PROVO — When Tanner Mangum scrambled in the pocket, felt his foot explode, and headed for the turf against Fresno State last Saturday night, his move to get rid of the football and avoid negative yardage was kind of symbolic.
All Mangum wanted to do this season was play his best, live up to expectations, deliver wins, and try to hit the high mark set by BYU quarterbacks of yesteryear.
Time and time again this year, he’s had challenges to that dream, or as Gene Roddenberry called it: the Prime Directive.
Now, Mangum is expected to undergo surgery to repair damage to his Achilles tendon. Among athletic injuries, this one, along with a torn patellar tendon (kneecap), is considered among the toughest to come back from.
This situation with Mangum strikes me as profoundly sad.
That he had a season-ending injury on the heels of making a comeback from a high ankle sprain to his other foot on a night he was experiencing his best performance of the season? Very sad.
I remember the first time I saw Mangum at a BYU football practice the summer he enrolled in school and took a gray shirt before serving an LDS Church mission to Chile. He was totally engrossed in learning everything he could, standing behind the quarterbacks and coaches, soaking in information he wouldn’t use for another three years.
He was a golden boy from Eagle, Idaho, and the co-MVP of the Elite Eleven Quarterback Camp, a major accolade. Hopes for Mangum were high. If only someday would come quick.
It came sooner than anyone thought when he was thrust into action in BYU’s season opener at Nebraska in 2015. Sent in for the injured Taysom Hill, it was a game he helped win with a storied Hail Mary pass to Mitch Mathews as time expired. He was just three months back from his two-year mission.
In the ensuing weeks that fall everyone got to see what the media saw of Mangum almost every day: a gracious, enthusiastic, well-mannered, ever-trying-to-please guy with an eternal smile. On the public stage, he never is a downer.
But this wobbly BYU football season has been a disappointment. Mangum has had a front seat to see it all. In June, he courageously shared with the public that he fought anxiety and depression issues. He believed in his heart, that by speaking up he might help shine some light on personal struggles many experience so that others too might get help.
Mr. Gallantry. Mangum has always brought light and hope to those around him.
Never in his wildest imagination did he expect BYU to win just two games heading into the UNLV game in Las Vegas this Friday. This became the season from Hades for Mangum and his teammates and coaches. And for the fans.
Deep into August, this wasn’t the case. In closed practices, he was firing on all cylinders. His receivers were making plays. There was anticipation and excitement, lofty projections and expectations.
That seems like a decade ago.
After the tragic fourth quarter in Fresno and a very long night for Mangum and his family, I saw a message on Twitter from his mother, Karen.
It was just five words: “Life is a learning ground.” She then quoted C.S. Lewis from “A Grief Observed”: “The best is perhaps what we understand the least.”
No explanation. No expounding. No attempt to interpret.
It was just those words lingering in the bad dream kind of ending to Mangum’s junior year as a college quarterback.
I remember talking to his mother on the phone this summer and she told the story of Tanner’s first year at Eagle High after transferring in for his junior year from a Boise school .
In the second game of the season against the Eagles' archrival Rocky Mountain, Tanner broke his collarbone in the first quarter. She remembered rushing him to the hospital for treatment and then Tanner’s insistence to get back to the game, arriving as it ended.
Tanner ran up to his coach and the first words out of his mouth were, “Coach, I am so sorry.” He was in tears.
The coach took Mangum aside and said, “Now is not the time to be sorry. You need to be a leader now off the field. You need to be a team captain even on the sidelines. We need you.”
Said Karen, “That coach challenged Tanner that night. It helped him understand he had an important role even though he couldn’t play.”
And so for Tanner Mangum, it has come full circle. He’s been in this spot many times before, even in this very season when he sat out the Utah State and Wisconsin games.
Life is a learning ground.
Yet, it is also very sad.