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BYU-Utah rivalry doesn't keep friends from connecting

Published: Wednesday, Nov. 24 2010 10:00 p.m. MST

Though college rivals, BYU's Vai Sikahema, left, and Chad Lewis, right, found common bonds with Ute Bryan Rowley.   (Ravell Call, Deseret News) Though college rivals, BYU's Vai Sikahema, left, and Chad Lewis, right, found common bonds with Ute Bryan Rowley. (Ravell Call, Deseret News)

Editor's note: This is the first installment of a three-part Rivalry Week series from three friends connected by football, faith and the BYU-Utah game. The series consists of excerpts from blogs written by Deseret News bloggers and former BYU football players Chad Lewis (today) and Vai Sikahema (Friday). Bryan Rowley, a former University of Utah star, concludes the series Saturday.

CEDAR HILLS — Bryan Rowley and I grew up together loving BYU football. In fact, when we were in the sixth grade, Bryan got in trouble for attending a BYU game when he was supposed to be baby-sitting his younger siblings. We made some arrangements for someone to watch them and then got on our bikes and rode to the game from Orem. We had a blast.

Everything was great until Bryan got home: The punishment was sitting out the seventh grade tackle football season. That was tough on both of us. I wanted so much for Bryan to play on our team. We ended up being good, but not great, without him. Bryan played the following year and was our star player. From then on, whatever team he was on was successful.

Chad Lewis boosts Bryan Rowley and Vai Sikahema. Once rivals, they are now friends. (Ravell Call, Deseret News) Chad Lewis boosts Bryan Rowley and Vai Sikahema. Once rivals, they are now friends. (Ravell Call, Deseret News)

We were in the same grade, but Bryan was the oldest in the class and I was the youngest. He was always there for me when things were tougher for me.

Years later, he reached out to my brother, Mike, his former roommate at the University of Utah, and me, when life got rough for him. We were in a parking lot in St. George preparing for my father's heart surgery the next day when Bryan called from New Jersey and told us he was separated from his wife. They would later divorce, and he had followed her east to stay close to his daughter, Sage.

The phone call was a 911. After Mike talked with Bryan for a minute, he gave the phone to me. I could tell from the tone of Bryan's voice that he was hurting. Bryan asked for help. He was in a strange city and he did not know anyone besides his wife and some of her family. He was isolated. He was in pain and torment.

For a few minutes, nothing else was happening, not my dad's imminent heart surgery, nothing. Bryan was in trouble, and he needed help. A name immediately jumped to mind.

A friend's support

Years earlier, when Bryan was setting school records in the long jump and the sprints at Orem's Lakeridge Junior High School, and hitting 19 home runs for our state championship Little League team coached by his dad, I was just hoping that one day I would grow some muscles and be able to compete on the same level as him.

As a group of friends, we played sports continually. We raced around Orem on our 10-speed bikes and played basketball or football or other sports all the time. One of the great disappointments of my early life was getting cut from our junior high basketball team. I didn't even make it past the first cuts. I remember how Bryan's compassion for me as his friend eased the sting of getting cut. He knew how bad I was hurting and, without faking it, let me know how much he cared about me.

He did the same thing for me when I was cut from the basketball team as a junior and senior at Orem High School. Those were hard times in my life, and Bryan, as the star player on the team, was the first person to help me keep my spirits up. He was at the pinnacle, helping our team win the state football championship as the star running back. I only played on our punt return team. He never acted like I was inferior because I was behind him athletically.

We were best friends, and we pulled for each other big time.

He dominated every sport he played. Our senior year, Bryan was the only real superstar on the football team, and he carried us to the title game.

Separation

University of Utah running backs' coach Wayne McQuivey recruited Bryan. He was an inspirational man who had recruited my older brother, Mike, to play for the Utes a few years earlier. Mike was just returning from his mission for the LDS Church during our senior year and wanted Bryan as a companion and fellow Ute in Salt Lake City. The recruiting process was intense.

Bryan decided to go to Utah, and he had an illustrious career that helped Utah turn the corner and become a strong and relevant program.

As soon as high school graduation came around, Bryan and I, after spending nearly every day together for 10 years, didn't do much together for the next decade. Bryan got ready to play college football at the U. I attended school at Utah Valley State College (now Utah Valley University), because Utah coach Jim Fassel thought I had a chance to be a tight end after my LDS mission if I grew like Mike, who was also a late bloomer.

Bryan and I were at different schools for the first time in our lives. He was so busy with his summer workouts that we didn't get to see each other very often. Once school started, we only saw each other after his games. He was rooming with Mike, so that helped us get together some of the time as well. But it was nothing like before.

BYU and Utah

When I came home from an LDS mission to Taiwan, instead of going to the U. to walk on as a tight end, I chose not to play football but to enroll at BYU and become a doctor like my dad. Several miracles took place in my life, and I ended up walking on at BYU, and things went much better than I could have ever imagined.

My freshman year at BYU was Bryan's senior year at the U. That season's rivalry matchup was at BYU, and Utah beat us with a last-second, mile-long field goal. Bryan and I went against each other a few times on special teams. He was one of the gunners on the kickoff team, and I was on our kick return team. It was a fun game, and we had fun going against each other. The game was made famous when the Utah players jumped on the north end zone goal post and tried to rip it down.

Without thinking, I strapped on my helmet and ran into a sea of red players. Their attention turned from the goal post to my freckled face, and a small battle ensued. A bunch of my teammates ran down into the crowd before I was outnumbered. Even though Bryan was right in the middle of the sea of red, we never had hard feelings toward each other over it. We always loved and respected each other and never let our loyalty to our own school and team destroy our relationship.

For the next several years, as Bryan went into business and I played for BYU and the Eagles; he and I only saw each other here and there. I knew he was not going to church, and I knew that the effects of a hard life were starting to wear on him. I had seen similar things happen with some of my teammates, and I could see in his eyes that he was struggling. It was heartbreaking for me. I didn't know what to say or do. I loved him and wanted things to be better for him.

The call

Following his estranged wife and daughter east, Bryan called that night from the very same part of New Jersey where I had lived for the nine years I was playing for the Eagles.

Vai Sikahema had been the bishop of our LDS ward. After playing football for BYU and then enjoying a great Pro Bowl career in the NFL as a kick returner for the Cardinals and the Packers, he finished his career with the Eagles and settled there. By the time of Bryan's call, Vai was serving as a member of the stake presidency that oversaw that and other LDS wards in the region, and he was living only a few miles from where Bryan was calling.

I told Bryan about Vai and knew that if anyone on the planet could help Bryan, it was Vai. Bryan was a Ute through and through and didn't think highly of too many BYU players. I was one of the few he liked. I assured him that Vai was not like anyone he had ever met, that Vai was someone he would absolutely love. I told Bryan that I would call Vai, who would be calling him shortly.

Vai knew me about as well as anyone, and I knew Vai would understand the gravity of my request the second he heard my voice. What happened next was a miracle. It was a tender mercy of the Savior that Bryan's call for a lifeline was answered by Vai, the one person in the universe who was uniquely blessed in so many ways to answer the call.

Friday: Vai Sikahema recalls reaching out to Bryan Rowley, and how Rowley blessed his family.

Chad Lewis is the NFL Ambassador to Asia. He is a three-time All-Pro tight end and a BYU Academic All-American. His book, "Surround Yourself with Greatness," was published in 2009.

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