SALT LAKE CITY — The first time my boss ever laid eyes on Filipo Mokofisi, he thought: “What am I doing here?”
The football field at East High School, even in the early 1980s, was no safe place for a 130-pound future journalist/defensive back, but it was a fine place for a star like Mokofisi.
“He was huge,” says Kent Condon, now sports editor at the Deseret News.
Kent was among a group of players called up from the sophomore team for the Leopards' playoff run. But Mokofisi was on his way to becoming a first-team all-WAC linebacker at Utah and an eighth-round NFL draft pick. Yet even for a guy who has all the gifts, there can be problems: He never could beat BYU. Three out of four years (1982-85), the Utes came fairly close. But close only counts in slow dancing and Oscars.
“He doesn’t like to talk about it,” says his son, Filipo Mokofisi Jr., who now plays for the Utes.
But 3½ decades later, the elder Mokofisi has a chance to settle the score. Saturday when Utah meets BYU, his son, a defensive tackle, is going for his fourth win over the Cougars.
Sometimes karma brings you back to the beginning.
“I know for some people, this game’s not a big deal,” says the younger Mokofisi, “but it is for me.”
It’s especially big for those who lived through the ’80s and watched BYU win virtually every year.
The senior Mokofisi’s history against the Cougars is easily tracked. In 1982, BYU took a 17-6 lead into the fourth quarter of the rivalry game. A rushing touchdown pulled Utah within five, but the conversion failed. Utah outgained the Cougars 468 yards to 300, had 11 more possession minutes and double the first downs. But three lost fumbles resulted in a 17-12 Cougar win.
The next year, BYU won 55-7.
No room for debate there.
But in 1984, the Utes again made it competitive. After jumping to the lead, they allowed 17 straight points before cutting the deficit to 17-14 in the third quarter. Despite picking off three BYU passes, the Utes allowed 521 total yards in a 24-14 loss.
Utah lost 38-28 in Mokofisi’s senior year, but only after trailing 31-28 in the fourth. A dozen penalties were their undoing.
“I wish we could have won some of those games,” the elder Mokofisi says. “But we didn’t, so I joke with my son like that. He always says, ‘Dad, you’re 0-4 against BYU.’ I say, ‘I know, I know.’”
Young Filipo redshirted in 2013, but was there for Utah’s 20-13 win. He played in the 2015 and 2016 victories.
Mokofisi Sr. is an assistant coach at Woods Cross High — a school he scarcely knew when he was playing. His son, who prepped at Woods Cross, is coming off an honorable mention All-Pac-12 season.
The elder Mokofisi played in an era when football wasn’t particularly respected at Utah. The Utes went 5-6 each of his first two years, but improved to six wins in 1984 and eight in 1985. Yet the biggest improvements arrived with Ron McBride in 1990.
“When he took the job, I just had a feeling that he was going to change the way things went at Utah,” the elder Mokofisi says. “We didn’t get some of the big defensive line guys until he became the head coach. He changed the way Utah recruited kids.”
Now Utah is two-deep at the defensive front — sometimes three-deep — in part due to players such as the younger Mokofisi. The group will be tasked with pressuring BYU quarterback Tanner Mangum into mistakes on Saturday.
If that works, the ledger will be balanced. The Mokofisi family will be 4-4 all-time against BYU.
“My dad doesn’t like to talk about it (0-4), but I do bring it up,” says Filipo Jr. “I give him crap about it. He doesn’t talk about it, but I know it’s back there in his head. He’s happy I haven’t lost to them.”
For both dad and lad, squaring up the ledger would be, well, huge.