BYU's 'Jonny Rugby' authors famous play, gives football a try

Published: Monday, May 12 2014 10:55 a.m. MDT

BYU's Johnny Linehan advance the ball during last year's Varsity Cup final.


PROVO — It was the BYU rugby equivalent of Jim McMahon’s “Miracle Bowl” pass to Clay Brown and Danny Ainge’s dash through Notre Dame defenders in the NCAA basketball tournament.

One year ago, Cougar halfback Jonny Linehan, then a freshman who had only been on campus for a few months, executed an improvisational game-winning drop kick as time expired to lift BYU to a dramatic 27-24 victory over Cal for the Varsity Cup rugby championship.

“It was epic, wasn’t it?” recalled BYU rugby coach David Smyth. “That’s a good way to describe it. He put it down the middle. I was real excited about that.”

At this year's Varsity Cup, Linehan helped the Cougars win their third straight championship with another win over the Golden Bears, but it was the memorable drop kick against Cal in 2013 that propelled Linehan to near-legendary status on campus and earned him the perfect nickname — "Jonny Rugby."

For the sophomore from Auckland, New Zealand, that one play has changed his life somewhat.

When the team was visiting the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., recently before the Cougars’ match against Dartmouth in the Varsity Cup quarterfinals, a BYU alum spotted Linehan.

“You’re the guy that kicked the drop kick,” the fan said excitedly.

But Linehan likes the fact that play provided more exposure to the Cougar rugby program.

“You get people that recognize you now and then, but more than anything, people recognize the program as a powerhouse,” said the 5-foot-11, 185-pounder. “That’s what’s exciting for us. It’s helped the program more than anything. It wasn’t just an individual effort.”

Drop kicks like the one Linehan pulled off against Cal are not common.

“Shock was the word for it,” team captain Kyle Sumsion said of that play. “No one really saw it coming. Cal didn’t see it coming. I’m not sure Jonny saw it coming. I couldn’t have been happier.”

“It caught me off guard. It took me a minute for it to register,” said center Paul Lasike. “Then when it went over the crossbar, I thought, ‘Oh, we actually get points for that.’ ”

A few months after The Drop Kick, Linehan found himself outside his comfort zone — on the football practice field in August.

One of the walk-ons on the Cougar football team told Linehan about the rash of injuries that had decimated the defensive secondary, including the season-ending knee injury suffered by starting cornerback Jordan Johnson.

So Linehan asked BYU strength and conditioning coach Justin McClure if he could play cornerback.

“You want to?” McClure asked.

“Just give me a chance,” Linehan replied.

Keep in mind that Linehan had never played football in his life. The extent of football experience was watching BYU defeat San Diego State in the 2012 Poinsettia Bowl on television.

He did have a few connections with the football team. BYU quarterback Taysom Hill served as a missionary companion with one of Linehan’s best friends.

Linehan met with secondary coach and defensive coordinator Nick Howell, who included Linehan on the roster during fall camp.

“It’s a big commitment if you’re not on scholarship,” Linehan said. “It was pretty cool to have my first football training with a Division I school with a pretty good football team and I had never put on a football helmet before. So it was a pretty humbling experience and one I’ll never forget.”

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