and stressors that made him all happened within this snowy, mountainous and all together wild landscape.
"You go to Montana State but the whole state of Montana, I mean there are (University of Montana) fans that are Troy Andersen fans," Andersen's former high school football coach Rick Nordahl said. "It's just the way that he's done it."
When it came time to make a decision as to where he would take his talents in college, the multi-sport state champion and valedictorian of Beaverhead County High didn't toy around with many ideas.
Then Montana State head coach Jeff Choate, now with Texas, didn't have to do much convincing to keep Andersen in Montana. He wanted to stay. He wanted to play for the Bobcats. There's something to be said about that, current Montana State head coach Brent Vigen said.
"I think any time you have an in-state guy like him develop here, excel here and make his way here, I think that's a story that can be told for a long, long time," Vigen said.
What's most interesting about Andersen as a construct is that he's a new age linebacker with an old school story.
In the 80s and 90s, linebackers were big, brawny and brutish. They were bulldogs. They wore the neck braces and brought the thunder. Now, and in the last 20 years, they're lightning. They're speed and agility. They're dobermans, and that's Andersen.
He's an embodiment of the modern linebacker, but his story and how he got to the league is timeless, but less common now than ever before with the implementation of the transfer portal at the college level. At any point, he could have left Montana. But he didn't.
"That bond between him and this program, him and our state, I think is something that maybe in this day and age is becoming less and less," Vigen said. "So, to have that and being able to have this kind of old fashioned story, so to speak, is pretty special."
For Andersen himself, the support he has received over the years from those around the state still touches his heart.
"It's a unique place, and the people here are genuine and kind and care for one another regardless if you've ever met or not," Andersen said from a snow-covered river bank just outside of Bozeman. "I've had people who have reached out and I don't know them. I've never met them and they don't know me, but they're just so supportive and believe in me.
"They're like, 'Hey! We're rooting for you.' That's pretty cool, and you don't find that in a lot of places."
Those from Montana see themselves in Andersen. They see the quiet confidence. They see how he goes about his work: Head down, get it done. They see the humble nature, how he'd much rather talk about anything else but himself.
They see the story and it feels similar to their own. Andersen was raised on a ranch, where work - hard work, nonstop work - reigns. He was raised in the unforgiving cold of a Montana winter, the cold only those who live there know. He was raised in the freedom wildness brings, the wildness of this place and the beauty in it. It's what connects him to the people of Montana, even now as he's an NFL linebacker, a former second round pick.
It's why he's theirs and they're his, with Montana roots connecting them all.
More than anything, they respect the work, and he respects and understands theirs. And when he returns home, to decompress on the banks of a Montana river, they understand that, too.
They're just proud to have him back, even for a moment.
"It's not a fairytale," Nordahl said of Andersen's story, "because he deserves everything that he's earned."