Keith Johnson, Deseret Morning News
Bill Earl, left, and Doug Pike are longtime Utah sideline crew members who plan to retire when the season ends. They have been doing the job for 43 years.

Doug Pike was just doing his job one day a few years ago when former University of Utah quarterback Alex Smith came seemingly out of nowhere and mowed him over.

Call an ambulance? Police? Lawyers?

Not unless they're friends or family members of Pike's who want to hear a man brag about getting leveled.

"That's my claim to fame," says Pike, a retired banker. "I got flattened by the All-American."

For guys like Pike and Bill Earl — two longtime fixtures on the sideline crew at Rice-Eccles Stadium — getting up-close-and-personal meetings with football players is a workplace risk they've been more than willing to take during the past 43 years as members of the officials' chain gang.

That's just one of the many fond memories the two retiring crew members will take away from their decades of trotting up and down the stadium's sidelines.

Earl, the crew chief, and Pike, his buddy who's been working alongside him for nearly a half-century, are officially retiring from the seasonal part-time gridiron gig they've been doing since Ray Nagel coached the Utes in the early 1960s.

It won't be the same watching the action from the stands, but Earl and Pike admit they're ready to head upstairs. It's time, Earl says, to "pass the stick." The fact that he turns 65 next year and just had his hip replaced — putting him on the injured list to watch games from a sixth-level suite most of this season — made his decision all the easier. Pike is feeling the wear and tear as well.

"It gets hard on the back, knees and ankles," says Earl, a retired teacher. "Let the younger guys have their turn."

They can afford to call it quits now after padding their bank accounts with — oh wait, they worked for free. Well, actually they worked for all the peanuts — or hot dogs and Cokes — their concessions vouchers could buy and a couple of general admission bench seats.

Earl joked that they've been doing it for free for so long, they never thought about asking for money. Funny, the U. never asked them if they wanted any, either.

Despite the lack of paychecks, they've lasted on the sideline with a priceless point of view far longer than any Ute head coach. Heck, they've seen 10 different head coaches and have lasted more years than combined victories during the regimes of Mike Giddings (9-12), Tom Lovat (5-28) and Urban Meyer (22-2). And they've been holding up orange sticks and marking the line of scrimmage and first-down spots almost as long as current 47-year-old coach Kyle Whittingham has been alive.

And they have stories to prove it.

Some good ... such as having better-than-front-row seats to watch stellar plays by standout players like Smith (when he wasn't running over them), Scott Mitchell, Steve Smith, Jamal Anderson and so on.

Some bad ... such as the time a player ran out of bounds and knocked the metal marker (they're now plastic and Styrofoam) out of Earl's hands. It landed smack on top of assistant coach Tom Gadd, who was Wayne Howard's defensive coordinator. It gashed Gadd's head. Making things all the more awkward, guess who the coach's next-door-neighbor was at the time?

"He never let me live that down," Earl recalls with a chuckle.

Some painful (to them) but unforgettable ... such as getting tackled by a future No. 1 NFL draft pick. Not surprisingly, Smith was cordial after the collision.

"He was a polite enough guy. He said, 'Are you OK?"' Pike recalls. "I don't remember what I said."

And some simply awkward ... such as being on the visiting sideline when their rivals were in town.

"One of the toughest ones honestly is BYU," Earl admits. "They are tough to deal with."

Adds Pike: "I've always preferred to be on Utah's side."

Being with his buddies at least six times a fall for a few hours and getting to hear what the coaches have to say during games are a couple more of the job highlights for Earl.

"It is really fun being on the sidelines ... ," Earl says. "It's very difficult to watch the game in the stands."

Steve Pyne, Utah's director of events and facility operations, calls Earl "the backbone of the chain crew operation that really is a major part of the football game. Earl, who has coordinated the football crew's workings with Pyne since the days of Chuck Stobart in the 1980s, also handles official scorer duties for the men's basketball team at the Huntsman Center.

"I've known him for 25 years. I've known him to be a Ute through and through," Pyne says. "He's always been there and willing to provide services ... He's just a great guy. Officials know him all over the country."

They'll soon get to know Earl's son, Dan, as well. He is on the crew now along with a brother and a brother-in-law and will likely take over as chief.

And fans in the stands will become acquainted with Earl and Pike, who might need some time to adjust to life after the chain gang. They'll be the guys holding sticks in the stands instead of pompoms.

All-American dynasty

The two friends have also seen quite a few elite players come and go through Utah. The All-Americans they've watched include:

• 1964: Roy Jefferson, defensive end

• 1970: Marv Bateman, kicker; Norm Thompson, defensive back

• 1973: Steve Odom, return specialist

• 1980: Jeff Griffin, defensive back

• 1981: Steve Clark, defensive tackle

• 1984: Carlton Walker, offensive guard

• 1985: Erroll Tucker, return specialist

• 1991: Bryan Rowley, wide receiver

• 1994: Luther Ellis, defensive tackle (consensus); Anthony Brown, offensive tackle; Mike McCoy, quarterback

• 2001: Doug Kaufusi, offensive tackle

• 2002: Jordan Gross, offensive tackle (consensus)

• 2004: Alex Smith, quarterback; Chris Kemoeatu, offensive guard; Steve Savoy, wide receiver; Morgan Scalley, defensive back

• 2006: Eric Weddle, defensive back (consensus)

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