Campbell family photo
Jason Campbell with his daughter, Audrey, and former BYU coach LaVell Edwards.
With the passing of legendary BYU coach LaVell Edwards many of us who knew and loved him are grieving but at the same time grateful that we knew him and for the profound impact he had in our lives. I am proud to say I played for coach Edwards at BYU. You have probably never heard of me but there are hundreds of guys just like me that are mourning his passing.
What made him so great and what made so many of us love him and his wife Patti? Perhaps a few of my personal stories and experiences can shed light on his greatness.
I grew up in Orem and I loved everything about BYU football. As a 7-year-old I watched in awe on TV as BYU, coached by Edwards, came back and beat SMU in the 1980 Holiday bowl, in the greatest comeback in college football history. I still get chills watching that game. I ran onto the field as a senior in high school after BYU beat then No. 1 Miami in Provo.
I was more than a little surprised to have Coach Edwards call me at home a few months later and invite me to walk on to the BYU football team. I am still amazed I told him that I would have to think about it because I was interested in going to a local junior college to play.
Luckily I called him back the next day and told him I would be honored to be on his team. It was 1991. BYU had won the college football national championship seven years earlier and Ty Detmer had won the Heisman Trophy the year before and was back for his senior season.
You would think that Edwards would be a little full of himself and not give the time of day to lesser people like me, but I can tell you that nothing was further from the truth. He was genuinely interested in every player and staff member on that team. You knew that he cared about you and that he had your best interests at heart.
He was not in it for the money or the fame. He simply enjoyed the game of football and most of all he enjoyed and cared about people. He had an interview with every player, every year, even a lowly walk-on like me, and he took the time to get to know us and encouraged us to do our best.
How do you think he got great non-LDS players like Ty Detmer, Leon White, Tom Holmoe and Jamal Willis to leave places like Texas and California to come and play for him at a not so glamourous place like BYU? I know that many of us felt that he was genuine and that he really did care about you as a person.
Football was not his highest priority; it was making people around him successful and happy in life.
My freshman year I was nowhere near the top of the depth chart. I wanted to suit up and be on the sideline for our first home game so that my parents could see me. Most of us freshman were going to sit in the stands with everyone else. I went to Coach and asked him if I could suit up for the game and he didn’t hesitate to say yes. I think the trainers were surprised to have to put my name on a jersey. I cannot tell you how much that meant to me and my family. For some reason that meant more than when I actually did make the travel team later that year and when I did play in every game my sophomore year.
The first away game trip I got invited to we had a strict curfew. Some of the upperclassmen invited me to play cards long after curfew and gave me their room number and told me to knock loud. You can imagine my shock and surprise when Coach Edwards opened the door, bleary-eyed. Maybe this had happened before or maybe he felt bad for the kid literally shaking and stammering at his door but he simply told me to get back to bed. I thought I would be told to turn in my uniform the next day and get on the first flight home. LaVell never mentioned it again.
Did he scream and yell and cuss at players? I never heard him do that. He led with a quite assurance that if we worked hard to prepare we could do great things. We became better players because he believed in us. He encouraged guys to serve missions for the LDS Church even though it meant losing a good player for two years because he knew it was more important to that player than football.
What kind of man turns down millions of dollars to coach in the NFL to keep coaching at a school that often has the deck stacked against it as far as notoriety and recruiting are concerned? The kind of man they name stadiums after.
After my LDS Church mission, I returned to play at BYU and married the love of my life, Molly. She was invited by Patti and LaVell to their home with the other players’ wives, for a get-together. She got there first and they invited her in and while Patti finished preparations LaVell simply sat in the living room and spent the time talking with my wife. She has never forgotten how kind and genuine they were to her. We cherish the wedding gift they gave us. LaVell cared about everyone.
LaVell was fair. He did his best to make sure every player got a fair shot at playing time. He once walked across the field at the spring game after my LDS mission to ask the defensive coordinator why I had not been put into the game yet.
After my sophomore season my father lost his job, life was tough and at the same time we had new defensive coaches and I felt I was not being given a fair shot to play. I went to talk to LaVell and explained that I wanted to transfer to another school. I was just an invited walk-on.
He could have easily brushed me off or had his secretary dismiss me but he listened to my dilemma and asked me to stay on the team and when I was adamant that I was leaving he encouraged me to stay in school and finish my degree. After I told him I was definitely going to transfer and keep playing football he tried to calm me down and said that he would help me transfer to any school I wanted. He asked me to give him a list of schools I was interested in and over the next few days he called the coaches at each school and because of his calls I was invited by each of those schools to transfer and I eventually settled on West Virginia University in Morgantown. My wife grew up in Morgantown. After my football career ended I attended dental school there.
Do you think the Nick Sabans or Urban Meyers of the world would do that? For a walk-on?
At West Virginia we had another Hall of Fame coach, Don Nehlen. He loved and respected LaVell and his wife considered Patti to be one of her best friends. They treated me like royalty because I was one of LaVell’s players. I think that there are a lot of people across the country that consider the Edwards to be best friends even though his teams often beat theirs. The example they have set and the positive impact they have had across the country for the state of Utah, BYU and the LDS faith is immeasurable. LaVell and his wife even went on to serve a LDS mission in New York after he retired.
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He was not a man who liked to preach a sermon but would rather live one instead.
At a recent gathering for former players, Coach Edwards told us that he prayed before inviting any player to play at BYU. That really hit me. Perhaps that was the secret to his success. BYU was a huge blessing in my life and I am grateful I got to attend school and play football there for Coach Edwards. We will all remember his humility, his faith, his competitiveness and his love for his family, his players, the fans and BYU.
Rest in peace, Coach.
We love you and we will miss you.