BYU, Utah Utes football: A lot of gray mixed with blue and red
SALT LAKE CITY — Tony Bergstrom just laughs when someone asks how it feels to still be playing college football at the age of 25.
"I've got grandkids. Me and J.J. Williams (another 25-year-old Ute) are walking around here, as old as can be, limping around with our canes. We're playing with all these guys who aren't even 21 yet."
Bergstrom, Utah's starting right tackle, graduated from Skyline High clear back in 2004. He's one of several "old men" who will be on the field this week when BYU and Utah meet in a game that undoubtedly features the two oldest teams in major college football.
Most players start college at age 18 and if they play four straight years, they'll finish when they're 21 or 22. If they redshirt a year, it means they are seniors at 22 or 23. An injury could push it back another year.
Look at a couple of opponents for BYU and Utah this year. Mississippi doesn't have a player older than 23 and only five players that old. USC also has five 23-year-olds and two 24-year-olds.
At Utah and BYU, many players take two years off for two-year LDS missions, which puts them back a couple of years, meaning they might finish college when they are 24 or 25 or older. BYU lists 76 players as returned missionaries, while Utah has 30 with a dozen out in the field. Combined, that's close to half the 200-plus players on the two teams.
Over the past couple decades since more and more Cougar players have been serving missions, they have been criticized for having an unfair advantage with older, experienced players. They have countered that while there may be an advantage in age, it is negated by the two years of limited physical development.
Still, every few years, someone makes a big deal of the ages of BYU players. This year it was Mississippi coach Houston Nutt, who a few days before the season opener against the Cougars, said, "I wish I had a few more 25 or 26 year-old guys. … There is a great feeling as a coach to have that kind of maturity … BYU has a good thing going where they are able to do that."
BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall never shies away from the fact that most of his team consists of returned missionaries and that players are encouraged to go on missions. But he says any advantage depends on your perspective.
He tells the story from a decade ago when he was at New Mexico and once during a team meeting, a fellow coach asked how they could possibly beat BYU with all their returned missionaries.
Then the next year when he was at BYU as the defensive coordinator and as the Cougars were getting ready to play USC, a fellow coach said, "How are we going to beat them … all we have are a bunch of returned missionaries."
Nutt might have been right about the maturity angle, but is exaggerating about the ages.
BYU has just one 26-year-old in USC transfer Hebron Fangupo and a handful of 25-year-olds. In fact just a dozen of the players on BYU's 116-man roster are 24 or older, barely 10 percent.
That's about the same as Utah, which counts 11 players 24 or older, led by Tyler Whittingham, coach Kyle Whittingham's oldest son, who is 26 and plays mostly for the Ute scout teams.
The Cougars do have a lot of 22- and 23-year-old players, while Utah, aside from freshmen, has mostly 21- and 22-year-olds. Among the 24 and older players at BYU are significant contributors such as Terence Brown, Jameson Frazier, Bryan Kariya, Matt Reynolds and Travis Uale.
Unlike most teams that are pretty balanced between 19, 20 and 21-year-olds, it makes for an interesting dynamic on the Ute and Cougar squads when there is such a wide disparity of ages.
"When I played BYU my senior year, I was 25, and Brian Johnson was 17 years old," said Utah assistant coach Morgan Scalley. "He was in grade school when I was a freshman. That kind of puts things in perspective."
Scalley doesn't believe it's a big deal to have such a disparity with a lot of older players. "It always has been that way when Utah plays BYU," he said.
Bergstrom for one, believes there is an advantage to being older and playing against younger players
"I think my body has had a good time to develop being an older guy doing the two-year mission thing," he says. "I came home in pretty good shape and had a good chance for my body to develop. I think guys when they're older are able to come in and play right off the bat. I was able to do that. And your mind is much more developed."
While Whittingham and Mendenhall may not believe there is much physical advantage to older players, they do agree with Nutt on the maturity factor.
"They bring a maturity to your team," Whittingham said. "Older guys are usually pretty low maintenance as far as understanding the importance of going to class and many are married — we have about a dozen married players — which also has a grounding effect on the players. They see the big picture a lot better."
"You have young men who are more mature, more conscientious, with better leadership skills and are more driven," said Mendenhall. "And that to me is a tremendous advantage, if you can do all the other parts correctly."
Bergstrom points out that last year when Utah and BYU played it was "the most returned missionaries on the field in the history of college football."
That record may be broken Saturday, and as usual, it will be the oldest guys in the country doing battle.
"It's nice," Bergstrom says. "We're going to go down there and I'm not going to be the only old one on the field."
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