PROVO — Harvey Unga is making his comeback.
The bruising running back is trying to become one of the Monsters of the Midway.
Jackson Unga says his son Harvey kind of "schooled" him in priorities this past year when he asked to be temporarily released from the Chicago Bears to help his wife Keilani bring their second child into the world.
"I was pushing hard for him to get back in the NFL after being injured and having to sit out his first year," said Jackson. "But Harvey told me he had to get his life in order by taking care of priorities and those were his family and a degree from BYU this past year, so he sat out a second year. My son taught me a big lesson."
Today, Harvey is hip deep in the Chicago Bears' OTAs (organized team activities) and has been since people in the organization called him to report April 16. He will remain with the team through June 16. Just over 23 months ago, Unga signed a four-year contract with the Bears and one of the scouts who tagged him for Chicago in 2010 has remained faithfully in his corner, according to Jackson.
Unga's challenge in Chicago is to find a place on the roster where Matt Forte and Kahilil Bell are already established, and Chicago obtained Michael Bush from the Raiders.
The Bears drafted Unga in the seventh round of the July 2010 Supplemental Draft, and he spent that first year with a nagging hamstring he suffered a month later. In 2011, he and his wife both returned to Provo to have their second child and, with the help of BYU financial aid, he graduated this past April.
"In my eyes, I feel there is an open door," said Unga of his current status in camp. "We'll all be fighting for playing time, but when it comes down to it, there are also opportunities on special teams and there are many ways to be an asset on the team."
Unga remains the most productive running back in BYU history with 3,455 career rushing yards. That figure stands although he missed his senior year after voluntarily withdrawing from school on April 16, 2010 for violation of the school's honor code. Had Unga remained and stayed healthy, he certainly would have become the school's first 4,000-yard rusher and his role in breaking in QBs Riley Nelson and Jake Heaps would have been huge.
The layoff from football has helped him mentally and physically, according to Harvey.
"I came back home and was able to help some of the running backs at BYU and keep myself mentally sharp. It's been awhile since I've been on the field, but at the end of the day, it's still football and it's a team game. I feel a lot more confident in some ways and in other ways, I feel I'm more mature. This offense molds into my game with a lot of downhill running."
His father is proud of how Harvey has prioritized his life. In a series of conversations over this past year, it is Harvey who has become the sage philosopher.
"I'm young. If Chicago doesn't call, there are other teams and I'll find a place," he told his dad. "I need to get my life in order and at the same time, I need to go back to school."
And this, "When football is over, I will always go back to my family and once I take care of them, I'll have more desire to play football."
Harvey and Keilani's two children are Jackson, who will be 2 in July, and Leila, a daughter, who is 9 months old. They have great support from both families since Keilani's parents, both teachers, live near Chicago and Harvey's parents remain in Provo. The couple has a condo in north Provo.
"I won't lie," said Harvey. "Being a dad is certainly one of the greatest blessings I've been able to receive in my life. With that blessing comes motivation and a lot of drive to take care of my family and succeed in the best way I can, and right now it is playing this game. It helps me to be a good father — to provide for my wife and kids."
This past month, Harvey hosted his second cousin, Chicago prep sensation Jabari Parker, who appeared on the cover of last week's Sports Illustrated as the No. 1 high school basketball player in the nation. Parker came to Provo during LDS conference and stayed at the home of Jackson Unga. Back in the late '80s, Parker's mother, Lola, regularly visited the Ungas in Provo in the last months of the life of Jackson's mother, Lulama.
"He's a fantastic person and aside from his great basketball talent, he is an amazing young man," said Harvey of Parker.
Did Harvey put in a word about his alma mater with Parker?
"I threw a little something in there to pique his interest," he said.
I asked him if he thought his son Jackson, Jr., would be a football player someday, just like his dad.
"I hope not. I hope he plays basketball or baseball or golf."
So, what does Harvey Unga believe people can learn from his story so far in his young life?
"Perseverance," he answered. "I've had a lot of curveballs thrown my way and a lot of it, I would say, was brought on by myself. But at the end of the day, I'm a firm believer that God doesn't give us anything we can't handle and as long as you learn from your mistakes, that's where people start to make progress by leaps and bounds.
"From my trials and tribulations, I've learned that life is worth living."
Unga said people who dream big dreams should never give up on them — being in the NFL has been in his mind ever since he was a kid growing up in Provo.
"I've had many roadblocks on the way, but if there is a dream out there and you really want it, you should do everything you can to get it."
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