Vai's View: Time is right for BYU to honor Jim McMahon
Jim McMahon is on the cover of Sports Illustrated this week for the seventh time in his life. That's the exact same number as Steve Young, making them the most-featured SI cover boys in BYU's history. This cover is different than the previous six Jim has graced because it's about how his live-in girlfriend, Laurie Navon, who shares the cover, is dealing with Jim's early onset of dementia. According to the article, Jim is a part of a lawsuit against the NFL alleging the league "concealed information about the dangers of repeated blows to the head," that will be heard in U.S. District Court here in Philadelphia.
The NFL hasn't had great luck in Philadelphia courts, losing previous judgments on broadening its antitrust protection in 2010, and arbitration cases against Terrell Owens in '06 and, more recently, Drew Brees. Jimmy Mac is beloved in Philly for his years as an Eagle, and if that means anything, it may not bode well for the NFL in a Philadelphia court.
Eagles Nation loved Jimmy Mac for the take-no-prisoners style with which he played the game, which, sadly, probably contributed to his current condition. I've known Mac since I was 17 years old and saw him play that way at BYU.
Given Jimmy Mac's circumstances, I am calling on BYU to reconsider the policy of not allowing non-graduates into the school's hall of fame and induct Mac immediately as well as retire his No. 9 jersey. The school should do it this year. Do it while his faculties are still somewhat intact. Do it while he can appreciate the applause and the adoration of the people who watched him play and cheered for him in LaVell Edwards Stadium.
He returned last fall with the other BYU quarterbacks at the urging of his close friend and former teammate Tom Holmoe, now the athletic director, and also LaVell, and no one received a bigger ovation.
I think over time, even those who despised Jim for his antics, his lifestyle and his profanity have softened. So has he. A little. Enough that they got him to return to BYU's campus last year, something he once told me he'd never do.
Look, I understand how important a college degree is, especially when you're on a full athletic scholarship and someone else is paying the freight. Of course, I understand and appreciate it much more after I left BYU, like Mac and a host of others from our era. Some of us were knuckleheads. We weren't all like Steve Young and Devin Durrant. I didn't graduate on time, but returned years later to pick up my diploma. I also understand why the university sets the bar so high. I get it.
But I also believe that not everything in life is so cut and dry, so black and white. I think Mac's situation should be considered as a case-by-case basis.
The truth is, Jim doesn't really care that much about it, nor does he spend his days worrying about it. Obviously, right now, he has other things to worry about. But I believe BYU would show tremendous grace and class by making an exception. If ever anyone in BYU sports history deserved it, Jim McMahon does.
"I really don't care about it," Jim told me on the phone Friday. "It's never mattered to me."
It is worth noting, however, that Jim was only 10 credit hours shy of earning his diploma and there was a time when he registered to complete those hours of course work through BYU's independent study program — not so he could check that requirement off his hall-of-fame-requirements to-do list, but rather to finish what he started. Jim, you see, is as concerned about self-improvement as the rest of us. He just goes about it in his own unique way.
Unfortunately, the year passed before Jim completed the course requirements and now, considering his declining health, it isn't the same priority. Given his situation, wouldn't it be a tremendous gesture on the part of BYU to help facilitate Jim earning his final credit hours?
In my mind, no single player had more to do with ushering in BYU's place in college football history than Jim McMahon. Virgil Carter, Gary Sheide, Gifford Nielsen and Marc Wilson were a part of the foundation. Steve Young, Robbie Bosco and Ty Detmer were the beneficiaries. But Jim McMahon, as a player, is more responsible for ushering in BYU's Golden Era than anyone else. I'll concede that much of the attention he brought to BYU wasn't the kind BYU wanted, but oddly, it had the effect of distinguishing our morals, our standards because he DIDN'T conform.
Should he have lived the Honor Code with strict obedience? Of course. Were there honor code police who rummaged his trash for beer cans? Yep. Did Mac see inconsistencies and hypocrisy around him? Yes. He saw otherwise good LDS kids who strayed, had a drink or worse, but because they kept it hidden, their status in school and in the LDS Church remained intact. Jim was a lot of things, but he was never a hypocrite. He lived openly and without much care about how it looked.
We care so much about perception and appearances, sometimes we alienate people. Mohammed Elewonibi is one of BYU's two Outland Trophy winners. He was drafted in the third round in 1990 by the Washington Redskins and after he left Provo, he allowed his hair to grow into dreadlocks. In 1995, Moe came to the Eagles for a brief stint. One day we sat at his locker and talked about BYU. I asked how often he returned to campus.
"Only been back once," he told me. "And won't be back anytime soon."
"What happened?" I asked.
"I was there for a football banquet and an administrator said to me, 'You couldn't have gotten a haircut for the occasion?' " Maybe it was well-meaning. But one of BYU's greatest players hasn't been to Provo in two decades.
You can see Mohammed Elewonibi's Outland Trophy in the Student Athlete Center next to his jersey, but you won't see Moe. Neither he nor the other Outland winner, Jason Buck, ever graduated, so they're not in the BYU Hall of Fame. If there's a BYU sports hall of fame, those two should be in it along with McMahon. Otherwise, rename it the BYU sports graduates hall of fame.
I'm in BYU's Hall of Fame. Twice. Individually and with the 1984 team. Thankfully, they didn't cherry pick just the 1984 players who graduated for induction, otherwise, some of our key members who made the plays that kept us undefeated and win the national championship wouldn't have been honored.
I'm not self-deprecating in stating that one big reason I was inducted two months after my graduation was because of what I've done after leaving BYU. Frankly, I was a backup player who started two games my senior year but did well returning kicks. Even then, Utah's Erroll Tucker was the top return man in the conference and in the country. My BYU career didn't merit a place in the BYU Hall of Fame. But they made other considerations and factored in the totality of my life and whatever impact I've had on the program.
Which is what they should do with Jim McMahon.
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