I had a clear impression when speaking and looking at him that night. I said to myself: 'He needs to be at BYU.' —BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall
Editor's note: This is the second of three excerpts taken from "THE SYSTEM: The Glory and Scandal of Big-Time College Football," by Jeff Benedict and Armen Keteyian. Today's installment focuses on the recruiting process of linebacker Kyle Van Noy.
On April 29, 2008, Bronco Mendenhall stepped to the pulpit at a Mormon church in Reno, Nevada. He wasn’t there to talk football. His topic was faith. But the event had been billed as an evening with BYU’s head football coach — a devotional. On that night in Reno, as Mendenhall looked out at hundreds of kids — girls in modest dresses and boys in white shirts and ties — his eyes were drawn to the one at the very back of the hall. He looked different from the others in every way — taller, well built, sporting an Afro, and wearing a long black peacoat. When Mendenhall made eye contact, the boy returned his gaze with a skeptical, hard stare. It was clear this kid didn’t want to be there.
That boy was Kyle Van Noy, then a sixteen-year-old junior linebacker and wide receiver at Reno’s McQueen High. Arguably the best all-around athlete in the state of Nevada, he had recruiting letters from the top football programs in the country — LSU, Nebraska, Oregon, UCLA and twenty others. BYU had written and called him, too. But he had ignored the Cougars. Despite being a Mormon, Van Noy had zero interest in playing for his church’s university. “I didn’t like anything that had to do with BYU,” Van Noy said.
Nor did he care to hear what Mendenhall had to say. “I didn’t want to be there that night,” Van Noy recalled. “My parents made me go. I figured it was going to be another talk about church stuff.”
Instead, Mendenhall talked about geese flying in V formation, taking turns at the point and never abandoning a member of the flock. He had Van Noy’s undivided attention.
“He taught us that if one goose fell off and was unable to fly, another goose would wait with him until he either died or was able to rejoin the group,” Van Noy recalled. “At that time I felt so alone. And it felt like he was talking directly to me. I had never heard a football coach talk like that.”
Afterward, Mendenhall introduced himself. A friendship was struck.
“I had a clear impression when speaking and looking at him that night,” said Mendenhall. “I said to myself: ‘He needs to be at BYU.’”
Months later Mendenhall made an in-home visit. There he met Kyle’s parents, Layne and Kelly. In 1991 they adopted Kyle weeks after he was born in Las Vegas. Devout Mormons, the Van Noys were living in California when they received a call from LDS Family Services, which assists Mormon families with adoption.
For the first two years of Kyle’s life he wore corrective leg braces. At night he wore a bar fastened to his shoes in order to keep his legs apart. In the morning the toddler would climb out of his crib, crawl down the hall GI Joe–style and enter his parents’ bedroom, the bar still fastened to his shoes. The impediment forced him to use only his elbows to pull himself from one end of the house to the other. That’s when Layne and Kelly realized that their adopted son had an unusually determined spirit.
Eventually, the leg braces came off, and the Van Noys relocated to Reno, where Kyle blossomed into a three-sport star athlete. While he remained close to his parents during high school, Kyle became less comfortable around his fellow Mormon teens. Instead, he ran with kids who partied and drank. He felt more accepted by them.
Van Noy shared all of this, as well as other personal challenges he was facing, with Mendenhall during the in-home visit. “He didn’t hide anything,” Mendenhall said. “He was sincere and truthful. He just said, ‘I’ve done this. I’ve done this. I struggle with that.’ He was very blunt.”
Mendenhall was equally blunt, telling Van Noy that he would be required to live every aspect of the honor code if he accepted a football scholarship to BYU. “BYU is a unique place,” Mendenhall said. “I told Kyle who we are and that it’s not for everyone. I was pretty clear about what he was getting into if he chose BYU.”
Jim Snelling was Van Noy’s defensive coordinator at McQueen High. A former player at Nevada, Snelling had coached plenty of kids who earned Division I scholarships, including a couple who went on to successful careers in the NFL. But he had never seen a player quite like Van Noy. “His acceleration from a standing-still position is remarkable,” Snelling said. “At the snap of the ball he just explodes. All the college recruiters saw this when I sent out film on him.”
By his sophomore year, Van Noy had a scholarship offer from Colorado. UCLA and Boise State were right behind it. By the start of Van Noy’s senior year in the fall of 2008, Snelling felt as if top recruiters across the country had him on speed dial.
Oregon, in particular, was putting a lot of heat on Van Noy to commit early. It was hard to overlook the appeal of playing there. The team played a lot of games on national television. It had the coolest uniforms. And it was sure to be in the mix for the national championship. But Van Noy’s top priority for choosing a team was much more personal.
“I wanted to play for a coach who cared more about me as a person than a football player,” Van Noy said.
Eight weeks into the season BYU was 7-1, losing only to nationally ranked TCU. On October 31, Mendenhall was with his team in Fort Collins, preparing to play Colorado State the following day. That same night back in Reno, Van Noy was in his bedroom, alone. “I was sitting there thinking about all the things I had done,” Van Noy said. “I was thinking, ‘I have to get out of this. I need a way out.’ As a sixteen-year-old, I was pretty lonely.”
Unsure where to turn, he picked up his cell phone and called Mendenhall. He was at the team hotel. It was late. After saying hello, Van Noy got to the point. “Hey, I have these issues,” Van Noy told him. “I know you have standards. I don’t know if I will fulfill the standards. But I will try.”
Excerpted from THE SYSTEM: The Glory and Scandal of Big-Time College Football by Jeff Benedict and Armen Keteyian Copyright © 2013 by Jeff Benedict & Associates, LLC, and Lights Out Productions, LLC. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. THE SYSTEM is available online at Amazon.com.