Jim McMahon Sr. is 72 years old. His health is good, but after suffering a heart attack a few years ago, he doesn't take anything for granted.
"You never know how long you have," he says.
That's why he has decided to finish anything he considers to be unfinished business, and right at the top of the list is this little item: Get his son record-setting quarterback Jim McMahon Jr. inducted into the BYU Athletic Hall of Fame.
McMahon Sr. recently sent a letter to BYU athletic director Tom Holmoe, copied to former BYU coach LaVell Edwards, leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the Deseret News.
"I am writing this letter because it has been bugging me for over 25 years that my son Jim is not in the BYU Hall of Fame and that his jersey has not been retired," he wrote. "I am now 72 years old, and I do not have much time left, so I am putting in writing what has been in my heart the last 27 years."
His son tells him to forget about it. "Dad," he says, "Don't do this. They're not going to do anything about it." But his father persists.
"It ain't right what they're doing," says the elder McMahon when contacted at his home in Mesquite, Nev. "That's why I'm doing it. I've kept it to myself, but I finally said enough's enough. I want to see him honored the way he should be."
Then McMahon begins to recite a litany of his son's qualifications for the hall of fame, which is completely unnecessary. No one could ever question that McMahon's performance on the football field makes him a lock for the school's hall of fame.
Jim McMahon was the best quarterback ever to play at BYU, period. Better than Steve Young. Better than Ty Detmer. Better than any of them.
He was so good that an opposing defense once gave him a standing ovation after the game as he left the field. And that was after a rare loss. He was so good that Holmoe lays aside his normal A.D.'s diplomacy to say this: "He might be the best player who ever played at BYU, and in my position. I don't usually say things like that."
NCAA statisticians called McMahon the Babe Ruth of college football. He set 70 NCAA records, which is a record for records. He set records for passing efficiency, yardage, total offense, touchdowns. He did it despite sharing the quarterback job with Marc Wilson during his sophomore year. He did it despite repeatedly injuring his throwing shoulder and finally his knee in his senior year, which forced him to miss games and wear a 30-pound brace.
Detmer, who surpassed McMahon's career records, played in 10 more games than McMahon and threw nearly 500 more passes.
McMahon, at 6-foot-0, 185 pounds, lost only two starts in two years one in a Wyoming blizzard, the other a four-point decision at New Mexico. He quarterbacked BYU to its first two bowl victories ever, in 1980 and 1981. He threw for 4,571 yards and 47 touchdown passes in one season alone.
But it was more than numbers. He had uncanny vision and a computer-like mind for recognizing defenses and their weaknesses instantly, and he picked them apart with ridiculous ease. He found second, third and fourth receivers. He audibled routinely. It all came easily to him. He didn't need film sessions, which he loathed.
"He'd come into the (film) room, and in five minutes he'd tell you what was going on," former quarterback coach Norm Chow once said. "He knew it before the coaches did."
McMahon was a consensus All-American for two years, the MVP of the Western Athletic Conference for three years, and he was named the starting quarterback for the WAC's 25th anniversary team.
It isn't much exaggeration when McMahon Sr. says, "He put BYU on the map." Holmoe agrees: "He played a big part in what BYU is doing today."
In 1998, McMahon was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame.
But he's not in the BYU Hall of Fame because there's one thing he didn't do: graduate.
The BYU Athletic Hall of Fame requires all inductees to have completed their degrees.
McMahon Sr., believes the rule was created just to keep his son out of the hall. The quarterback had a reputation for flouting BYU's rules, and he turned Provo into Snitchville. Edwards fielded more than a few anonymous calls from people saying they saw McMahon commit some transgression. With curious timing, BYU kicked him out of school immediately after the 1981 Holiday Bowl which also marked the end of McMahon's eligibility. McMahon was nine credits short of graduation.
"If he was breaking all these rules, why did they wait five years?" asks McMahon Sr.
McMahon Jr., of course, went on to a professional football career, leading the Chicago Bears to the Super Bowl title in 1985, four years after leaving school.
Certainly, McMahon Sr. has found a sympathetic ear for his cause in Holmoe, one of McMahon's BYU teammates and a former NFL player and collegiate coach. After receiving McMahon Sr.'s letter, he made inquiries around campus and around the country. He discovered that BYU's hall had always required graduation of its inductees, and that it wasn't merely created for McMahon. He also learned that there are other schools that require hall of fame inductees to be graduates, and some that don't.
The University of Utah's hall does not require graduation. The College Football Hall of Fame also does not require its inductees to be graduates, "but it is preferred."
"That's understandable," says Holmoe. "The college hall of fame represents football; a university represents education and getting a degree."
But clearly it bothers Holmoe that McMahon is being left out of BYU's hall. It seems to be a glaring oversight, especially when all the other quarterback greats are in there. It's like inducting the Beatles, but excluding Paul.
"Rules are rules, and I didn't make them, but it's a hard thing not to see him in there," says Holmoe. "I love the guy. He's a great friend."
At least BYU has applied the rule consistently. There are a number of star athletes who are not in BYU's Hall of Fame because they didn't graduate, including Outland Trophy winners Jason Buck and Mo Elewonibi, All-American tight end Gordon Hudson and All-American defensive back Kyle Morrell.
The simplest remedy, of course, is for McMahon to finish his degree. A few years ago, he asked BYU officials about this, but "he decided against it because he's upset with them," says McMahon Sr. "He doesn't want to give them the satisfaction. He feels like he was treated badly by the way they let him go."
If McMahon changes his mind, Holmoe is there to help. He's worked with former BYU athletes who have returned to get their degree a task made much easier these days by the Internet. Vai Sikahema, another of McMahon's former teammates who went on to NFL stardom, returned to complete his degree in the spring of 2002, 17 years after he left school. He was inducted into the hall of fame later that year.195 comments on this story
"Some of these athletes can go on and have pro careers, and that's why they leave before they get their degrees," says Holmoe. "By the time they're done with their careers, it's pretty far down the road, and they don't necessarily need it. It's just a matter of wanting to do it and finding time."As for McMahon, Holmoe says, "I'll lay out any plan to get him in; it would be a great day."