I learned to work hard at a young age. I had a paper route at age 6. I mowed lawns. I worked in the yard all the time. They raised me that way. —Kyle Van Noy, BYU football player
Editor's note: This is the first in a three-part series that details the playing career and life of BYU linebacker Kyle Van Noy.
On a cold, gray Sunday afternoon I ducked into BYU’s sports information office to meet Kyle Van Noy for the first time. It was March 18, 2012. The night before I had been in Peoria, Ill., to watch Jabari Parker lead his high school basketball team to its third straight Illinois State Championship. For two months prior I had shadowed Parker for a Sports Illustrated profile. I had flown to Provo with hopes of convincing Van Noy to let me do a similar thing with him.
Only this was a little different. I explained to Van Noy that I was writing a book that explored many facets of college football. I told him the title — THE SYSTEM — and that I hoped to include a chapter or two on an underclassman facing the decision of whether to leave school early to enter the NFL draft.
Van Noy was intrigued. He was a sophomore at that point and had just come off a season where he forced a fumble, scooped it up, and scored the game-winning touchdown to stun Mississippi. He had never met with an author before. But he conceded that he was considering jumping to the pros after his junior year.
Despite being strangers, we talked for nearly two hours that first day. Hardly a word was spoken about football. He asked me a lot about my background. I asked a lot about his. He told me his parents were humble people. His father worked for parks and rec in Reno. His mother worked in a doctor’s office. They were blue collar.
“I learned to work hard at a young age,” he said. “I had a paper route at age 6. I mowed lawns. I worked in the yard all the time. They raised me that way.”
I could relate. My dad was a plumber; my mom a social worker. I had a paper route. I mowed lawns. If I wanted a new pair of sneakers I had to pay for them. My approach to journalism, I told him, stemmed from the work ethic I learned as a boy.
Van Noy and I were also like minded when it came to issues like judgement and redemption. We talked about those themes more than anything. I sensed he had a great backstory. I didn’t know what it was. But by the time I left Provo that night he agreed to tell it to me.
Five months later I returned to Provo with a photographer to help me capture a day in Van Noy’s life. It was the week leading up to last year’s Thursday night season-opener on ESPN against Washington State. On the drive from Salt Lake City to Provo I noticed the BYU billboards featuring Van Noy. I had read all the stories about his DUI arrest during his senior year of high school. The contrast between that and the billboard was striking. He’d gone from ineligible to attend BYU to the face of the university.
While my photographer snapped shots of him on campus that day, students passed by, calling out to him as if they knew him.
“Kyle, good luck Thursday night.” “Go get ‘em, Kyle.” “We’re with you.”
He smiled, waved and thanked each one. But none of those students actually knew him. When you are the star of a big-time college football program, you get used to people approaching you. Your time is not your own.
Kyle, however, is an intensely private star. I got a better sense of that after the Washington State game. The following morning we met on the deserted BYU practice field. I asked how he ended up at BYU.
“I have a past,” he began.
I figured he was referring to the DUI arrest. He said that was only part of the story. There had been a second scrape with the law. It had happened one month after the DUI. But the second incident had remained beneath the radar. The papers never found out. Neither had BYU. It was a safe secret.
It would have remained a secret if Van Noy had kept silent. That would have been the easier thing to do. But he felt obligated to come clean, despite knowing that doing so would probably end his BYU career before it began.
In March 2009, he emptied his piggy bank and purchased a plane ticket on Southwest. “I gathered up all the money I could and flew up here to face Coach Mendenhall face to face,” Van Noy told me.
One of the best scenes in THE SYSTEM is Kyle Van Noy entering Coach Mendenhall’s office. Pleasantly surprised, Mendenhall smiled and asked: “What are you doing here?”
Instantly, Mendenhall’s smile evaporated when Van Noy looked away, biting his lip. Then his eyes welled up. So did Mendenhall’s.
“Kyle, talk to me,” Mendenhall said. “Let me help you.”
It was a defining moment in Van Noy’s life, much bigger than any play he’d ever make on a football field. He looked Mendenhall in the eyes, held nothing back, and braced for the worst.
Rather than judge him, Mendenhall accepted him. “We all have our struggles,” Mendenhall told him. They embraced. Then Mendenhall went to bat for him with the AD and the dean of students.
“That day I would have never thought I would become what I am now,” Van Noy said. “As a 16-year-old I was pretty lonely. Bronco reached out. Words can’t describe how I felt.”
It was warm outside as he told me that story. But I had goose bumps. The thing I kept coming back to was that Mendenhall and the BYU administration would have never known about the second arrest if Van Noy hadn’t told them. That’s integrity.
Moreover, three years later, as we sat there on the practice field, the BYU fan base and the media still didn’t know about that second incident. The dean, the AD and Mendenhall had properly kept it confidential. But by sharing it with me, Van Noy was putting it out there for every college football fan in America to read in a book.
“Young kids in trouble need to realize it is OK to ask for help,” he said. “Because of the things that I’ve done, I can say, ‘Hey, you’re not alone.’ Coming here made me realize that it is OK to ask for help.”
Jeff Benedict is a best-selling author and columnist for SI.com. He recently wrote "THE SYSTEM: The Glory and Scandal of Big-Time College Football" with Armen Keteyian.