PROVO — During BYU’s improbable run toward the 1984 national championship, players from that team set their sights on recording a perfect season and finishing No. 1 in the final polls.
When the Cougars ended the regular season with a 12-0 record and sat atop the rankings for the first time in their history, many BYU players, coaches and fans were hoping for a date in the prestigious Orange Bowl against No. 2 Oklahoma so they could prove themselves against another highly ranked opponent.
However, BYU was contractually obligated to play in the upstart Holiday Bowl.
Yet that's exactly where Cougar linebacker Leon White wanted to be.
For White, the dramatic 24-17 victory over a 6-5 Michigan team in the Holiday Bowl — played in his hometown of San Diego — to cap that historic season transcended football.
It marked the final time his father, James, watched him play.
BYU is celebrating the 30th anniversary of its '84 national title this year, and players from that team still cherish their memories from that season.
But amid the unprecedented success as a program, it was a difficult, bittersweet campaign for White.
Not long before the season kicked off with a huge upset of then-No. 3 Pitt on the road, White received a phone call from his mother, who informed him that his father had been diagnosed with cancer.
Upon hearing the traumatic news, White dealt with the shock and grief, and seriously considered leaving school and returning to San Diego to be with his father, who wasn’t expected to live much longer.
But his parents encouraged him to remain in Provo for his junior year, and challenged him to help his team return to San Diego at the end of the year for the Holiday Bowl.
So while the Cougars were focused on winning a national title that season, White said his motivation was “getting back to the Holiday Bowl so my dad could watch me play one more time. That’s what I was fighting for the whole year.”
White not only lived up to his part of the bargain, helping the Cougars get to San Diego, he also helped arrange for his dad to have a special view of the game.
Holiday Bowl officials allowed James White to be placed on a gurney and propped up so he could watch the game from the sideline.
Seeing his father that night “was an inspiration to me,” Leon White recalled on June 23, when he returned to BYU for media day festivities. “I knew this was his last game, and I was going to play my heart out.”
White did just that, earning Holiday Bowl defensive MVP honors.
Five months after that victory, James died of cancer. Leon is forever grateful that his dad was able to watch him play one final time in the Holiday Bowl.
In that contest, BYU quarterback Robbie Bosco suffered an injury in the first half, then later returned to rally the Cougars to the win. But with Bosco out, the Cougar defense knew it had to step up, especially considering BYU gave up six turnovers.
“Without the defense that year, we wouldn’t have been able to do what we did,” said White, who runs after-school programs for youths in San Diego. “You’re not supposed to win games when you turn the ball over six times. That tells you how well the defense played. We created some turnovers of our own. We didn’t quit.”
White finished his collegiate career in 1985, then was selected in the fifth round of the National Football League draft by the Cincinnati Bengals. He played in the NFL for eight seasons, six with the Bengals and two with the Los Angeles Rams.
During his NFL career, White found himself defending BYU’s 1984 national championship in locker rooms, as some of his NFL teammates denigrated the Cougars' schedule that season.
“We never got the respect. Mostly it was the players from the teams that had won college championships that didn’t think we deserved it,” White said. “I had to battle with people about it, and I still battle with people about it — the teams we played. I guess it will be an ongoing thing. But it doesn’t matter. We have the trophy.”
Former BYU offensive lineman Trevor Matich, a member of the 1984 team and currently an ESPN college football analyst, said White was a key player on that national championship squad.
“I remember Leon White was the most violent nice guy I had ever been around,” Matich remembered. “He was so much fun to watch in games because whenever an opponent would throw a screen pass to his side, I’d always elbow the guy standing next to me on the sideline and say, ‘Watch this.’ Leon would come up and undress that guy. We expected the guy’s helmet to fly off, and it did.
"Leon would knock helmets off guys. When they put him out there on a swing pass or a screen, he’d knife through there. You could see it being set up. You could see the pass floating through the air. You could see Leon digging his cleats into the ground and starting that run. And when that guy caught the ball, and he’s turned to get himself re-established, here comes Leon White with a ton of bricks. That was as violent as I’ve been around in football on any level. Then Leon would smile that big, childlike, happy smile and go right back to the huddle.
"I was glad he was on our team. I would have hated to have had to block that guy.”
Thirty years after winning the national championship, the lessons learned from that season still live with White.
“I remember how we just stuck together as a team. It was a rough year. We had naysayers the whole year. Nobody believed in us," White said. "Nobody thought we could go undefeated, and after we did, they still didn’t give us the credit. It was a tough season that way, but we fought through it and it showed the strength of our team. That’s what I remember.”
Given what he was dealing with off the field that season, perhaps no one on that team was stronger than Leon White.
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