This is the story of the Kid Across the Street, the boy I watched grow up — and up and up and up — to became a starting guard on the BYU football team and a two-year member of the Outland Trophy Watch List. This does not surprise me at all, partly because I saw what Braden Hansen did to my mailbox.
Years ago, the kids in our neighborhood were playing a pickup game of football in my yard — I was permanent Q-Bee and the only one not wearing full pads and a helmet. I don't remember much about the game, but I do remember this: Braden crashed into my mailbox. I should note that my mailbox, which stands in the "end zone," is made of bricks and is about four feet tall and two feet wide. When Braden crashed into it, of course my first and only concern was for the mailbox. Was it OK? Did the big kid damage it? Did he knock some mortar loose?
It was fine.
Oh, and so was Braden.
If I were a college recruiter, I would have recruited Braden solely on the basis of that mailbox crash. Or this: I once saw him finish a fast break in a high school basketball game. Even if I hadn't seen him play a down of football, I would have signed him on the spot. People who are 6-foot-6 and 275 pounds should not be able to run up the court with guards and finish with a delicate, kiss-the-glass, finger-roll layup.
He has started every game for three straight years at BYU — 43 and counting, which puts him on pace to tie Matt Reynolds' school record of 52. He's 6-foot-6 and some change, 305 pounds — after slimming down from 330. He's getting calls from agents wanting to sign him after the season in preparation for the NFL Draft. Braden won't say much about it, but he did drop a one-game-at-a-time line on me. After the season-opener against Washington State, his father Lowell was on the sideline and peeked over the shoulder of an NFL scout who was taking notes. He saw Braden's name at the top of the list.
Everyone always knew Braden was going someplace in football. They just wanted him to get there fast and leave their kids alone. In little league, he was already so big and strong that parents from opposing teams accused Braden's team of cheating — Braden couldn't possibly be the same age as the other kids. This led to horrible arguments. Lowell responded by bringing his son's birth certificate to games. But it didn't help matters when Braden broke the arm of the opposing quarterbacks three times in one season.
At Alta High, his position coach was Bob Stephens, a former two-time all-conference center on BYU's Ty Detmer teams. He rode Braden so hard that Braden was upset. He couldn't understand the rough treatment. Finally, Stephens took him aside and explained he was doing this to help him prepare for the next level.
As Stephens says, "I told him, 'When you're at college bawling your eyes out and wondering why the coaches are so mean, you call me and we'll talk.' Sure enough, he called. I said, 'Braden, this is what I told you. They want to see how you respond when things get tough.' "
He was a preseason Sports Illustrated All-American at Alta High and a man among boys. They used him to run a trap play that should have been declared a health hazard. The right tackle would let the defensive end come unblocked. Just as the D-end turned the corner and thought he had a clear shot at the running back, Braden showed up, having sprinted behind the line from his left tackle spot to the far side of the line. You should've seen the look on that kid's face when he realized what was about to happen. It's the same look the people had in Jurassic Park when they were about to be eaten by T-Rex. With a running start, Braden knocked the kid into the next day.
On defense, where he played occasionally, he once picked up a quarterback like a big bag of groceries and threw him to the ground. I thought they were going to have to use shovels to dig that kid out of the ground. At BYU, they gave him a choice: Offense or defense. He chose offensive line, where his Uncle Danny once started for BYU. After being named to the freshman All-American team, he was slowed the next two seasons by injuries, although they never caused him to miss a start.
Assistant coach Lance Reynolds, a former NFL O-lineman himself, thought Braden was an NFL-caliber lineman the day he arrived. "He was as good as there was around," says Reynolds. "Then the injuries set him back. Certainly from a talent standpoint, he has (NFL) potential. He's just got to stay healthy."
If you think the NFL is rough and tough, you should have seen the Hansen household, which provided great entertainment to me for almost 20 years. Lowell and Kathy Hansen produced three boys in four years — Brock, Chase and Braden — before two daughters arrived, Kenzie and Gentrie. The boys were all big and physical, especially with each other (at one time they were all on the BYU football team). Between the wrestling matches and the Nerf basketball games in the basement, the Hansen's walls had more holes than Dennis Rodman's head.
Lowell and Kathy tried to fix them — the holes, I mean, not the boys — but couldn't keep pace with the damage. Once, shortly after all the holes had been patched and painted, Kathy found a large exercise mat standing up against the wall. She pulled the mat down to put it away and discovered that it was hiding a large hole.
"They'd be out playing basketball on the driveway and come in calling each other names and slamming doors, and five minutes later they're out there playing again," says Lowell. "They were best friends, but they were so competitive."
And where were the parents during the brotherly mayhem? Joining them, of course. The boys once chased their 6-foot mother around the house to include her in their wrestling shenanigans; she wound up with a chipped tooth. "We need some girls!" she told her husband. Lowell, a large, square-shouldered man, would engage the boys in wrestling matches, if not actually instigate them. He was always teasing and tackling them and challenging them to pickup games. He paid the price, collecting various injuries, including a broken arm and stitches. The boys could never take him in wrestling, but when they got older they jumped him in the basement one day and got their revenge. They duct-taped his mouth, tied his hands and legs to his ankles behind his back and painted makeup on his face, then left him in the basement. A half-hour later, Kathy asked them, "Where's your dad?"
"Um, he's a little bit tied up right now." (Giggle, giggle.)
Kathy searched the house and found him.
"I'm still going to get them back one of these days," says Lowell. "That was one of only two times I've been mad at them."
The other time was when Braden greeted his father's return home from work by hitting him with a snowball in his manly regions, after which Braden ran and hid in the basement.
I observed some of this over the years from across the street. I was just glad I didn't have to pay Lowell's grocery and medical bills.
Despite what you probably think at this point, Braden Hansen is a gentle giant, a popular, smiling, affectionate kid who wouldn't hurt anyone, not off the field anyway. He's the type of kid who ran to hug his mother when she showed up at the high school, as she often did as booster club president.
"Nicest guy in the world off the field," says Stephens, "but on the field, he was a %#$!!!."
My favorite story about Braden: Two years ago his youngest sister, Gentrie, faced a life-threatening health problem called Gastroparesis — a paralyzed stomach. She couldn't eat for a year. During one bad spell, she was continually pulling various tubes out of her body and had to be watched 24/7. It was exhausting and terrifying for the family. One night, Kathy and Lowell split duties — she stayed with Gentrie, and Lowell went to Braden's game at BYU. He arrived late in the first half, just in time to see Braden helped to the sideline with a knee injury that was believed to be serious at the time. Braden was in a lot of pain, but he showed up at the family home that night and told his parents to go to bed — he would spend the night with Gentrie.
Lowell gets tears in his eyes when he says, "That kid sat up in Gentrie's bed, leaning against the backboard, and held her in his arms all night long, with his knee wrapped up. That's love."
It wasn't the first or last time he did this for his sister.
He's not so gentle on brothers, football rivals and mailboxes, but little sisters are another matter.