"Some believe that sports build character. I believe that sports reveal character. I see too many players who are characters today. I like a player with character." — John Wooden, legendary UCLA basketball coach.
Perhaps the most endearing play in the long history of the Utah-BYU rivalry came moments after its greatest drama.
In the chaos that followed John Beck's 2006 game-winning touchdown pass to Jonny Harline on the last play of an epic battle, the senior quarterback found himself on the receiving end of a quick hug and congratulations from someone he didn't expect — Utah senior Eric Weddle. As these fierce competitors walked and talked, red No. 32 put his arm around the white shoulder pads of No. 12. They shared some friendly words, shook hands and parted ways.
A friendship was born.
Four years later, Beck is the third-string quarterback for the Washington Redskins and Weddle plays free safety for the San Diego Chargers. The two live a 15-minute drive from one another outside San Diego. Prior to fall training camp, the Becks and Weddles met for a barbecue and some boating at a friend's beach house. John invited Eric to play in his charity golf tournament. There are also plans to do some serious fishing in the coming offseason.
"It's funny," Beck said. "Neither of us knew each other until the rivalry. Neither of us is from Utah. But our paths crossed and now we live by each other. It's been interesting to see how it has all played out since then."
As the Cougars went crazy and the Utes watched in stunned silence, it was hard to describe how Beck was feeling when the '06 game ended.
BYU had not beaten Utah in four years. The 2004 game ended in a blowout loss in Salt Lake City; the Utes stole an overtime victory in the '05 game in Provo. The senior signal-caller had also endured years of criticism and abuse from his own fan base for failing to win the big games.
So when Beck orchestrated a 75-yard drive in the final 1:09, and scrambled to find teammate Jonny Harline open with an 11-yard touchdown pass on the final play of the game, his emotions overflowed.
"After the '04 game, after our coach spoke to the team, I walked back out on the field and watched all the people celebrate the fiesta," Beck said. "I wanted to take a mental picture. Before I left BYU, I wanted to have a moment like that for our team."
Beck continued: "When the game came down to the wire (in '06) and Utah scored to go ahead, I couldn't believe it. We had played so well, we worked so hard. I made the decision that we were going to win. I had this calm, it-is-going-to-happen feeling."
Beck didn't know it yet, but his resolve had won the respect of his arch nemesis.
When Eric Weddle reflects on the '06 game and the events that followed, he shrugs. "How did I even do that? I don't know," he says.
Losing on the final play to Beck and the Cougars in his final home game was a bitter pill to swallow for Utah's all-American. Weddle rarely came off the field. When he wasn't making tackles or matching up with BYU's biggest receiving threat defensively, he was running with the ball or playing special teams. He even threw an 18-yard touchdown pass in the first half. He had never lost to the Cougars and wasn't about to lose as a senior.
On the game's final play, the crimson captain was on the opposite side of the end zone when he saw Beck float his unforgettable pass to Harline. Suddenly it was all over. Utah had lost and Weddle was crushed.
"To lose like that … I didn't get over that loss for weeks … just thinking about it …" Weddle said. "But sometimes you got to be the bigger man."
Weddle said his father Steve taught him to respect his opponent and treat the game right. You always congratulate your opponent and never make excuses for a loss, Weddle said.
Weddle had also developed respect for Beck after observing the way he handled pressure and intense scrutiny over his career.
So when Weddle saw Beck after the game, he was moved to say something and he didn't care what others might think. Despair and devastation were temporarily replaced by esteem and admiration.
"For whatever reason, I felt it in me to go up to him and say, 'Hey man, I feel horrible right now, but I am happy for you,'" Weddle said. "Obviously I would go back and win that game a thousand times, but it was his shining moment. I can appreciate and respect a guy who puts it all on the line and does whatever he can to help his team win. I see myself as that guy."
Beck recalls Weddle saying something to the effect of, "That was awesome, an amazing game. A lot of people are going to remember this one, great job." The classy gesture by Weddle left a deep impression on Beck.
"I have been in games like that, to go down to the wire and lose, you know he was sick inside. Not everybody has character like that," Beck said. "People don't understand how much high-caliber athletes invest to get those wins and when it doesn't happen, it hurts. He walked up at a moment when it hurt and was a person of high character. That is the mark of a champion on and off the field. To be honest, if I would have lost that game, I don't know if I would have walked up to say great job."
The two players talked about one other thing in the brief exchange — fishing. A mutual friend had tried to set up a fishing trip for the trio, but it didn't feel appropriate until the season was over.
"When I had my arm on his shoulder, on TV you can see me smile at him. That's when I said, 'I guess we can go fishing now.'" Beck said.
Weddle agreed: "Yeah, we will have to do that."
Chad Lewis, former BYU and NFL tight end, later said the exchange between Weddle and Beck set a remarkable example of sportsmanship for every athlete in Utah.
"It was incredible. For me personally, and for all the players at BYU and Utah. He (Eric Weddle) set a standard for class that was very impressive," Lewis said.
In recent years when the Cougar and Ute have been together, they like to discuss hunting, fishing, golf and anything outdoors.
"He's kind of a nerd in a sense, always joking around," Weddle said. "When we get together it's a good time."
Beck admitted Weddle is the better golfer, but he expects to catch more fish. "I'll smoke him," the quarterback said.
They also talk serious football and reflect on the days of the rivalry. Eric likes to brag that his touchdown pass had a sweeter spiral than any of John's.
Both guys are glad the big game will continue to be played in years to come.
Recalling Max Hall's 2009 postgame comments also sparked a good discussion. Both remembered how their families were treated at rivalry games. Following the '04 loss at Rice-Eccles, Beck was recognized by Utah fans while leaving with his wife and parents. He said the fans were cordial and complimentary of the good things BYU did in the game, Beck said.
When Beck was a Miami Dolphin, he and his family were on a plane when another passenger identified him. "He said he was a Utah fan and that he will hate me forever," Beck said.
For players who are worried about their families at rivalry games, they might consider staying home, Weddle said. The first time he went with the Chargers to play in Oakland, his family was heckled, pushed out of restrooms and told to remove their Weddle jerseys. They haven't been back since.
"I don't think it's right that people get yelled at and treated rudely, but people need to realize the situation is hard to control. You got to know you are going into a hostile environment. Stuff happens. If you don't want your family subjected to that, then don't go," Weddle said. "That's why my family doesn't go to Oakland."
Both players agree that generally speaking, fans are great and rivalry games are a blast.
"Rivalry games are different because of the fans, the communities and the magnitude of the game. When you go to a certain school, you become part of that rivalry, regardless of your background. That's why fans love it," Beck said. "You may dislike the other team, but that is also why you should respect them."
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