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Bond beyond football: BYU backup QB Jason Munns, tight end Kaneakua Friel enjoy deep friendship

Published: Friday, Sept. 4 2015 2:25 a.m. MDT

BYU football players Jason Munns and Kaneakua Friel pose for a photo in front of their lockers at BYU in Provo on Thursday, Nov. 14, 2013. The two have a unique friendship. (Kristin Murphy, Deseret News) BYU football players Jason Munns and Kaneakua Friel pose for a photo in front of their lockers at BYU in Provo on Thursday, Nov. 14, 2013. The two have a unique friendship. (Kristin Murphy, Deseret News)

PROVO — As wide-eyed freshmen, and recent high school graduates eager to embark on their careers as college athletes, quarterback Jason Munns and tight end Kaneakua Friel joined other BYU players on a trip up Provo Canyon prior to the 2007 season.

Coach Bronco Mendenhall had asked all of the players to bring something of great personal value on this excursion. Friel, who had recently arrived in Provo from his hometown of Kaneohe, Hawaii, brought a surfing magazine.

In the canyon, Mendenhall told the players to throw their prized possessions into a bonfire, symbolic of their sacrifice and dedication to the team.

When it was his turn, Friel pulled out the surfing magazine, which had been given to him by his grandmother, and explained what it represented.

“He talked like a Hawaiian. He had long hair, and a dark complexion,” Munns recalled about his first impression of Friel. “That surf magazine meant a lot to him because it symbolized his family and his favorite thing to do with them. Then he threw it into the fire. Then he started bawling. I thought, ‘Who is this giant, 6-foot-6 tight end crying over a magazine?’”

BYU football players Jason Munns and Kaneakua Friel pose for a photo in front of their lockers at BYU in Provo on Thursday, Nov. 14, 2013. The two have a unique friendship. (Kristin Murphy, Deseret News) BYU football players Jason Munns and Kaneakua Friel pose for a photo in front of their lockers at BYU in Provo on Thursday, Nov. 14, 2013. The two have a unique friendship. (Kristin Murphy, Deseret News)

In that moment, Munns, a highly touted QB from Kennewick, Wash., with a seemingly promising career on the horizon, knew that he would become friends with this stranger from the islands who shared his love of the outdoors.

Sure enough, an unlikely friendship was forged, and they eventually became roommates.

“He’s always 10 minutes early,” Friel said, “and I’m always 10 minutes late.”

They’ve enjoyed fishing, four wheeling and surfing together. And, thanks to a snowball fight, Friel played an instrumental role in helping Munns meet his future wife.

“It seemed like we were polar opposites, but we were very similar in many aspects,” Munns said. “We gravitated toward each other.”

BYU football players Kaneakua Friel and Jason Munns talk about their unique friendship at BYU in Provo on Thursday, Nov. 14, 2013. (Kristin Murphy, Deseret News) BYU football players Kaneakua Friel and Jason Munns talk about their unique friendship at BYU in Provo on Thursday, Nov. 14, 2013. (Kristin Murphy, Deseret News)

What they didn’t know early on was how deep their friendship would become. They became brothers. BYU’s football program prides itself on being a “Band of Brothers,” but Munns and Friel have embodied that motto in ways that transcend football.

“Any major milestone in my life,” Munns said, “Kane’s been there.”

Munns and Friel are seniors now, heading into their final regular-season game Saturday (1 p.m. MST, CBSS) at Nevada.

As their respective BYU football careers come to a close, they can reflect on their time in Provo. Many of their best memories have little to do with football. They could swap stories for hours, laughing about some of their adventures together.

This season, Munns hasn’t taken a snap in a game, while Friel, who has been hampered by an injury, has caught just nine passes for 110 yards.

Jason Munns talks about his unique friendship with teammate Kaneakua Friel at BYU in Provo on Thursday, Nov. 14, 2013. (Kristin Murphy, Deseret News) Jason Munns talks about his unique friendship with teammate Kaneakua Friel at BYU in Provo on Thursday, Nov. 14, 2013. (Kristin Murphy, Deseret News)

But on Thanksgiving, they are grateful for what they have, which is plenty.

Wrapped inside this story of friendship is a story of gratitude, perseverance and loyalty.

Munns arrived at BYU with high expectations, and some wondered if he would be the next great Cougar quarterback.

Amazingly, during his five years at BYU, Munns never attempted a pass in a game. He was relegated to mop-up duty in two games last year, against Hawaii and New Mexico State.

His BYU experience didn’t produce All-America honors or passing records or unforgettable wins.

It produced something more important.

“I was able to build some friendships, especially with Kane, that I have no doubt will be a friendship that lasts forever, regardless of where life takes us,” Munns said.

Kaneakua Friel talks about his unique friendship with teammate Jason Munns at BYU in Provo on Thursday, Nov. 14, 2013. (Kristin Murphy, Deseret News) Kaneakua Friel talks about his unique friendship with teammate Jason Munns at BYU in Provo on Thursday, Nov. 14, 2013. (Kristin Murphy, Deseret News)

Neither Munns nor Friel had committed to going on a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints when they enrolled at BYU. But they encouraged each other to serve missions after their freshman year. Munns ended up going to Mexico, while Friel served in South Africa.

“Being among BYU players, like Jason, I started to wonder if I should go,” Friel remembered. “I started reading the Book of Mormon, and it changed my life.”

As Friel battled homesickness when he first came to Provo, Munns invited him to stay with his family on weekends, or to eat dinner at his aunt’s house.

“I’m grateful that I was able to become a part of Jason’s family,” Friel said. “I never thought I would miss my family so much, and he helped me get through the rough times. It was August, and I was having a hard time breathing in this dry air. It was hotter weather than I had ever been in. Flights are expensive to Hawaii. Jason really helped me get through that first semester and to enjoy my time here.”

BYU football players Kaneakua Friel and Jason Munns talk about their unique friendship at BYU in Provo on Thursday, Nov. 14, 2013. (Kristin Murphy, Deseret News) BYU football players Kaneakua Friel and Jason Munns talk about their unique friendship at BYU in Provo on Thursday, Nov. 14, 2013. (Kristin Murphy, Deseret News)

Friel lived with the Munns family after his mission, with Munns’ mom doing his laundry and fixing his meals.

“Whenever she sees Kane,” Munns said of his mom, “she lights up like it’s one of her own sons.”

“That helped me in the transitional process,” Friel said, “to feel like I was home, even though I was thousands of miles away from home.”

Friel invited Munns to visit him and his family in Hawaii, and took him surfing — something Munns had never done before.

“To see him surf, it was probably more natural to him than walking,” said Munns. “We got to the beach and we unloaded the surfboards. He told me to wax it. Then he said, ‘Lay down, paddle out there and when a wave comes, stand up.’ He made it sound so simple. I was exhausted once I paddled out there. The wave comes, and Kane’s cruising. He doesn’t talk about it, but he’s gifted at surfing. If only people could see him. … He’s a great football player, but he’s twice as good on the surfboard.”

They both remember one memorable winter’s night as freshmen, when a chaotic snowball fight erupted in the quad by the dorms.

“It may have been my first snowball fight,” Friel said. “They wanted to recruit the big arm. That was Jason. He saw this girl who was on the gymnastics team. I took this big, old snowball, and I smacked her. Then Jason started talking to her.”

“That broke the ice,” Munns said.

When Munns returned home from his mission, he married that girl. Now, Jason and Whitney Munns have an 18-month-old daughter, Macey.

Of course, Friel and Munns attended each others’ weddings — Friel’s wife, Rachel, is a former Cougar swimmer. And when Munns blessed his baby daughter, Friel stood in the circle.

If only football had gone that smoothly.

In five seasons at BYU, Munns endured injuries, bad luck, three different offensive schemes, and three different offensive coordinators, though two of them were the same man, Robert Anae.

Munns could have transferred, or quit. But he remained at BYU.

“There were opportunities to leave, but I felt that I had made a commitment to this program and to coaches who had left,” he said. “It didn’t sit well with me to go not live up to my commitment to this university. I was going to stay because I put my word to it.”

“Jason’s that guy who was always here in the summers, working hard,” Friel said. “It goes to show the loyalty he has and the commitment to do what he said he would do. That’s something I’ve always seen in Jason.”

Through all the challenges, Friel was always supportive, offering a listening ear, or a way to take his mind off of the sport.

Munns has no misgivings about the way he handled his football career.

“There have been a lot of challenges and trials I couldn’t have foreseen. I feel like I did everything I could to give myself a chance at success,” he said. “My only regret is that I never got an opportunity. I don’t think I’ll know why opportunity never knocked at my doorstep, regardless of the work put in. … I’ll always regret not getting an opportunity, but I’ll never regret what I did in my time here.”

On senior day a couple of weeks ago, it appeared Munns would have the chance to play against Idaho State. But the week of the game, he told the coaches that he’d rather see the younger quarterbacks get some playing time instead, to provide them some experience.

“That’s just who he is,” Mendenhall said about Munns after the game. “He’s a remarkable young man and leader. Those kinds of experiences teach me a lot."

Friel played for the Cougars during a period when the role of tight end at BYU has dwindled. In his career, he has caught 46 passes for 473 yards and six touchdowns. Friel is hoping for a shot at the National Football League next spring.

“He’s going to finish out this season as strong as he can, then work towards playing at the next level,” Munns said. “He’ll have no bigger fan than me. I’ll be cheering hard for him.”

Of that recruiting class of 2007, only a handful of players, like Munns and Friel, remain.

“When the final chinstrap is undone, and I take the pads off, I feel like I’ve worked hard, done my best and honored the family name and stayed true to my word,” Munns said. “To have a friend through the entire process, the ups, downs and whatnot, it’s made the hard times bearable. I couldn’t imagine my experience here without Kane because he’s been such an integral part of that experience.”

Munns’ football career didn’t unfold in the way he — or anyone else — would have ever guessed. But thanks in part to his friend from Hawaii, life for the husband, father, and soon-to-be-former BYU quarterback has turned out better than he could have ever imagined.

Copyright 2015, Deseret News Publishing Company