With the National Football League set to begin its 69th season today, it's time to present our annual roundup of Utahns who have made the grade (along with an update on those who didn't).
At one time as many as 77 Utah natives and collegians were trying for spots on NFL rosters; 34 of them made it. Many of the old names are back - Christensen, Hipple, McMahon, Jones - but many are gone, too - Wilson, Ehin, Titensor.Thanks to the player's strike last year, there are several new names to add to the Utah list, as well. Glen Kozlowski, Steve Folsom, Craig McEwen and Bruce Hansen all won second chances in NFL strike games last year after being cut, and then made the team this fall.
Here is a look at Utah's NFL players:
HAL GARNER (Utah State/Logan High, No. 99, Buffalo Bills) - Garner had broken into the starting lineup at outside linebacker last year before injuring his right knee in the third preseason game. He missed the entire '87 season and underwent knee surgery. Now in his third season, he is listed as No. 2 on the depth chart.
ERROLL TUCKER (Utah, No. 22, Buffalo Bills) - Remember him? Tucker, an unparalleled kick returner at Utah, spent his rookie season on injured reserve (IR) two years ago, then was cut by the Steelers before the start of last season. He has now caught on with the Bills. A reserve cornerback, he will return kicks and punts.
JIM MCMAHON (BYU/Roy High, No. 9, Chicago Bears) - Mac is back, but for how long? McMahon returned from one of his many injury-enforced layoffs last season to produce some credible numbers: he completed 125 of 210 pass attempts (59.5 percent) for 1,639 yards, 12 touchdowns and 8 interceptions to rank fourth among NFC passers (seventh in the NFL).
GLEN KOZLOWSKI (BYU, No. 88, Chicago Bears) - Kozlowski finally has landed in the NFL after years of waiting. First there was a serious knee injury as a BYU senior, then a year's recuperation, then he was waived last year by the Bears in the final cut of the preseason. He rejoined the Bears for the three strike games, caught 15 passes for 199 yards and 3 touchdowns, but broke an ankle in the final strike game. This fall he caught 4 passes for 73 yards in preseason play and made the roster as the team's No. 2 wideout.
JASON BUCK (BYU, No. 99, Cincinnati Bengals) - Hurt by a lengthy holdout and the strike, Buck's rookie season was a quiet one - he had 7 tackles and 2 sacks as a reserve defensive end. His preseason was better: 12 tackles, 5 assists, 3 sacks. The '86 Outland Trophy winner is No. 2 on the depth chart at right defensive end, but he'll see frequent action. There are reports that he'll be used as a sort of roving, blitzing linebacker.
MIKE NORSETH (Snow, No. 12, Cincinnati Bengals) - Norseth again will be the Bengals' third-string quarterback, just as he was last season. He didn't throw a single pass in '87.
LEON WHITE (BYU, No. 51, Cincinnati Bengals) - A solid special teams player, White is also No. 2 at left outside linebacker. He had 7 tackles and 1 sack last season. In preseason play he had 11 tackles.
LEE JOHNSON (BYU, No. 11, Cleveland Browns) - After starting the '87 season with Houston, Johnson ended it with Cleveland. He ranked 11th among AFC punters, averaging 39.4 yards on 50 attempts. He'll handle the punting chores again this season.
STEVE FOLSOM (Utah, No. 85, Dallas Cowboys) - At 29, Folsom made his first NFL roster last season. He was cut during camp, then re-signed at midseason during the strike (but had no catches). He again will be the Cowboys' third tight end; he'll be used mostly as a blocker. Before catching on with Dallas, Folsom spent three years in the old USFL, catching 73 passes for the Philadelphia/Baltimore Stars.
MANUEL HENDRIX (Utah, No. 45, Dallas Cowboys) - Despite having played college basketball and no college football, Hendrix is now entering his third season in the NFL. As a reserve cornerback last year, Hendrix had 18 tackles and 4 assists. He made one start in the season-finale against St. Louis and played so well that he was awarded the game ball. He returned an interception 34 yards for a game-winning touchdown against Chicago during the preseason.
ROGER RUZEK (Weber State, No. 9, Dallas Cowboys) - Another USFL refugee (the New Jersey Generals), Ruzek made his first NFL roster last season and in a big way. He kicked a club-record five field goals against the Rams, and another club-record four field goals in one quarter against the Giants. In all, Ruzek, who was released and re-signed during the '87 training camp, was good on 88 percent of his field goal attempts (22 of 26), which ranked second in the NFL. He was a holdout during the '88 training camp, but finally signed last week.
RULON JONES (Utah State/Weber High, No. 75, Denver Broncos) - You figure it out. Jones has been demoted to second string (at defensive end) - despite being named second-team All-AFC last year and winning UPI's AFC Defensive Player of the Year award the previous year. At least one club officials says the coaches are merely trying to motivate Jones to play the run better, but the coaches deny it. They'll use him as a designated pass rusher. For the record, Jones had 7 sacks last season, 6 in the final 7 games, which leaves him with 68.5 career sacks - 3.5 off the club record. He also had 45 tackles, 43 assists and 21 hurries. He has started 69 straight games.
SHAWN KNIGHT (BYU, No. 99, Denver Broncos) - The New Orleans Saints traded Knight to the Broncos early this week in a move that will do nothing but help Knight's career. The Broncos will use him as a reserve left defensive end and perhaps as a noseguard. The 11th player chosen in the '87 draft, Knight played only 50 plays for the New Orleans Saints last season and failed to record a single tackle. Like Buck, he was hurt by a contract holdout and the strike.
GREG KRAGEN (Utah State, No. 71, Denver Broncos) - Kragen was hurt during the exhibition season and slipped to third on the depth chart at nosetackle, but he's been bumped back into the starting lineup for opening day. Now in his fourth season, Kragen started 8 games last season and recorded a team-high 48 first hits, 30 assisted tackles, 2 sacks and 1 fumble recovery. He has started 23 games the last 2 years.
ERIC HIPPLE (Utah State, No. 17, Detroit Lions) - Hipple was the Lions' starting quarterback heading into last season after producing a fine '86 season, but then he dislocated a thumb in training camp and spent the '87 season on IR. In '88, he'll back up Chuck Long, who led the Lions to a 4-11 record last year. But don't count out Hipple, who has thrown for 10,458 yards in his 7-year career.
PAT ALLEN (Utah State, No. 29, Houston Oilers) - Another holdout during the '88 exhibition season, Allen finally signed with the Oilers last week but has yet to regain his starting job at cornerback. He started 11 games last season and had 34 tackles, 9 assists and 1 interception.
AL SMITH (Utah State, No. 54, Houston Oilers) - Smith again is listed as the starter at right inside linebacker. Last year he had 44 tackles and 56 assists while starting 11 of 12 games.
MARK BELLINI (BYU, No. 87, Indianapolis Colts) - Bellini, in his second season, cracked the starting lineup at wide receiver midway through the exhibition season and led the team in receiving with 11 catches for 198 yards. He caught just 5 passes for 69 yards last season, all in one strike game. He had 1 catch for 21 yards in the playoffs.
TODD CHRISTENSEN (BYU, No. 46, L.A. Raiders) - For the fifth straight season, Christensen, one of the NFL's premier tight ends, played in the Pro Bowl last year, but his numbers were down, even considering the strike. He had 47 catches - after catching 92, 80, 82 and 95 passes the previous four seasons.
ANDY PARKER (Utah, No. 81, L.A. Raiders) - Parker will continue to be the Raiders' second or third tight end (depending on the situation). He also plays on special teams. He had only 2 catches last year, 1 for a TD, plus 10 tackles.
SHAWN MILLER (Utah State/Weber High, No. 98, L.A. Rams) - Yet another training camp holdout, Miller returned to the Rams two weeks ago and was immediately returned to his starting position at right defensive end. He was injured part of last season, but still had 23 tackles, 5 assists and 6 sacks in 6 starts.
BRUCE HARDY (Bingham High, No. 84, Miami Dolphins) - Hardy returns for his 11th season and once again will be the starting tight end. He caught 28 passes last year for 292 yards and 2 TDs.
RODNEY THOMAS (BYU, No. 45, Miami Dolphins) - A fifth-round draft choice last spring, Thomas made the club as a second-string cornerback.
TREVOR MATICH (BYU, No. 64, New England Patriots) - After spending two months on IR with a broken foot, Matich started at center the last four games of the '87 season. He's listed as the starting center heading into '88. If only he can stay healthy. Matich, a No. 1 draft choice in '84, also spent most of '85 on IR. He had two foot operations during the off-season.
BRUCE HANSEN (BYU/American Fork High, No. 35, New England Patriots) - Hansen, a running back, will start the year on IR with an ankle injury, but he's expected to be activated when he's healthy. He won a free agent tryout with the Patriots last year, was cut, then re-signed during the strike. The coaches liked him so much that they kept him the rest of the season and used him in a reserve role (he had 16 carries for 44 yards). He will be the team's No. 2 fullback. Not bad for a guy who couldn't win a starting job in college.
ART PLUNKETT (Skyline High, No. 70, New England Patriots) - Plunkett also will start the year on IR, which is where he's spent much of his career. He was on IR for two months last year and for all of the '86 season. This time he injured a knee in the first preseason game. When he's healthy he'll be a backup offensive tackle. He played in 7 games last year and started 1.
BART OATES (BYU, No. 65, New York Giants) - Oates will again be the Giants' starting center, just as he was all last season.
STEVE KAUFUSI (BYU/South High, No. 94, Philadelphia Eagles) - Kaufusi, a 1987 12th-round draft choice, will begin the year on IR with an ankle injury he sustained in the final preseason game; however, he has won a place on the roster as the No. 2 left defensive end behind All-Pro Reggie White.
VAI SIKAHEMA (BYU, No. 36, Phoenix Cardinals) - For the second straight year, Sikahema earned a trip to the Pro Bowl as a kick return specialist. He finished fourth among NFC punt returners last year with a 12.5 average, returning one for a 76-yard TD. He was sixth in kickoff returns with a 22.4 average. Sikahema, who is also a reserve running back, still hasn't lost his touch. In the final preseason game he returned a punt 81 yards for a TD. No doubt Sikahema likes the Cards' move to Phoenix, which is where he grew up.
TOM HOLMOE (BYU, No. 28, San Francisco 49ers) - Holmoe played in 11 games last season as a reserve free safety and had 21 tackles and 1 interception. He'll have the same job this season.
TODD SHELL (BYU, No. 90, San Francisco 49ers) - Shell, who on the rare occasions he's healthy starts at inside linebacker, is on IR at the moment and some wonder if he'll ever play again. He was paralyzed after a collision with a teammate and still hasn't regained total feeling in his right side. A No. 1 draft pick in 1984, Shell has had an injury-plagued career. He has played in only 38 of a possible 61 games and has been on IR 3 times.
STEVE YOUNG (BYU, No. 8, San Francisco 49ers) - Young's performance in the last 3 games of last season - in which he completed 37 of 69 passes for 570 yards, 10 TDs and 0 interceptions - plus his showing in the playoffs, has fueled a quarterback controversy. But Young will remain No. 2, behind Joe Montana.
KURT GOUVEIA (BYU, No. 54, Washington Redskins) - As a reserve inside linebacker, Gouveia had 20 tackles and 7 assists last season. He'll back up Wilbur Marshall, who was signed via Chicago for $6 million.
CRAIG MCEWEN (Utah, No. 30, Washington Redskins) - During the exhibition season, McEwen was listed as No. 3 on the depth chart at H-back, but on Monday the 'Skins cut the two players in front of him, Clint Didier and Terry Orr, and now McEwen is the starter. He had 8 catches for 129 yards in exhibition play (despite missing 1 game). McEwen, a free agent, was cut by Washington in training camp last year, then re-signed during the strike. He played in 4 games and caught 12 passes for 164 yards.