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BOZEMAN – Dawson Ahrenstorff has an eye for a good camera angle and a nose for a good story. Those skills have earned the recent Montana State University film graduate a job with one of the top athletics departments in the country as well as an opportunity to premiere his first documentary. His film, “Miracle in Missoula,” debuts at 6 p.m. Friday, May 13, at the Emerson Center for Arts and Culture.

Ahrenstorff graduated from MSU in December with a degree in film and is now working as a creative content producer with the storied Louisiana State University athletics program. But in 2018 he was a student in the MSU School of Film and Photography in the College of Arts and Architecture with a part-time job with the Bobcat Athletics film crew.

Fate and an instinct for a camera angle put Ahrenstorff in a position to film the definitive last seconds of a defensive stand by the MSU Bobcats that resulted in a stunning 29-25 Bobcat victory over the rival University of Montana Grizzlies in Missoula. Ahrenstorff said many believe the game was one of the greatest games in the rivalry’s history. The Bobcats had trailed until late in the second half, yet UM was poised to score and go ahead until an epic goal-line stand and a fumble recovery by MSU’s defense turned the tables at a sold-out Washington Grizzly Stadium.

Photo Courtesy of MSU
Photo Courtesy of MSU

“It is the greatest football game that I’ve ever seen, and to be able to do a story on it and do it justice was my goal,” said Ahrenstorff, who maneuvered into a prime spot in the endzone and changed his camera lens from a long to a wide-angle lens to capture the action for posterity.

Ahrenstorff’s clip might have been relegated to social media feeds during the November rivalry season were it not for his MSU documentary film class.

Film professor Cindy Stillwell asked the members of her class to write down three ideas for a short documentary film to be made into a student film. Ahrenstorff believed that even though a couple of years old, the “Miracle in Missoula” was a story worth retelling. His first effort was a seven-minute student film.

The film major from Spirit Lake, Iowa, said that after making the film for his class, he became convinced that there was a larger story to tell about the game as well as the storied athletic rivalry and that it deserved a bigger canvas, so he expanded it nearly six-fold. He said the film does tell the story of the history of the MSU-UM rivalry. It also tells the story of the recent rise of the MSU Bobcat football program.

“I came (to MSU) as a freshman during Coach Jeff Choate’s second year, and I was really able to see his step-by-step gradual ascent of bringing Montana State to the national spotlight. Now we are making a run at the national championship,” Ahrenstorff said. He said the 2018 upset game in Missoula, during which recent NFL draftee Troy Andersen played quarterback, was emblematic of the team’s climb.

“We always kind of joked about, hey, this would make a pretty great ESPN ‘30 For 30.’”

A crowd-funding campaign confirmed that. The film raised $12,000 within 48 hours. Ultimately the film raised about $20,000, which covered nearly all costs, Ahrenstorff said. During the production phase, he was involved with nearly every aspect of the film.

“I had to wear a lot of hats,” Ahrenstorff said. He said that he did get important help from Garrett Becker, the video coordinator with Bobcat Athletics creative department, and his film school classmates and credited his training in the film school to prepare him for the effort. “It really opened my eyes that it takes a village to produce a documentary. There’s a lot that goes into making a feature film. I learned something every single day.”

Stillwell said Ahrenstorff worked hard to fit the story in the seven-minute time limit for the class project, and as they workshopped the film in class there was a lot of talk about how to take the film to the next level.

“The legendary game seemed a great opportunity to get deeper into the Montana ‘Bobcat-Griz’ rivalry, to blend sports story and cultural story, and to highlight the characters involved,” Stillwell said. “Dawson could see the potential for a longer film.”

 Ahrenstorff’s own story is also compelling. An athlete who grew up on a farm in Iowa, he knew that he wanted to study film.

“I also knew I wanted to experience something farther away from home,” he said of his decision to attend MSU. “Montana State has a great film program so that enticed me to come to Bozeman.”

Ahrenstorff said that, within his first weeks on campus, he reached out to Becker and “asked if they needed help filming on Saturdays, and it took off from there.” He said that every year he became more involved in videotaping for athletics.

“(Athletics) is a very different genre of film,” he said. However, Ahrenstorff said that he believes stories are even easier to tell through the lens of sports.

“Being able to go on court or field every single weekend and come up with a story that could change people’s life is pretty amazing,” he said.

Bill Lamberty, Bobcat assistant athletic director in charge of media, said that, during his time with Bobcat Athletics, Ahrenstorff distinguished himself with his talent, creativity and a strong work ethic.

“But to pull off a project of (Miracle in Missoula’s) magnitude is beyond impressive,” Lamberty said. “The amount of effort Dawson put into completing the film as his capstone project and then expanding it into one for public consumption was next level. He's a terrific person with enormous talent who is bound for great things."

The film turned out to be a great audition tape for Ahrenstorff’s job search after graduation. He landed interviews for media positions at several different places and picked a job as a creative content producer at LSU Athletics. The Tigers won the College Football Playoff National Championship in 2019 and the team is a perennial powerhouse.

 “LSU was what I was looking for in daily workflow and producing content on a daily basis,” Ahrenstorff said. “This is the area I truly want to be in. Sports is a great avenue for telling stories and this is a great place to tell them.”

He said that in the short term, he plans to submit “Miracle” to film festivals.

 “And my goal, in the long run, is working on documentaries full time.”

 Tickets to the “Miracle in Missoula” premiere are still available. To purchase them, visit

 - by Carol Schmidt, MSU News -

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