A 23-year-old BYU record for catching passes is about to be broken, and guess which of the following is going to do it:
1. An All-American tight end with great hands.2. A fleet, All-WAC wide receiver with great hands.
3. A bespectacled, second-team All-WAC running back with a left hand that was mangled in a car accident.
That's right, it's No. 3, otherwise known as Matt Bellini, the Cougars' do-everything player who says he doesn't do anything great.
"I don't do any one thing extraordinarily well," Bellini says. "I do a lot of things pretty good. I'm a good runner, a good open-field runner, a good receiver, and I can block. I'm not great at any one of them but I'm consistent and a well-rounded player. I don't make many mistakes and I'm rarely fooled by anything. My experience helps."
Bellini gained his experience by being a four-year starter, a rarity on a LaVell Edwards-coached team. In Edwards' 19 years as BYU's head coach, only three players have started as freshmen: fullback Todd Christensen, wide receiver Glenn Kozlowski and Bellini.
So Bellini's been lucky, or so he says. More importantly, he came to BYU with the right background and at the right time to now be just 12 catches short of Phil Odle's record of 183 receptions, even though Bellini's best season (51 catches) was only good enough for 17th place on the single-season receiving chart.
The right background for Bellini meant an outstanding career at San Leandro (Calif.) High School, near Oakland, in the same upper-middle class neighborhood in which he was born. In his junior year San Leandro High got a new coach and a new offensive scheme - the run-and-shoot. It meant lots of passing and required good receivers, and Bellini was a natural to fill a wing position. Wing is a hybrid position, somewhere between running back and wide receiver, a lot like what he plays for BYU. He was successful enough at it to be named all-league running back as a junior, even though the team wasn't very good.
Between his junior and senior years occurred the accident that looked as if it might threaten his football career. On Jan. 20, 1985, Bellini and some buddies got together to watch the San Francisco 49ers trash the Miami Dolphins in Super Bowl XIX. Afterward, Bellini was driving home with two friends when he lost control of the car.
"The car rolled, it was upside down, we were on a hill, and the momentum carried us down the hill," Bellini says. "My body was out the window. Only my legs, from about my thighs down, were inside the car. The car was sliding down the hill pretty fast, and I just put my hand and my arm down and pushed up as hard as I could to keep my head from hitting the pavement. I dragged my hand and arm on the ground like that for about 200 yards. Luckily it was a real cold night and I had a big army jacket on so it didn't hurt my forearm. It just tore a big hole in my hand, ripped out my tendons, ground down my knuckles."The back of the hand was a mess. "It looked like a big uncooked hamburger patty," he says. "One finger was just hanging by a thread of skin. I could have pulled it off."
Doctors sewed his hand back together, replacing tendons and putting pins in all the fingers. The bottom knuckle on his pinky finger was virtually gone, so they replaced it with a plastic knuckle. The back of his hand has a perpetual swollen look to it now, and he can't bend his fingers to touch his palm.
"I can grip things as well, but I don't have much dexterity," he says. "I wouldn't be able to play the piano or the guitar or anything like that."
Fortunately it was football, rather than piano, that was his forte, and the hand healed strong enough to let him continue playing. The following season, as a senior, he earned all-Northern California honors at wide receiver. Along the way he attracted the attention of several colleges - including Utah.
BYU's coaches, meanwhile, had met Bellini through his brother, Mark, already a standout wide receiver for the Cougars. When it came time for Matt to commit to a school, it wasn't that tough. He liked offense, and few teams were as offensive-minded as BYU. So in the fall of 1986 he showed up for practice - at wide receiver. He redshirted that fall, watching his senior brother make 46 catches. In drills the next spring, Matt Bellini got his big break.
"At the time we were pretty deep at wide receiver," he says. "They had been counting on Tommy Tuipulotu at halfback but he blew out his knee. Then they were going to bring a junior-college guy in, Fine Unga, but he couldn't get into school. They didn't have any running backs. There was no one there who had any experience. It got to be pretty much like running-back tryouts, you know, everyone trying to give it a shot. I guess I was just lucky to step right in."
He stepped in well enough that he earned a starting berth by that fall. His first appearance for the varsity was the 1987 season-opener against Pitt. "I really didn't expect coming here that I'd play until I was a junior. I never dreamed of coming out my first game as a freshman starter on national TV. It was pretty lucky."
Bellini may keep referring to himself as "lucky," but luck has had little to do with his success. He's had breaks, sure, but lots of guys you've never heard of have had breaks. Edwards, for one, doesn't think luck has been at the root of Bellini's achievements.
"He's got great athletic ability," Edwards says. "He's really smart. He really understands the offense. So many things he does are based on `reading' the defense, on making decisions, and he usually makes the right one. He's a very competitive guy. He doesn't like to get beat at anything."
In person, the Irish-Italian Bellini doesn't come across quite so fiery. He's soft-spoken and personable, he wears wire-rimmed glasses that look like they belong anywhere but on the face of a football player, and he definitely doesn't take himself too seriously. Asked to tell about the best catch of his career, he related this:
"Against Miami I had my contact lenses on, and a guy nailed me right in the eyes with his fingers, boom, both my contacts were sitting on my eyelashes. I blinked and I could feel them falling, and I lifted my hands and caught both of them in my hands. I put them in my mouth and played for about three plays until we scored and we came out. I was just hoping I wouldn't swallow them. I think I even caught one ball that series."
But don't let the looks and the self-effacing demeanor fool you. When he's on the field, Bellini is a gridiron zealot. "He gets turned up a notch during games," Edwards says. "He's very intense."
That intensity occasionally manifests itself in behavior that football officials frown upon. Bellini has been thrown out of BYU's last two WAC games, against UTEP in the season-opener this year and against San Diego State in the regular-season finale last season. He says he behaved stupidly in both incidents, but as he describes them you get the feeling he might do the same thing again.
In the UTEP incident, he said, "They had a safety who was twisting my ankle after tackles. He'd done it about three times and I was getting sick of it. I vowed to myself I was going to get him back." Then he laughed and continued, "I probably should have waited for a more discreet time to do it. The guy tackled Pete (Tuipulotu) out of bounds, about 10 yards out of bounds, threw him down, and I just ran over and nailed him. It was stupid. I was just mad, sick and tired of getting my ankle turned around. I tend to lose my temper sometimes over things like that. It's just the way I am. I've always been aggressive."
In San Diego, he explained, he got in trouble for trying to help a teammate. "After a play was over, one of their linebackers had a hold of (offensive lineman) Brian May's face mask and was slamming Brian's head into the ground. I tried to pull the guy off, but he was just too big. I couldn't lift him or move him, and he just kept doing it. So I started hitting him in the ribs, just to get him off of Brian, and I got caught. The only thing the refs saw was me hitting him in the ribs, and I got kicked out. It wasn't very smart, but I can't sit there and let my teammate get his head slammed into the ground. I'm going to fight for him."
Those games probably won't make Bellini's personal highlight reel, but he's had enough big games for a couple of careers. He can't remember his bigest-yardage games, because he doesn't measure success in yards. Or catches. But he does remember that last season against Navy he scored four touchdowns, two running and two receiving. And he acknowledges that scoring is his favorite pastime.
"Touchdowns, scoring points, are the most important statistic," he says. "Nothing else really matters."
Bellini is also not impressed with himself for getting close to the receiving record, although he admits that he enjoyed passing his brother's total and being able to rub it in a little.
Right now, he's most excited about BYU's season, which he calls the high point of his career.
"With the kind of talent we have this year, and beating Miami, the No. 1 team in the country, and all the attention we've gotten, that's been the highlight for me," he says.
And the future? As you'd expect, he'd like to give the National Football League a shot. He realizes, however, that you can be a good college player and not come close to making it in the pros. His brother has spent time with three NFL teams since being drafted by the Colts in '87, and right now he's out of the league.
"I'm going to try," Bellini says. "I think I could fill a niche as a utility player, receiver or running back, special teams. But I'm not counting on it. You realize how hard it is."
If it doesn't work out, Bellini says he might go into real estate. One way or another, you get the feeling everything is going to work out all right for this guy. Something is there, in his eyes and in his attitude and in his history. Call it competitiveness or call it smarts or call it a lucky streak a mile wide - or don't call it anything. Just watch it happen.