He (Parker Overly) was always pushing me to play football, and telling me to hang up the soccer cleats. —Matt Gay
SALT LAKE CITY — Before winning a prestigious football award that he didn’t know existed, Matt Gay was a talented college soccer player with an impressive resume on the pitch and multiple years of eligibility remaining at Utah Valley University.
A 6-foot-1, 220-pound athlete, he’d led UVU with seven goals his freshman year in 2014 and, after an LDS mission in Houston, notched one game-winner and appeared in 15 games as a sophomore in 2016.
In high school, Gay was Orem High’s all-time leading goal-scorer, a two-time all-state player and the first Utahn to attend the U-17 USA Men’s National Team residency program.
Even with all that soccer success over the years, Gay’s best friend often suggested he should give that sport the boot.
“He was always pushing me to play football,” Gay fondly recalls, “and telling me to hang up the soccer cleats.”
Parker Overly, also a former standout athlete at Orem, knew what he was talking about.
An unbelievable sports story, culminating with Gay earning consensus All-American honors and winning the coveted Lou Groza Award as the nation’s best kicker, has played out as if it were scripted by a movie director with an affinity for special teams play since Gay heeded his friend’s advice.
Sadly, tragedy preceded triumph in this heartwarming tale.
Months before his friend made the University of Utah’s football team as a walk-on and became a kicking phenom, Overly died in April when the vehicle he was driving was involved in a head-on collision with a semitrailer truck in Provo Canyon.
Gay continues to draw inspiration and motivation from his friend.
“I feel like ever since that happened, everything’s worked out, the timing,” Gay said, thoughtfully, while discussing the death of his then-21-year-old friend. “He’s definitely been on the other side putting things in alignment for me.”
Overly was very supportive of Gay’s choice to leave UVU, even if details were fuzzy about how his kicking future would unfold.
“He’d tell me he’d be my agent when I was in the NFL,” Gay said.
Gay will never forget.
As a way to keep Overly in his thoughts, Gay writes "P.O." in black marker on white tape that he wears on his left arm each time he steps on the football field. The two grew up in the same LDS Church ward, played together on the same prep football team (Gay was a senior when Overly was a sophomore) and became best of friends after their LDS missions.
“I wear his initials on my wrist every game,” Gay said. “He’s just a big part of why I’m doing this.”
Gay, whose Utes are preparing for the Heart of Dallas Bowl on Dec. 26, smiled while talking about getting some heavenly help.
“He’s for sure pushed a few through the uprights,” Gay said of Overly. “He’s helped out a lot.”
Gay has a fan in Parker's dad.
"Great kicker," Paul Overly wrote on Twitter last month. "Great kid!"
In another tweet, Paul Overly gave a shout out leading up to the ESPN-televised award announcement.
"Matt Gay should win the Lou G award presented to the best place kicker in the country," he tweeted. "Go Matt!"
Whether on his own or with some occasional nudging from on high, Gay's results were phenomenal this season.
Gay connected on his first 14 field goal attempts. He finished the season with the most FGs made (25) and attempted (29) in the nation. The junior booted the most field goals over 50 yards with five, including two from 56 yards out.
Gay also converted all 33 extra-point attempts.
Pretty amazing considering he missed more field goals than he made in high school. At Orem, Gay hit six of 13 field goals, made 28 PATs and had 24 touchbacks on 25 kickoffs while earning all-region honors when he followed Overly’s advice to play football the first time as a senior.
Gay returned to the other football in college, earning all-region recognition in UVU’s first season as a sanctioned soccer program, but he eventually opted to pursue placekicking in college. Overly wasn’t the only one who backed his decision. Gay credited Wolverines coach Greg Maas for supporting him even to the point of making sure his transfer to the U. was legitimate compliance-wise.
“They’ve been nothing but supportive of me and my dreams and me pursuing this,” Gay said of his UVU friends.
Maas called to congratulate him last week for winning the Lou Groza Award — the first Utah player to do so — and let Gay know that his old team remains behind him. The UVU soccer team has even watched Utah games from hotels on road trips to see Gay kick.
This converted soccer star has found support from another unlikely source: the guy whose job he took early in the season.
Chayden Johnston, a former high school All-American kicker from Bingham High, seemed positioned to follow in All-Pac-12 kicker Andy Phillips' footsteps. Johnston’s stiffest competition for the Ute kicking job figured to come from former Highland High kicker Hayes Hicken.
“Over the last four years, he’s been a fixture at that position,” Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said of "Automatic Andy" while addressing the placekicking opening at the beginning of camp in late July. “We’re just getting started, so it’s going to be a while before we’re able to sort things out.”
At that time, Gay wasn’t on the radar.
While auditioning for schools this past offseason, Utah coaches told Gay he’d have a shot to win the kicking job even though the highly touted Johnston was on the team as a scholarship player and Hicken was in the mix.
But that’s all Gay wanted: a chance.
“I was really up to the challenge. I wanted to come and compete,” said Gay, who believes being the youngest of eight children toughened him up and made him more resilient. "Hearing those words ‘Whoever’s the best kicker is going to kick’ just really stood out to me."
Gay outkicked Hicken in camp and emerged as a contender. Though not a clear-cut front-runner, Johnston was named the starter for the 2017 season-opener against North Dakota.
“I had friends texting me, ‘We want to come to the game,’” Gay said. “I texted them, ‘I’m not playing. Don’t come to the game. You can watch on TV if you want.’”
Turns out, Gay receives great advice, but his isn't always on point.
Even while telling friends to not worry about attending the game at Rice-Eccles Stadium, Gay prepared himself mentally just in case.
“I still had faith I was still going to get that shot,” Gay said, “and I was trying to prepare for that moment.”
That moment came sooner than expected.
Johnston barely missed a 45-yard field goal early against North Dakota, and Gay was given his chance.
“Just so you know, you get the next kick,” a coach told him. “You’re up.”
Gay had a few minutes to mull that over before being placed into action for a PAT after Utah quarterback Troy Huntley scrambled for a 16-yard touchdown and a 6-3 lead over the Fighting Hawks.
Gay nailed that kick — “Luckily,” he said, “I got to settle in with a PAT” — and he calmly made all three other extra-point kicks along with field goals from 32, 33 and 49 yards out in the 37-16 win.
“The bright spot on special teams,” Whittingham said, “was Matt Gay.”
Utah won the game. Gay won the kicking job and, eventually, all the accolades and awards a kicker could ever dream of — even if they didn't know they existed.
"This is going to sound ridiculous, but, going into the season, I didn’t know what the Lou Groza was," Gay said. "I didn’t know much about football."
How quickly things change.
A couple of bonuses: Gay earned a scholarship partway through the season and was granted an extra season of eligibility from the NCAA.
“I’d like to say I coached him up and fixed him,” Whittingham joked.
To Johnston’s credit, he’s continued to mentor the guy who took his job.
“He’s super supportive, honestly, a good friend, great teammate,” Gay said. “He helps me get better. He’s been through the kicking camps and stuff. He knows more than I do, technically. He helps me with certain things I’m doing wrong, what he sees and coaches me up sometimes. He’s a good guy overall.”
Gay admittedly feels for the freshman who only got to try one field goal this season because of his success.
“That’s how life is. It’s harsh,” Gay said. “I definitely feel bad because if I was in his shoes — your first kick ever in college football is a 45-yarder, which is not an easy kick. It’s a pretty far kick and you miss it by a foot and get pulled. That’s kind of heartbreaking. It’s heart wrenching, but I had to take my opportunity and do what I could with it.”
Importantly, Gay has won the respect and trust of teammates. That point was made clear recently when senior linebacker Cody Ippolito playfully interrupted Gay's media interview after a bowl game practice.
“Best player on the team right here,” Ippolito said. “I swear.”
Gay has NFL aspirations, but he wants to improve his kickoffs and still gets annoyed thinking of four missed field goals.
"I've got another season, but you've got to keep the (professional) angle in mind. That's the goal. You want to make something out of it," Gay said. "If the NFL opportunity comes, I’d love to take it and roll with it and see where it takes me."
Gay doesn’t have a personal kicking coach and has never attended a camp, so that tutoring from Johnston and game experience are invaluable. It doesn’t hurt to have an angel in the uprights helping out, either.
Utah’s football team and people who love heartwarming sports stories owe a debt of gratitude to Overly, too.
“He always believed in me,” Gay said, smiling.
Like a true friend, Overly even believed in Gay before it was the cool thing to do.