The support’s been awesome. The staff has been great and the fans and everyone’s been very good about it. —Reno Mahe
PROVO — Amid a heart-wrenching family tragedy, BYU running backs coach Reno Mahe is back at practice — and he’s returned with peace and a powerful perspective.
The Cougars are preparing for the Dec. 21 Poinsettia Bowl in San Diego against Wyoming. What Mahe and his wife, Sunny, have endured this past month — the accident and eventual death of their 3-year-old daughter, Elsie — has certainly brought the team closer together.
And their experience has made an impact beyond the BYU community.
“For the most part, we’ve had a close-knit group here,” Mahe said Monday after practice. “Everyone has each other’s back. It definitely had to touch another part of the players’ soul or heart or whatever. The support’s been awesome. The staff has been great and the fans and everyone’s been very good about it.”
At times Mahe’s eyes were moist with tears, but, as is his wont, he was able to smile and joke around with the media as he fielded questions.
Elsie, the youngest of the Mahe’s eight children, became entangled in the cords of a mini-blind on Nov. 22 and was taken to Primary Children’s Hospital in Salt Lake City, where she later passed away.
The following Saturday, after BYU defeated Utah State in the regular-season finale, an emotional running back Jamaal Williams presented the game ball to Mahe.
All season long, Sunny Mahe brought cookies to the running backs in a tradition called “Cookie Wednesdays.”
The incident involving Elsie happened on a Tuesday.
“We were at the hospital and (the players) brought ‘Cookie Wednesday’ to the hospital,” Mahe said. “Little things like that have brought everyone closer, the running backs with the family.”
A public memorial for Elsie was held last Friday at the Salt Palace as thousands showed up to pay their respects to Elsie and the Mahe family. Elsie was buried Saturday in a private funeral.
“With Reno’s family, our heart goes out to him and we pray for him,” said wide receiver Mitchell Juergens. “It’s very hard to see them go through this but at the same time, it was eye-opening at how well their perspective on this whole process has been. They’re very positive people. They understand the Lord’s will. It brings us comfort knowing that he’s okay.”
The Mahes have relied on their strong faith during this time of crisis.
“I don’t believe in coincidences,” Reno Mahe said. “The Lord has a plan for all of us, and I think this was just part of His plan.”
The Mahes have also received a groundswell of support from around the state and around the country. And support has also been strong from the rival school, the University of Utah.
This month, former Ute safety Steve Tate's 20-month-old son passed away. Hayes Tate was diagnosed with brain cancer in January. The Tates and Mahes were at the hospital at the same time. Reno and Steve were able to talk to each other and console each other in the lobby on a few occasions.
“It was a cool experience,” Mahe said.
Several members of Utah’s coaching staff showed their love for Mahe as well and he wasn’t surprised. He grew up with defensive coordinator Morgan Scalley. He played with Aaron Roderick and Justin Ena at BYU. They showed up at the hospital on a regular basis.
“My brother played at the U. It’s something where we’ve gotten close to those guys over there,” Mahe said. “Whether it’s something that brings the fan base closer together or make some more civility in it, great. Outside of that, it was just guys where you become part of that football fraternity and regardless of where you’re at or what you’re doing, you’re always there for each other. I really appreciate them.”
Mahe mentioned that at the funeral, his older brother placed a Utah helmet on Elsie’s casket.
“And it sat there for a while. looked at my sister and said, ‘This doesn’t look good for me. My employer’s BYU,'" Mahe said, laughing. "So my sister took it off and put a BYU hat on it. We have respect for both programs. My brother got a degree from the U. and myself getting one from BYU. Our family’s indebted to both schools.”
Mahe expressed his gratitude to head coach Kalani Sitake, athletic director Tom Holmoe and the university for allowing him to spend time with his family these past few weeks.
“BYU has been good to give me the time I need to get those things done as far as the family obligations,” Mahe said.
At the same time, Mahe is appreciative for the time he was able to spend with his family before Elsie's accident.
“(Sitake’s) given me so much time to go home and have dinner with my wife and kids,” Mahe said. “I look back at this year and the time I got to spend at home and I’m grateful for that. Because the way Kalani has made sure that we’re home having dinner with our families, when something like this happens, we did spend time It’s my job and it provides a living for my family. So that’s important. But my family time is worth more than any of it.”
Mahe’s return to work has provided him with a sense of normalcy and a way to escape.
“Kalani gave me all the time. He told me to do what I need to do, to come or not doing anything,” he said. “Anytime that I’ve come (to work), it was me needing a little break, needing a little normalcy. As you know with the Polynesian culture, there were 100 people at the house. It was nice to get away for a little bit.”
Elsie Mahe’s favorite color was pink and many people in the stands at LaVell Edwards Stadium donned that color during the Utah State game in tribute to her. Mahe said he’ll probably wear pink shoes at the bowl game.
“As far as honoring her, it’s one of those things that, as a dad, you’re just trying to live a good life and honor her in that way,” Mahe said. “I have a bunch of other little rug-rats running around my house. I’ve hugged them a little bit more and spent a little more time with them.”
“The biggest tribute we can do is to go out and play our hardest,” Juergens said. “You’ll see that on the field.”