He told me that I didn’t want to have regrets about not finishing my senior year. I can graduate and finish four years at BYU. Especially with past that I have, staying will have an impact on a lot of other people. 'If Kyle can graduate than I can too.’ —Kyle Van Noy, on talking to Harvey Unga about returning to BYU for his senior season
Last year, I was on the sideline for the BYU-Utah game at Rice-Eccles Stadium. But I wasn’t there to cover the game. I was there to watch Kyle Van Noy.
Specifically, I was looking for moments or situations that define him. The first one came hours before kickoff. When BYU’s bus arrived and the players entered the stadium, very few fans were inside. But a few took the opportunity to greet the players with colorful expletives. One heckler was particularly obnoxious. “Welcome to hell, boys,” he said, waving a Ute flag.
Van Noy cranked up the volume on his iPod, looked straight ahead and kept on walking.
Few adults have the experience of being cursed by random strangers. Most wouldn’t take too kindly to it. Van Noy uses it as a motivator. He went out and played one of his best games. That, of course, prompted one fan behind Utah’s bench to rain expletives on him when he came off the field after registering a sack. Van Noy took a seat alone on the bench, looking straight ahead, ignoring the noise.
The second moment came at the end of the game. The final play had to be replayed twice on account of fans running onto the playing field. After BYU's game-tying field goal attempt hit the goal post, a scene of utter chaos played out on the field. Thousands of fans celebrated. There was pointing, taunting, shouting.
BYU players got caught up in the in-your-face atmosphere, too. Even coach Bronco Mendenhall almost got into a physical altercation with an aggressive Ute fan. But Van Noy stood silent in the midst of the swirl, his helmet under his arm. It was as if he were someplace else, impervious to all that was going on around him. Finally, I asked how he managed to keep his composure.
“I hate losing,” he said. “I hate losing more than anything. I hate losing at tic-tac-toe. So words can’t describe how I feel right now. But win or lose, I’m grateful to be part of this university. I’m grateful to be alive. That’s all that matters. Not many people in the world get to know what it’s like playing the game of football.”
Then he headed for the locker room.
In the post-game press conference, he faced reporters. “Talk about the finish,” one of them said. “Was that as crazy as anything you’ve been a part of?”
“In my life?” Van Noy said, flashing a smile. “No.”
“On the field?” the reporter said.
Heading into the final quarter of the 2012 Poinsettia Bowl, BYU trailed San Diego State 6-3 and the game was on track to go down as one of the most boring bowl games in the history of college football. Then Riley Nelson threw a goal-line interception. On the BYU sideline one of the coaches screamed: “We need a turnover! We need a turnover!”
On San Diego’s first play after taking possession, the quarterback dropped back to pass from his own end zone. Blowing past his man, Van Noy left his feet and went lateral. Fully extended, he hit the quarterback just as he began to bring his arm forward, jarring the ball loose. From his knees, Van Noy scooped up the ball just as Ziggy Ansah landed on him. Touchdown BYU.
A few minutes later, Van Noy picked off a pass and returned it 35 yards for a touchdown. In a span of nine minutes he scored more touchdowns than both teams combined up to that point. His play earned him player-of-the-game honors.
After his teammates had left the field, Van Noy stayed behind to do a television interview in the corner of the stadium. BYU fans congregated and watched. After the interview, they chanted: “One more year! One more year!” Alone, Van Noy turned and walked across the end zone where he had scored both touchdowns, waving over his shoulder to the fans. “What a way to go out,” he said under his breath. “I have done everything I need to do. I have played my last game at BYU.”
Then he stopped beneath the goalpost, appearing to savor the moment.
“What’s on your mind?” I said.
“Those little kids in Connecticut,” he said.
Six days earlier, a gunman had opened fire at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Ridgefield, Conn., killing 20 children and six adults.
“I feel for those families,” he said.
By the time Van Noy reached the locker room, everyone had left except Ansah and Mendenhall. Ansah was still in his uniform, struggling to come to grips with the fact that his career at BYU was over. Finally, he pulled off his gear and headed to the shower, leaving Van Noy and Mendenhall alone. They looked at each other and smiled. Then they embraced.
“I’m so proud of you, Kyle,” Mendenhall said. “So proud.” “Thank you.”
A few days after Christmas I got a text from Kyle. "Hey, made my choice. Call me tomorrow."
I did. And he told me he was forgoing the NFL draft to remain at BYU for his senior year. All that money could wait. He had talked to his close friend Harvey Unga, who shared some wisdom.
"He told me that I didn’t want to have regrets about not finishing my senior year," Van Noy told me. "I can graduate and finish four years at BYU. Especially with past that I have, staying will have an impact on a lot of other people. 'If Kyle can graduate, then I can too.’ ”
I hung up convinced that a kid mature enough to turn down the NFL for a year was ready for the NFL.
Jeff Benedict is a best-selling author and columnist for SI.com. He recently wrote "THE SYSTEM: The Glory and Scandal of Big-Time College Football" with Armen Keteyian.