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Amy Donaldson: We need to keep the Utah Utes-BYU Cougars rivalry

Published: Monday, Sept. 17 2012 6:30 a.m. MDT

Utah Utes defensive back Mo Lee (5) knocks the ball away from Brigham Young Cougars quarterback Riley Nelson (13) in what was first called a fumble but reversed to an incomplete pass as the University of Utah and BYU play football Saturday, Sept. 15, 2012, in Salt Lake City, Utah.    (Tom Smart, Deseret News) Utah Utes defensive back Mo Lee (5) knocks the ball away from Brigham Young Cougars quarterback Riley Nelson (13) in what was first called a fumble but reversed to an incomplete pass as the University of Utah and BYU play football Saturday, Sept. 15, 2012, in Salt Lake City, Utah. (Tom Smart, Deseret News)

"Like the fruits of the season's harvest, the game is a gift. A cycle of life that links generations and bonds hostile neighbors. Because beneath the bitterness that coats their epic feud, the teams grudgingly maintain a mutual and abiding respect.

They are companion pieces in history. Each side's legacy continually tied to the other's."

— Michigan vs. Ohio State:

The Rivalry

SALT LAKE CITY — A smile spread across the face of Utah quarterback Jon Hays when he was asked to describe the finish of Saturday night's 24-21 win over rival BYU.

"I can't describe that ending," he told reporters well after the game's midnight finish. "That's something I'll remember when I'm 85 and with Alzheimer's."

Utah fans cheer  in Salt Lake City  Sunday, Sept. 16, 2012.  (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News) Utah fans cheer in Salt Lake City Sunday, Sept. 16, 2012. (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News)

Hays won't be regaling silver-haired women with stories of how a bunch of back-ups out-played an offense led by a veteran quarterback in the third game of the 2012 season just because it was an unusually thrilling finish.

He'll be re-playing the details of the 66th straight meeting (94th overall) between Utah and BYU around in his mind long after his body betrays him because that victory came in the rivalry game.

But for his grandchildren, or anyone else listening to those tales, to understand the significance of what he accomplished with a patchwork of running backs, an inconsistent kicking effort and a never-say-die defense, they'll have to understand what the rivalry game is.

And that may not be possible when Hays is 85.

In July, Utah athletic director Chris Hill announced the Utes would "take a break" from the rivalry and play Michigan instead of BYU in 2014 and 2015.

Utah Utes tight end Westlee Tonga (80) catches a touchdown over Brigham Young Cougars linebacker Kyle Van Noy (3)  in Salt Lake City  Saturday, Sept. 15, 2012.  (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News) Utah Utes tight end Westlee Tonga (80) catches a touchdown over Brigham Young Cougars linebacker Kyle Van Noy (3) in Salt Lake City Saturday, Sept. 15, 2012. (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News)

Some Utah fans were relieved. The Utes, they pointed out, were now in the Pac-12, and had to have loftier goals than what has become an early-season grudge match now devoid of conference implications.

But many others — on both sides of the rivalry — were disappointed. Moving the game to the pre-conference season had already removed some of the luster. But to eliminate the game completely, well, it felt a little sacrilegious.

Just like Michigan and Ohio State, Utah and BYU were blessed with the ingredients for a special rivalry. Yes, it can get out of hand. Yes, it can get too personal. But don't cancel Christmas because some people don't know how to celebrate appropriately.

Former coaches (LaVell Edwards and Ron McBride especially) and players have proved over and over that most animosity ended when the game did (or at least their college football careers finished).

Utah Utes wide receiver Dres Anderson (6) just misses a catch as Brigham Young Cougars defensive back Preston Hadley (7) defends in Salt Lake City  Saturday, Sept. 15, 2012.  (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News) Utah Utes wide receiver Dres Anderson (6) just misses a catch as Brigham Young Cougars defensive back Preston Hadley (7) defends in Salt Lake City Saturday, Sept. 15, 2012. (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News)

And most of the fans understood the same.

But more often, and more importantly, the rivalry is what brought fans together. Not every fan has the gift of belonging to a rivalry as old and as storied as Utah vs. BYU.

It gave us a reason to talk to a stranger — whether wearing red or blue — because their attire, their allegiance provided a common bond — the rivalry.

Even those outside the state, including reporters, notorious for their cynicism, mourned the loss of what was one of the country's top rivalries just a few years ago.

There are other Utah schools that both teams can play, but it's unlikely any other in-state contest will ever match the magic of the Utah-BYU contest because it's taken decades of heartbreak and heroes to create the rivalry.

It's not just a game to those who know and love it.

Kyle Whittingham understands — as a coach and a player — how unpredictable, thrilling and devastating the rivalry game can be.

"It's uncanny," he said when asked to distinguish the contest from other rivalry games. "It's just another dramatic end; it's happened so many times. I don't know if you'll find a rivalry in the country that's had the drama that this one has had in the last 15-20 years. I could be wrong, but I think you'd be hard-pressed to find one that has the story lines. These games take on a life of their own."

That life springs from the guys who clash and from the coaches who lead them. But it also springs from the hearts of those who have never played a down of football, who have no idea how it feels to catch a touchdown pass or recover from a hit that you feel for days.

Fans pay money, rain or shine, to stand in line, sit on plastic or metal seats, and ruin their vocal cords hoping their desire can will someone they don't know to excellence.

They celebrate the triumph of great plays by Star Lotulelei or Cody Hoffman. They feel the pain and disappointment that sends a guy like JD Falslev to his knees after a loss.

They don't have the skills. But they have the heart. And they love this game. They love what it means to their families, to their communities. And most importantly, they deserve this game.

Defensive back Moe Lee was playing in his first BYU-Utah rivalry game. He'd heard the stories, but it was something he had to experience to understand.

"It was the best ever," he told reporters after the game. "This is the best atmosphere I ever played in in my life. I finally felt the Utah-BYU experience for the first time, and I'm just glad we came out with the victory."

It's not just a game; it's a cultural celebration unique to this state. We created it, year after year, and I hope we find a way to save it.

As one of the narrators said in the documentary "Michigan vs. Ohio State: The Rivalry," the game is "a beautiful thing. You feel you are a part of something that stretches from before you existed and will be here long after you are gone."

Twitter: adonsports Email: adonaldson@desnews.com

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