Andrew Rich wasn’t going back.
Coming off an August weekend in 2011, the 6-foot-3, 220-pound safety was expected to report back to the Arizona Cardinals’ training camp in Flagstaff, Ariz. The hard-hitting ball hawk was an undrafted free agent, yet he knew he had a good shot to make the roster as a backup or special teams player.
Instead, Rich boarded an airplane with his wife and flew home to Utah, officially ending his NFL career before it even began.
A year later, the former BYU star is a social media salesman while he contemplates graduate school. Giving up football not only restored his health, but it allowed Rich to offer much needed love and support when the couple’s son was born with heart problems.
“Every kid growing up wants to play in the NFL, and I was one of them,” Rich said. “I took the opportunity because it was there but my heart wasn’t there. I have no regrets. It’s one of the best decisions I’ve made because I felt I did what was best for me in that circumstance.”
Earning a shot at the NFL was not easy for Rich.
He was Bonneville High’s defensive MVP and an all-state selection, but was not offered a football scholarship.
He served a Spanish-speaking mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to Portland, Ore., and then returned for a memorable season at Snow College in 2007. While leading the team in tackles (120) and interceptions (5), Rich helped the Badgers to the NJCAA national championship game and an 11-1 record.
This time the Ogden native received offers from Boise State and California, but he declined both and accepted preferred walk-on status at BYU with a shot at a future scholarship.
The Cougars were fortunate to get Rich. He started 29 games over his career and became known for his bone-crushing hits, playmaking abilities and leadership skills. As a senior, he was named a team captain, led the team in tackles (110), interceptions (5), pass breakups (8) and forced fumbles (3). He earned All-Mountain West Conference honors and finished his career as the New Mexico Bowl defensive MVP.
BYU radio play-by-play voice Greg Wrubell wrote that Rich was “one of the toughest, best Cougar defenders we’ve ever seen.”
“I was watching a BYUtv replay of the 2009 win over Oklahoma, and Rich made so many plays in that game, throwing his body around and wreaking havoc on the Sooners,” Wrubell wrote in 2011. “That’s how Andrew played, with disciplined abandon — seeming always in the right place to make a play, often a hard-hitting play — the perfect Kat (safety) in Bronco Mendenhall’s system.”
Mendenhall, BYU’s head football coach, did not hesitate to call Rich one of the three best safeties he has ever coached, joining the company of NFL star Brian Urlacher and former Cougar Aaron Francisco.
“Each have unique characteristics, but no one is tougher than Andrew, there’s no one that is more committed,” Mendenhall said in 2010. “To show you how smart I am, I rejected him twice — once out of high school and once out of junior college because I didn’t think he was fast enough or big enough. What I couldn’t see, what I didn’t know about him, was who he was inside.”
In spite of his college success, Rich went unpicked in the 2011 NFL draft and waited through an offseason lockout.
When free agency finally opened up in July, Cincinnati’s Marvin Lewis and Philadelphia’s Andy Reid called, but Rich surprised them by going to Arizona.
His agent also represented Cardinals’ coach Ken Whisenhunt, and although Arizona hadn’t shown interest, a connection was made and Rich felt good about signing with Arizona. The move also allowed him to reunite with his friend and former teammate, Max Hall.
“I had a great opportunity there because they hadn’t drafted any safeties and they had some veterans on the team. There was a definite chance for me to make the roster,” Rich said. “I was around good people. There were players to learn from. My mentality was, do what I can in the defensive scheme and take advantage of special teams. I knew that would be my ticket.”
Rich the rookie was thrilled to arrive at training camp in Flagstaff, Ariz. It didn’t take him long to realize he was not in Provo anymore.
Due to the lockout, he was already behind in absorbing the defensive schemes, a critical duty for any safety. Add to that the fact that professional football is an intense, competitive and ruthless business where a player can have a bad practice and be cut the next day. Why should an older teammate help a newcomer that is trying to take his job, Rich asked.
“At BYU, the freshmen came in and I would try to help them learn the position and the defense,” Rich said. “(In the NFL) it was dog-eat-dog. Guys didn’t openly reject me, but they weren’t saying, ‘Hey, let me teach you how to do this.’ I felt alone out there.”
In addition to learning the defense, Rich wasn’t 100-percent healthy. Camp wasn’t too demanding physically, but he was still healing from a leg injury received in the New Mexico Bowl. It wasn’t improving as fast as he had hoped, but “that was just football” and he didn’t use it as an excuse.
“It’s not in my DNA to patty-cake around,” Rich said.
Undaunted, Rich did his best to digest the defensive playbook and display his tenacious form in practice and scrimmages. He was consistently running with the second team, and making the roster was a real possibility.
Hall, a second-year quarterback, said the coaches noticed Rich and liked his style.
“Coach Whisenhunt told me ‘Your BYU boy is doing well. We like him over there.’ Other players, generally speaking, receivers, tight ends, said they thought he was pretty good,” said Hall, now a student assistant coach at BYU. “Andrew was a player who was around the ball a lot, assignment sound, always making plays. It was a noticeable thing.”
The positive feedback was appreciated, but Rich couldn’t shake the feeling that something about the situation wasn’t right.
“I got down there; I competed; I played well. I felt the coaches liked me and were happy I was there,” Rich said. “But as time went by, I just never felt 100 percent that it was what I was supposed to be doing. I never felt right about it on a spiritual level.”
Rich expressed his uneasiness about the NFL lifestyle to his wife, Kimberly, and his father, Dan, who played football for Weber State and the USFL’s L.A. Express. His father advised him to stick it out. He didn’t understand his son's concern, Rich said.
“It wasn’t that it was too hard,” Rich said. “I feel like I know the difference between a hot refiner’s fire, and maybe choosing something else. I feel like I could have been successful. ... I just never felt comfortable there.”
One night after a film session, Rich was resting on his bed, reading the Book of Mormon, when he realized a powerful truth that led him to give up football.
“I felt like I was kind of missing the picture,” Rich said. “I realized it doesn’t matter if I play football. What matters is that I serve my Heavenly Father, and that needs to be the root of every decision.”
Another epiphany played a role in Rich’s decision to walk away. One day at practice Rich was looking around and realized he was playing on the same field as NFL superstars like Larry Fitzgerald, Patrick Peterson and Beanie Wells. Suddenly, he felt he had nothing else to prove in football.
“My whole life I’ve had to take the long route to get places and prove I was good enough to play. It was very gratifying for me to go out there and say I can compete with these guys,” Rich said. “Once I did that, I had nothing else to prove. I had convinced the most important person — myself.”
Kimberly went to Arizona to spend the weekend with her husband. The couple stayed in a cabin with Hall and his wife. Kimberly hoped her visit would energize Andrew's spirit. Over a few days she got a glimpse of life as an undrafted free agent and started to understand why he wasn’t himself.
“I thought this was his dream. We talked over the phone and I knew he wasn’t happy. I thought it (camp) was hard or that he was nervous. You don’t want your husband to regret anything 10 years down the road,” Kimberly Rich said. “But it was an eye-opener for me.”
“Once she saw it wasn’t all daisies and roses, she was more understanding,” Rich said.
When the weekend was over, Kimberly prepared to leave for the airport. Secretly, Rich broke the news to Hall, his coaches and agent. He expressed gratitude for the opportunity. All were surprised but supportive.
"The bottom line is you've got to make the decision that is right for you, right for your family and your lifestyle," Hall said. "Andrew felt that was the right decision and I supported him in it. He's still happy with his decision."
Then he surprised his wife by joining her on the flight home.
“I told my wife I was going with her and she thought I was kidding. She found out that I wasn’t,” Rich said. “She was impressed at how I had orchestrated everything.”
One year later, Rich has not second-guessed his decision one bit.
Today the former BYU safety works as salesman for Social5, a business that helps companies increase their online and social media presence. He is also considering a graduate degree.
He misses being around the coaches and players, but doesn’t miss feeling sick the night before the game or having every conversation revolve around football. He does not miss the injuries.
“As much as I love the game, it’s a brutal sport and it took a toll on my body. It’s really nice to wake up Sunday morning and feel really good, to walk without limping and not have a headache. There are a lot of things I value more than football, my health being one.”
Another priority over football is caring for his young family. The couple’s son, Harper, was born on April 28 of this year with a heart defect and spent the first month of his life in Primary Children’s Medical Center. Doctors found a hole between the bottom two chambers of his heart and two arteries were not functioning properly. As a result, little Harper has undergone a few intense heart surgeries, but is doing much better.
“It’s a blessing he (Andrew) didn’t play (in the NFL). I don’t know if we could have gone through what we did apart,” Kimberly said. “It’s been a blessing to have him here. Our prayers have been answered, and I couldn’t ask for more.”
When asked to speak to youth groups about his experiences and decision-making, Rich encourages them do what is right and let the consequence follow.
“What changed me and my behavior the most was gaining a testimony of the Savior and the restored gospel. That’s been my foundation,” Rich said. “The most important thing I could be doing is living a righteous life, serving and following what I believe, no matter what capacity I’m in.”
Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: tbtoone
Copyright 2016, Deseret News Publishing Company