BYU-Utah rivalry doesn't keep friends from connecting

By Chad Lewis

Deseret News

Published: Wednesday, Nov. 24 2010 10:00 p.m. MST

University of Utah running backs' coach Wayne McQuivey recruited Bryan. He was an inspirational man who had recruited my older brother, Mike, to play for the Utes a few years earlier. Mike was just returning from his mission for the LDS Church during our senior year and wanted Bryan as a companion and fellow Ute in Salt Lake City. The recruiting process was intense.

Bryan decided to go to Utah, and he had an illustrious career that helped Utah turn the corner and become a strong and relevant program.

As soon as high school graduation came around, Bryan and I, after spending nearly every day together for 10 years, didn't do much together for the next decade. Bryan got ready to play college football at the U. I attended school at Utah Valley State College (now Utah Valley University), because Utah coach Jim Fassel thought I had a chance to be a tight end after my LDS mission if I grew like Mike, who was also a late bloomer.

Bryan and I were at different schools for the first time in our lives. He was so busy with his summer workouts that we didn't get to see each other very often. Once school started, we only saw each other after his games. He was rooming with Mike, so that helped us get together some of the time as well. But it was nothing like before.

BYU and Utah

When I came home from an LDS mission to Taiwan, instead of going to the U. to walk on as a tight end, I chose not to play football but to enroll at BYU and become a doctor like my dad. Several miracles took place in my life, and I ended up walking on at BYU, and things went much better than I could have ever imagined.

My freshman year at BYU was Bryan's senior year at the U. That season's rivalry matchup was at BYU, and Utah beat us with a last-second, mile-long field goal. Bryan and I went against each other a few times on special teams. He was one of the gunners on the kickoff team, and I was on our kick return team. It was a fun game, and we had fun going against each other. The game was made famous when the Utah players jumped on the north end zone goal post and tried to rip it down.

Without thinking, I strapped on my helmet and ran into a sea of red players. Their attention turned from the goal post to my freckled face, and a small battle ensued. A bunch of my teammates ran down into the crowd before I was outnumbered. Even though Bryan was right in the middle of the sea of red, we never had hard feelings toward each other over it. We always loved and respected each other and never let our loyalty to our own school and team destroy our relationship.

For the next several years, as Bryan went into business and I played for BYU and the Eagles; he and I only saw each other here and there. I knew he was not going to church, and I knew that the effects of a hard life were starting to wear on him. I had seen similar things happen with some of my teammates, and I could see in his eyes that he was struggling. It was heartbreaking for me. I didn't know what to say or do. I loved him and wanted things to be better for him.

The call

Following his estranged wife and daughter east, Bryan called that night from the very same part of New Jersey where I had lived for the nine years I was playing for the Eagles.

Vai Sikahema had been the bishop of our LDS ward. After playing football for BYU and then enjoying a great Pro Bowl career in the NFL as a kick returner for the Cardinals and the Packers, he finished his career with the Eagles and settled there. By the time of Bryan's call, Vai was serving as a member of the stake presidency that oversaw that and other LDS wards in the region, and he was living only a few miles from where Bryan was calling.

I told Bryan about Vai and knew that if anyone on the planet could help Bryan, it was Vai. Bryan was a Ute through and through and didn't think highly of too many BYU players. I was one of the few he liked. I assured him that Vai was not like anyone he had ever met, that Vai was someone he would absolutely love. I told Bryan that I would call Vai, who would be calling him shortly.

Vai knew me about as well as anyone, and I knew Vai would understand the gravity of my request the second he heard my voice. What happened next was a miracle. It was a tender mercy of the Savior that Bryan's call for a lifeline was answered by Vai, the one person in the universe who was uniquely blessed in so many ways to answer the call.

Friday: Vai Sikahema recalls reaching out to Bryan Rowley, and how Rowley blessed his family.

Chad Lewis is the NFL Ambassador to Asia. He is a three-time All-Pro tight end and a BYU Academic All-American. His book, "Surround Yourself with Greatness," was published in 2009.

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