PROVO — It was the University of Utah that gave Travis Uale his first chance to be part of a college football program, years ago, as a preferred walk-on. Later, the Utes were the first to see enough potential in him to want to put him on scholarship.
But now? Uale, a senior, is BYU's starting free safety and a team captain.
Go figure. When it comes to the intense BYU-Utah rivalry, there are many tales with intriguing twists and turns.
Uale, a Hawaii native, has an unusual perspective on the phenomenon that is BYU-Utah. And as the Cougars and Utes get set to battle Saturday (7:15 p.m., ESPN2), Uale explains that while he takes the game seriously, he doesn't take the rivalry personally.
"I have no bad feelings toward Utah. I had a great time there and I learned from a lot of good players," Uale said this week. "For me, it was more of a personal decision (to transfer to BYU). ... It's a big game. I don't feel any aggression because I used to play there. I think they're a great team and we're just excited to have the opportunity to play them early in the year."
Uale's path to BYU was paved by perseverance, according to coach Bronco Mendenhall.
"Travis is one of the best stories on our team, and maybe the player that I admire the most and respect the most," he said.
Coming out of Kamehameha High School in Hawaii, Uale (pronounced Oo-ah-leh) had applied at BYU, which was his first choice as the place to go to school and play football, but he was denied admission. Utah was the only school that showed enough interest in Uale to offer him preferred walk-on status, and Uale seized it.
After spending a semester with the Utes' defense — former Utah star and current San Diego Charger star Eric Weddle was on the team then — Uale departed for an LDS mission to Monterrey, Mexico. While serving, Uale felt strongly that he should go to BYU after his mission. But during his mission, another dilemma presented itself — he said Utah offered him a scholarship.
After contemplating the situation, Uale decided to turn down a scholarship from Utah and go to BYU, paying his own way, and starting over again, as a walk-on.
"It was more of a personal decision I made through prayer," he said. Uale was impressed with Mendenhall's faith-based list of priorities for the program.
"I felt like this is where I needed to be," Uale said. "(Mendenhall) talks about how football is fifth on our list. That really made an impression in my head coming off a mission, serving in the church and making football fifth and a lot of other things before that, was really appealing to me. So that's what caught my attention and made me feel comfortable as I transitioned here to BYU."
But still, getting into BYU wasn't easy. Uale "reapplied two or three more times and got in on the third time as a walk-on," Mendenhall said.
Soon after arriving at BYU, Uale met his wife, Lotomata. They were married in June 2009 and the couple has a young son. Uale said some of the reasons why he feels he was supposed to attend BYU are reasons that transcend football.
"One of the biggest positives (of transferring to BYU) was my wife," Uale said. "If I was the ugliest guy or if I broke my leg, she would still love me and I'd still have my son."
Meanwhile, Uale proved himself as a walk-on at BYU. In 2008, he received the Chris Hoke Personal Best Defensive Scout Award. He eventually received a scholarship, too.
Last year, Uale started nine games at free safety, and last spring, he was elected by his teammates to serve as one of four team captains. Despite suffering a rib injury during fall camp, Uale retained the starting job coming into the 2011 campaign.
"Just through perseverance, he ended up earning a scholarship after getting playing time and has been voted our captain," Mendenhall said. "Our staff was talking to Travis one day and he was really caring for a teammate at a pretty unusual level and helping him. Our staff was inquiring about why was he doing that. He just said, 'Because I love him.' Leadership is about service and that was coming from a player. So I think he taught our coaches a lot about leadership from that kind of comment. So he's remarkable."
In last week's 17-16 loss at Texas, Uale recorded nine tackles and an interception.
"Travis has the ability to put us in the right defenses. With the exception of one just play against Texas, he's doing that at a really high level," Mendenhall said, comparing Uale's play to predecessors at that position like Scott Johnson and Kellen Fowler. "It's not that they have dominant physical ability, but their ability to put us in the right positions. He's taking that role on at a very similar level as the other players had before him. And that's the most critical role at that spot."
"Travis is a great player," said BYU linebacker Jameson Frazier. "I trust that guy completely and I know that he's going to be making the right calls and he's not going to give up."
Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said this week that Uale "did a nice job for us here." He explained that the program did not have a scholarship for Uale upon his return from a mission, but Whittingham said he was working toward that end.
"He's a great kid and he had some athleticism and a good frame on him," Whittingham said. "We thought in our system he would make a good linebacker, but obviously he didn't rejoin us after the mission so it was a moot point."
Uale has taken the road less traveled, checkered with both red and blue. He couldn't be happier about finding at home at BYU.
"The journey was really long, looking back at it. I don't know if I'd be able to take it again," he said. "It was a hard road, but I'm glad I made the decision to come here."
Red & Blue
Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham: BYU linebacker (1978-81), graduate assistant (1985-86)20 comments on this story
Utah offensive coordinator Norm Chow: BYU assistant (1973-99)
Utah defensive coordinator Kalani Sitake: BYU fullback (1994, 97-2000), graduate assistant (2002)
Utah wide receivers coach Aaron Roderick: BYU wide receiver (1996-98), graduate assistant (2000-01)
BYU defensive line coach Steve Kaufusi: Utah graduate assistant/defensive line/ends coach (1994-2001)
Cougars, Utes on the air
Utah (1-1) at BYU (1-1)
Saturday, 7:15 p.m.
LaVell Edwards Stadium, Provo
Radio: 700 AM, 1160 AM, 102.7 FM
CONTRIBUTING: Dirk Facer