He answered the phone on the first ring, which seemed entirely appropriate.

They didn't call him "Fleet" Pete Van Valkenburg for nothing.

It has been 29 years since Van Valkenburg played football at BYU. But his name resurfaced two Saturdays ago when Luke Staley broke his school record for most rushing yards in a season.

"I think it's great," said Fleet Pete.

Long ago, BYU was a running team and Van Valkenburg was the best of the bunch. Carrying the ball 30 times in an afternoon wasn't unusual. He still holds the school record for carries in a game (37).

At 6-2, 200 pounds, he wasn't as big as Staley, but in that era not many were. There was no such thing as football camps or year-round training.

Weightlifting existed, but it wasn't a science. Most of his off-season training involved bucking hay bales on his father's farm in Sandy.

But he was fast and strong, a natural wonder — so much so that he led the nation in rushing in 1972 with 1,386 yards.

It's not like Cougars haven't had other good running backs since Van Valkenburg. Ronney Jenkins, who held several school records going into this season, is playing in the NFL. But even he got underplayed as the media focused on whether Drew Miller, Kevin Feterik or Paul Shoemaker would be the starting quarterback. Jamal Willis, another with NFL credentials, still holds the school record for career rushing, though Staley is almost certain to pass that early next year. Eric Lane, Eddie Stinnett, Lakei Heimuli and Peter Tuipulotu were all impressive backs.

Still, none got as much attention as the quarterbacks. BYU isn't famous for ball-carriers, it's famous for guys with durable arms. For the past 29 years, playing running back for BYU was like playing Zebulun in "Joseph and the Technicolor Dreamcoat."

The part of Joseph always went to the quarterback.

Nowadays, Van Valkenburg isn't involved in football. Though he was an assistant coach at Dixie State College for nine years, he gave it up in the name of academia. He now focuses solely on teaching geology at the same school.

Instead of studying football formations, he studies natural ones. To students, the rocks are only slightly older than he is.

"Some of them have heard I played football, but to most of them I'm just an old geology teacher," he said.

He conducts field trips to the Utah national parks, as well as the Grand Canyon, to see how rocks were formed and the earth developed.

Developing running skills was in a different life.

Van Valkenburg's record seemed unbreakable until Staley arrived. He often joked that as long as LaVell Edwards ran a passing offense, his rushing record was safe. Someone could well have caught Van Valkenburg had BYU been a running team in ensuing years. But it wasn't, and the single-season record remained until this year. (Incidentally, he set his mark in 10 games, thanks to a hip pointer that kept him out of a loss to Oregon State that year.)

Now the Cougars have the new all-terrain luxury edition running back. Staley is a 6-1, 218-pound specimen, tractor-trailer strong and race-car fast. He carries the ball less often than Van Valkenburg but still managed to set the record in his 10th game.

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Staley ranks second nationally in rushing average (143.3) and owns the school mark for touchdowns in a season (28). He leads the nation in scoring average (17 points) and is second in yards per carry (8.4), having rushed for more than 100 yards eight times this year. He is one of three finalists for the Doak Walker Award, given to the nation's top running back.

In two games he was a one-man scoring machine, totaling 30 points and five touchdowns in each.

All of which stirs mixed emotions in Van Valkenburg. On one hand, the Cougars are winning and the running game is back. On the other hand, his record is no more.

He figures the numbers Staley puts up this year will stand for a long time. "It might even take another 30 years to break his record," said Fleet Pete.

When it comes to natural wonders, it takes one to know one.


E-MAIL: rock@desnews.com