Tom Smart, Deseret News
Editor's note: The following is an excerpt from the book "Cougar Converts: Life-Changing Stories from BYU Athletics," By Talo Steves, Jedd Parkinson and Matt Hodge, published by Totalbluesports.com.
It was a difficult and often dangerous life for a child growing up in Columbus, Ga. Drug dealers, burglaries and violence were commonplace, and after witnessing it all firsthand, young Corby Eason decided that he didn’t want to live that way.
Corby’s mother, Teresa, also wanted a better future for her son. A strict parent, she established a strong religious foundation for her family in the Southern Baptist faith. Teresa was a secretary in the Southern Baptist Church and made sure her son was involved with the religion seven days a week.
Looking back on his childhood, Eason has great love and appreciation for the direction and guidance he received from his mother.
“Being raised by my mom, by herself, that was the best thing that ever happened to me,” Eason recalled. “She taught me the key values: my faith, being in tune with our Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ, going to church every Sunday, being part of Bible study every week. That’s the only way I made it through my circumstances. I love her so much. Teresa Eason, that’s my hero. If it weren’t for her and her teaching, I wouldn’t be here where I am today.”
Life was difficult and money was frequently scarce, but that didn’t stop Eason from pursuing his dreams and enjoying his childhood. During summer vacation from school, he and his friends would often pass the time fishing. Unable to afford bait, they would get up early in the morning to collect bait, then jump on their bicycles and ride to the local fishing hole.
Eason was also a gifted athlete and learned to play football in a sandlot near his home. There was no grass field to play on, just the dirt and the rocks, but that didn’t deter Eason and his friends. In fact, they played tackle football on that field of dirt and rocks. “I say it made me the athlete I am now, being tough,” Eason said. “(I) don’t care about pain or anything because I played on these rocks.”
Eason excelled at football while at Carver High School, where he was coached by Wallace Davis and Dell McGee. “For his size he was one of the best athletes that a fella ever has the opportunity to work with,” Coach Davis recalled. “Off the field, Corby took on the role of a son to me. I was able to interact with him more or less like a father.”
After graduating high school, Eason had an opportunity to continue his education and his football career at Erie Community College in Buffalo, N.Y. He quickly left an impression on the field, recording two interceptions, 15 pass breakups, one forced fumble, five fumble recoveries and a blocked field goal that he returned for a touchdown during his freshman year.
With a reported 4.4 second 40-yard dash, the 5-foot-8-inch cornerback soon received a scholarship offer from Marshall University and was hearing from various schools around the country, including Arizona State, UCLA, Vanderbilt and Maryland. Brigham Young University was not initially one of the schools recruiting Eason, so when a BYU coach came to town to recruit another player, he decided to initiate the conversation on his own.
“BYU came out to see one of my teammates, Andre Kates,” Eason said. “So they came to see the other cornerback who played on the other side of me. Coach (Patrick) Higgins came out and was talking to him, but Andre had to come back (to Erie) for one more year. Me, I was eligible out of high school so I could leave without waiting another year.
“My J.C. head coach knew that and didn’t want me to talk to Coach Higgins because he knew that I had the opportunity to leave, so he told me to go to class. I disobeyed him, which was wrong, but in the long run it was the right decision for me.”
Eason not only disobeyed his coach’s orders to go back to class, but he also had to hide in the football office until Higgins had finished his meeting with Kates. The meeting took more than two hours, but Eason was determined to wait as long as necessary and stayed hidden around a corner until the meeting was over.
“After Coach Higgins talked with Andre in the office, I just stayed outside for around two hours and missed my class,” Eason explained. “I got the opportunity to talk to him when he came out and I showed him my highlight tape.”
Looking back at that experience, Eason credits his persistence and stubbornness with earning him a chance to play football at Brigham Young University. “By being stubborn and not listening to my coach, that was the difference in me being here at BYU today.
“I have to say, it was the best decision for me in the long run. My coach was a bit upset but I had to do what was best for me and my family, and staying outside that office to talk to a BYU coach was the best decision I made.”
Higgins and the rest of the Cougar coaching staff were impressed with the highlight tape and within a week, Eason was on a flight to Utah for an official visit to the Provo campus. Soon after the visit, he officially committed to play for the Cougars and began making plans to move to Provo.
“I really felt comfortable at BYU on my trip and that’s why I committed," Eason explained. “It was a clean place and they call it ‘Happy Valley,’ and I can see why after being there. I couldn’t believe how friendly everyone was: the coaching staff, the players, everyone. I just felt at home from the second I arrived on campus.”
While Eason was not LDS, he felt very comfortable in BYU’s unique environment. When asked after his visit how he felt about BYU’s standards and honor code, he replied, “That’s a plus in my mind. BYU is a clean place and I really felt comfortable there with everything,” Eason said. “I’m going there to play football and get an education. That’s what is important and BYU is the place that can best help me focus on those things.”
The full-ride scholarship to play football for BYU gave Eason the opportunity to pursue his goals of playing Division I football and earning a college diploma. Eason also experienced a spiritual reawakening after beginning his studies in Provo. "Before I came out here I kind of got away from God a little bit, but when I came out here I just got closer and closer to my Heavenly Father," Eason said. "Being here has really helped me grow spiritually and get back to what's really important. It really is a wonderful place and I'm just grateful that I had the chance to be here."
The outgoing Eason soon made friends with his teammates, including fellow defensive backs Brian Logan, Andrew Rich, Brandon Bradley and Scott Johnson. The five teammates spent a lot of time together and Eason was soon singing the praises of BYU when speaking to his family and friends back home in Georgia.
“I talk to my other friends back home about how it is out here,” Eason said during his first year at BYU. “I even called my best friend Jarmon Fortson, the starting wide receiver for Florida State, and told him how it is out here. I talked to him about how the people treat us out here. They treat us great.
“It’s been great and this has been one of the best places I’ve ever been,” Eason continued. “Actually, I love it here better than I do at home. I mean, the community is so friendly out here. I’m from the South and things are kind of different down there, but out here they don’t care and like you as is. It’s like family out here.”
As non-LDS players who were part of the same recruiting class, Eason and Logan soon became close friends and their discussion topics included their religious beliefs. BYU head coach Bronco Mendenhall took a special interest in assisting Eason, Logan and the other non-LDS players on the team with their spiritual growth. Looking back on that experience, Logan described the unique relationship.
"Coach Mendenhall is a special head coach,” said Logan. “I always joke around with Corby that Coach Mendenhall is like this prophet because he has this glow about him. He really is a spiritual person and the thing I liked is he has never, never, ever thrown or pushed his faith on me. I know this goes for the rest of the guys as well. He's always tried to help me out to become stronger in my faith and my personal relationship with God."
Eason echoed his teammate’s thoughts, recounting how BYU helped him to get back to the religious ideals his mother had taught him.
"Being here has really helped me grow spiritually. It really is a wonderful place because it's really helped me get back to what's important and grow closer to God.” Eason noted at the time how Coach Mendenhall helped him to grow as a Baptist, and how he made sure that those players who were not LDS participated in religious firesides and were able to share their testimonies.
"It's wonderful because Coach Mendenhall wants everyone to be involved in the firesides," said Eason back in 2010. "Those are not just for members of the LDS faith, but for us too. I plan on talking at one of the firesides, as well as Brian Logan. Coach Mendenhall wants us to share our experiences about how we are disciples of Christ, and that's going to be wonderful. I can't wait to have that experience.
“Looking back as a kid and seeing my mom, being a single mother, taking me to church every Sunday, I remember she would go to Bible study every night and I would go to the nursery and play with the kids. Even when I got in high school she would make me go to church youth groups, so now that I'm in college it's great to have that support from Coach Mendenhall and the rest of the staff here at BYU." ...
Eason played in 12 of 13 games as a sophomore as he got his feet wet at the Division I level. As he began his junior season in 2010, Eason became a much greater force on the football field. He became part of the regular rotation, backing up friend and teammate Brandon Bradley at the boundary corner position. Given increased playing time, Eason quickly left his mark.
In addition to 22 tackles, including 20 solo takedowns, Eason also had 3.5 sacks. The sack number was good enough for second-best on the team — an amazing accomplishment for a backup cornerback. Eason also excelled in the classroom, being named to the Mountain West Conference All-Academic team for the second year in a row.
While Eason was raising his performance on the field and continuing to shine in the classroom, he was also experiencing some big changes off the field. With two games remaining in the regular season, Eason announced to his teammates and coaches that he would be baptized a member of the LDS Church.
Looking back on his conversion process, Eason described how every morning he would look out his window, see Mount Timpanogos and thank God he was in Provo. “Just being out here and learning more about the church has made me happy. I believe the church is true,” Eason said.
When asked how he came to believe that, Eason said, “I found out the church was true through prayer. I felt the Spirit and felt the Holy Ghost like I haven't before.
“I just remember on my first day in Provo I felt something. I’m a curious guy. I always want to know how things work, why things work. When I came to BYU I did everything that I was supposed to do. I followed the honor code and for some reason I still wasn’t as happy as my other teammates.
“I was curious about what I was missing and I started talking to Andrew Rich and Brandon Bradley more about the church and praying about it and praying more about it and reading the scriptures, the same scriptures that Joseph Smith read, James 1, verse 5. Just reading this scripture and just pondering about my decision, it was a wonderful feeling.”
As Eason walked down into the baptismal font on Nov. 18, 2010, he saw many familiar faces standing quietly in support.
The person who had the honor of performing Eason’s baptism also happened to be the person he played behind: Bradley. Bradley, who joined the church along with his family while he was a high school student in Florida, played a special role in Eason’s spiritual journey.
"Ever since I've been here, I've been talking to (Bradley) about the experience he went through with his family and the church,” said Eason. “I love it and really understood more about it. Like, he would answer my questions and was always there for me. He was really a big help to me in learning and understanding."
"I'm excited too!" said Bradley a few days before the baptism. "It's been a long road for Corby and I've been able to sit in on some of the discussions, and it's been good just learning and understanding and living by how he's been taught. I'm excited for him and he's really excited about it and looking forward to it. I'll be there to support him every step of the way."
Without reviewing any film, Coach Mendenhall offered Bradley a scholarship while he was still serving a mission in Sao Paulo, Brazil. Bradley had committed to Louisville out of high school and wasn’t sure that BYU was the right place for him, but the decision to attend BYU after his mission came by way of an answered prayer.
While at BYU, Bradley still had one more missionary task to fulfill even though he no longer wore a missionary nametag. "I've tried to do whatever I could to help (Eason) understand the questions he may have," a humble Bradley said with a laugh. "I let him know it's going to be a tough decision, but it's the right decision. I was basically just being me and doing whatever I can and supported him in every step of the way, so I can't take too much credit for it. I think Heavenly Father deserves most of the credit."
Meanwhile, Eason was confirmed by E.J. Caffaro, director of the Student Athlete Academic Center at BYU. "He's been a great help to me, and so I asked him if he would do it," said Eason. Those in attendance at the baptismal service described Eason as happy, humble and sincere. Three of Corby’s teammates sang a song and Mendenhall gave a short talk. ...
As Eason completed his junior season, he had more exciting experiences ahead of him. In January of 2011, he married his sweetheart Rebecca. When spring practice began a couple months later, Eason was slotted as the starter at field corner and found himself one of the leaders on the Cougar defense.
After a rough start with some disappointing losses, the Cougars finished the 2011 season 10-3, capped off by a win over Tulsa in the Armed Forces Bowl. Eason finished the year with 46 tackles, seventh-best on the team and tops among the cornerbacks. He also finished the year with 14 pass breakups, which tied with teammate Preston Hadley for ninth best in the nation. Eason’s accomplishments on the field were recognized by the national media, as he was named to both the Phil Steele All-Independent First Team and the FBS All-Independent Team.
In January 2012, just one month after his final game in a Cougar uniform, Eason was sealed to his wife Rebecca in the Las Vegas LDS temple. Three months later, he earned his bachelor’s degree in psychology, receiving academic honors from the NCAA with a 3.4 grade point average.
Eason discussed his time at BYU with Dick Harmon of the Deseret News in July of 2012. "I remember when I first came to college, we were playing San Diego State and the team drove by the San Diego Temple. I said to myself one day I wanted to go inside that building. This past year, on our honeymoon, Rebecca and I did go in that temple. It was wonderful and I feel so blessed. My relatives back home, the younger kids look up to me for going to college and trying to make something out of myself.
"I feel fortunate that I got go to play major college football, get an education, meet my wife and have the life I do. I'm a lucky man and coming to Provo changed my life. Many of my friends I grew up with that I talk to — they are happy for me and what is happening."
Eason’s accomplishments both on the field and off have not gone unnoticed by his family, friends, coaches and teammates. Carver High School coach Wallace Davis said, “That is the greatest feeling to know that a young man who almost had his hands tied from the start overcame some hurdles that the average person couldn’t overcome. And to get where he is at this point is very, very extraordinary.”
Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: tbtoone
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