Dick Harmon: Former BYU athlete Gary Furniss is humbled by reception
PROVO — A blast from the past blew through Utah on Friday and if you gauge the humility of former athletes long since retired from the game, Gary Furniss would be at the top of your list.
Furniss once played for one of the most storied basketball programs in Idaho history at Teton High in Driggs. It was a team that carved out the 19th longest win streak in U.S. high school history. The Teton drama reminded one of the 1986 movie "Hoosiers."
Furniss, a 6-foot-8 post man, once averaged more than 25 rebounds a game for Teton, then went to Utah State, served an LDS Church mission, and finished his career at BYU where he played with Danny Ainge on that Elite Eight NCAA tournament team, finishing his career guarding Ralph Sampson in a Cougar loss to Virginia.
In that game, Furniss scored the go-ahead bucket with 18 seconds to play, but the Cougars could not finish in victory.
Since then, Furniss married a TV anchor, got divorced, married Finau Tukuafu, is the father of six children (Jenna, Sarah, Lola, Gary, Samuel and Anna). He currently serves in an LDS bishopric in the San Francisco Bay area and he was in Provo taking some of the youth from his LDS ward on a tour of campus.
As Furniss walked about the Student Athlete Building, he was humbled to tears as BYU athletic director Tom Holmoe greeted him and helped arrange an impromptu, unscheduled tour. Holmoe played football at the same time as Furniss' hoop career.
The moment kind of hit Furniss right in the heart.
It had been ages since he'd been an athlete on campus. Still, folks remembered him in front of his neighbors on tour and it got to him.
The weight of what that can mean to be an athlete in terms of setting an example, trying to show character, live a good life and spin experiences in sports into something greater than self — "Well, it is an important part of it all, I can see that now," he said.
In "Hoosiers," the character Myra Fleener, talking about star player Jimmy Chitwood, said to coach Norman Dale:
"You know, a basketball hero around here is treated like a god, er, uh, how can he ever find out what he can really do? I don't want this to be the high point of his life. I've seen them, the real sad ones. They sit around the rest of their lives talking about the glory days when they were 17 years old."
Dale answers: "You know, most people would kill … to be treated like a god, just for a few minutes."
Back in the day, Teton played in packed gyms where police had to lock the doors and send people away. Everyone wanted to see if the win streak would continue.
At BYU, Furniss played before sellout Marriott Center crowds.
His former Teton teammates have stepped up in their communities, some as very successful businessmen, church leaders, one is a doctor in Idaho Falls and several are coaches. They've made the most of themselves in life — their moments in the sun didn't fade.
"I've done some things in my career but it hasn't all been what I'd (have) liked it to be. This is why it means so much to me to come back to a place like this and be respected."
It humbled Furniss Friday when some remembered him upon his return.
At one point, he asked for a minute while he regained composure.
"It's not about welcoming back just the All-Americans, the superstars, the name players, it means something to be recognized as a father, a person trying to do the right things and trying to build character."
He admonished athletes near and far to remember how important their roles are, how lucky they are and how they can make a difference off the court and field in things that matter most.
Accompanying Furniss on his trip was his LDS bishop, Wilson Lee. One of the youth in the group was Jay Kaho, a big lineman who plays for a private school in Union, Calif. Of course, Furniss introduced Kaho to his wife's cousin, BYU defensive line coach Steve Kaufusi. The group toured Temple Square and other famous historical sites to educate them on their heritage.
Furniss and his group leave on the return trip to California Saturday morning.
In his rearview mirror, Furniss will leave a few moments of talking the talk and walking the walk, all aside from the bouncing ball.
He knows importance of the balance.
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