Hours after BYU landed in Charlottesville, Va., to prepare for the 2013 season-opener against Virginia, Kyle Van Noy ducked into “The Local,” an organic restaurant in the Belmont section of town.
The place was packed with UVA alums, an upscale clientele sipping wine from local vineyards and eating braised lamb shank and creamy polenta with blood orange-arugula gremolata.
Van Noy had on a BYU T-shirt, shorts and flip-flops. All eyes were on the big fellow as he held the door for my wife; then trailed us to a corner table in back. The expressions ranged from awe to disdain to wonder.
My wife has no use for football. She doesn’t watch games and has no interest in meeting players. But she wanted to meet Van Noy after reading an advance copy of "The System." His story was the only one in the book that made her cry. She told him that over dinner.
The meal enabled my wife to see what I’ve witnessed for the past 18 months — an unusually humble, thoughtful person who is exceptionally good at playing a violent game. Humility and thoughtfulness are not qualities typically associated with the gridiron.
But the only other football player my wife knows (and admires) is Steve Young. When she thinks of Steve she thinks of humility and concern for others. He was a superb athlete who maintained a certain grace on and off the field that put him in a league of his own.
After an evening with Kyle, my wife identified some attractive similarities. “I really like him,” she said. “He’s different. Very refreshing.”
But the thing that stood out the most to her was the stares. Eyes were on him the entire time. He can’t go anywhere without being recognized. That’s a heavy burden. There is no margin for error.
He can’t take a play off on the football field either. The next day I was in the press box during the game. There were five NFL scouts in attendance. I asked the one seated next to me who they were scouting from BYU. “Only one guy,” he said. “Van Noy. He’s the man.”
“What about the other scouts?” I asked.
“Same thing,” the scout told me. “We’re watching the same guy.”
For the rest of the game, the scout’s binoculars were focused on No. 3. After each defensive play, the scout made a note in Van Noy’s file. Every detail — the position of his hips, the angle of pursuit, the technique of his tackle — was graded.
Imagine having your every move scouted, graded and noted. I don’t know many people who would hold up under such scrutiny. Even most college football players don’t live under such a bright spotlight. That kind of glare is reserved for the elite players, the ones destined for The League.
The scrutiny is heightened even more at a place like BYU. Provo is a bubble. I don’t mean that in a derogatory sense. I’m just stating a fact. On top of overly burdensome NCAA rules that prohibit such things as me paying for Kyle’s dinner, there is an honor code and a Mormon culture that places even greater expectations on a 21-year-old, high-profile student-athlete. Technically, a cup of coffee is against the rules, never mind an intimate moment with a girlfriend.
At every other college football program featured in "The System," a Friday night beer or consensual physical encounter with a girlfriend will get you a pat on the back. At BYU, these natural impulses result in suspension, if not a dismissal from the program. Your picture ends up in the paper. A private mistake becomes very public.
My point is this: put Van Noy in any other program — Oregon, LSU, Notre Dame, USC — and he stands out like a 100-watt light bulb in a dark alley. But at BYU his off-the-field conduct these past four years is considered the norm. It’s almost ho-hum. He’s simply following the honor code expected of every other BYU student.
Only he’s not every other BYU student. No other student at BYU lives with all the trappings that are available to a prospective first-round draft pick — the money, the women, the aggressive agents, and a slew of other minefields that can lead to trouble. Very few adult men could resist all of these temptations, never mind a 21-year-old college student.
The fact that Kyle has remained grounded through all of this is far more impressive than his high-flying sacks, blocked punts and forced fumbles. He’s managed to do it by keeping a very low profile off the field and choosing his friends judiciously.
These are qualities that will take him a long way when he enters the NFL. The life lessons he has learned through his college football experience will take him further than anything he’s read in a textbook or heard in a lecture hall.
During my near 20-year career as an author I’ve had the opportunity to profile and meet a wide range of highly successful people. I’m particularly drawn to the ones who are largely alone in the world. By alone I mean they march to a different drum; they are mavericks at the top of their game, thriving under circumstances that would swallow most people.
Kyle Van Noy is in that club. It was an honor and a privilege profiling him for "The System." I set out to simply chronicle his decision-making process on whether to turn pro or stay in school. Along the way I found a friend.
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.