PROVO — Tom Holmoe had just one crack at it. It had to be a perfect trajectory for a unique orbit, the organizing of a rendezvous of living matter that could be at one spot at one time and then never happen again.
By all accounts, BYU’s athletic director threaded the needle. LaVell Edwards could die just one time. His players would return to the site of their connection with him for this physical soliloquy but once. Then the moment would be gone.
On Friday, the lights above LaVell Edwards Stadium shined bright into the night while inside, under the stands, a reunion of former players and coaches of the departed BYU football coach became a celebratory gathering that lasted until the early hours of the next day.
When Patti Edwards took to the microphone, the crowded room filled with a rambunctious assembly turned to absolute silence. You could hear a pin drop, players say.
The now widowed matriarch of Cougar football only spoke a few words, according to players gathered for the private gathering, but her message was clear. She declared she and LaVell always considered these men part of their actual family and her husband loved them so much; that it was always more about life than football, according to Paul Gustavson, an offensive lineman from the early ’70s.
Holmoe told the group he had to put the Friday reunion together because the bittersweet timing of the gathering would be a once in a lifetime reunion. “I don’t know if anyone will ever be able to gather this group together again,” said Gustavson.
Nick Stewart, father of former QB Christian Stewart who came as a guest of former QB Royce Bybee, a backup to Jim McMahon and Marc Wilson, commented, “I’ve been to these player reunions before and they bring out about 25 percent of the “who’s who” of Cougar football, but this one had almost all of them, the entire cast.”
It was a cornucopia of emotions; friendships forged but fractured by time and distance and geographic direction.
Many of these grown men, now grandfathers, hadn’t seen teammates since the day they received their varsity blankets on graduation day. It was a feast of back-slapping, hugs, tears and tales of yesteryear.
It was a gathering Edwards could never have created while alive. But his death brought mandatory airline tickets, interrupted calendars and changed plans for an army of former Cougars.
“Only LaVell’s death could have brought this great and very diverse group back together in one spot,” said Stewart. “It was clear everyone present was making the most of it." The reminiscing went on and on and on, just as it would in any great reunion, and Bybee saw friends he hadn’t seen since college. “We left before 11 p.m., and 80 percent of those in attendance were still there,” said Stewart.
The group included players from the ’60s and every decade since. It included onetime NCAA reception leader Jay Miller, Hall of Fame quarterbacks Jim McMahon, Steve Young, Marc Wilson and Ty Detmer. It brought Kansas City Chiefs head coach Andy Reid, who just happened to have a bye week from the NFL playoffs, retired offensive guru and former Hawaii head coach Norm Chow and current Virginia coach Bronco Mendenhall and members of his staff. Utah coach Kyle Whittingham, his brothers Cary and Fred and some members of his Ute staff were there.
It included some of the best cornerbacks in school history, personalities like Rodney Rice and Rodney Thomas and QB John Walsh. There were close to 600 people gathered in the Varsity Club Room under the west stands, all with one purpose: to remember and indulge in football lore.
In true LaVell Edwards style, there was lots of laughter, storytelling, teasing and jokes. It included former heroic icons of BYU football who had now lost most of the hair atop faces featuring smiles and tears that would not go away.
Current BYU head coach Kalani Sitake spoke as part of the short program after Patti Edwards.
According to those present, Sitake quoted Benjamin Franklin who said, “All mankind is divided into three classes: those that are immovable, those that are movable and those that move.”
Sitake said many BYU players came to college as guys who were immovable and Edwards, through his love, example and personality got them to be movable and then they became movers in life, in the community, in their faith and in their families.
Sitake said many players came to Edwards broken and he molded them into men who became whole, people who may not have seen in themselves what Edwards saw all along.
Holmoe said all BYU players who had been coached by Edwards and his successors Gary Crowton and Bronco Mendenhall were part of the same family, the family of Edwards and a BYU brand he’d created and tended.
So, sandwiched in between a public memorial Friday and a private funeral service Saturday morning, was this closed-door event, created by circumstance. It was wall-to-wall, standing room only.
It was history relived, faces reappeared, personalities bound forever through the relationship they had with a departed legend. For those present, it was described as the perfect release, the ideal corporal scrapbook of flesh and blood, a living reverence of soldiers for an iconic general no longer in their midst.
On this night, far but not too big a distance from the turf and lights outside, Holmoe returned this pick for the ultimate six.
Here is a list of BYU players, coaches and staff who gathered Friday night for a reunion at LaVell Edwards Stadium. This list may not be complete, but is assembled by people who attended.
John Vander Wouden
Pam Aupiu (wife of David, deceased)