SALT LAKE CITY — It was a backyard session of baseball with his father that helped Britain Covey transform fear into opportunity.
“He was in fifth or sixth grade, and I was pitching to him,” said Stephen Covey. “I’d say, ‘Here is the scenario, it’s a full count.’ And Britain would say, ‘Don’t say that, Dad. It makes me nervous.’ But I wanted him to embrace the challenge.”
His father acknowledged the little boy’s fear of striking out, of contributing to a loss, of letting his team down. And then the author and motivational speaker offered him a way to change his perspective without changing anything about the situation except the way he viewed it.
“I said, ‘Say these words, ‘I love full counts’,” Stephen Covey said. “He did that, and he started to say it all the time. That is still code for us whenever something is really challenging, stressful or has a lot of expectations, we say, ‘I love full counts.’ That means I’m embracing the challenge. I’m not denying that there is pressure, not trying to change it. I’m trying to embrace it.”
And while the sophomore wide receiver and kick return specialist has dealt with some long odds and pressure-packed situations in his life, he’s never faced higher expectations on the football field than the 2018 season.
Always the underdog
Covey is completely comfortable with being underestimated. Being lauded before he’s stepped on the field, however, is completely uncharted (and uncomfortable) territory for the former Timpview quarterback.
“I kind of want people to underestimate me,” Britain said grinning, after the first day of fall camp Wednesday. “I feel that pressure. I just kind of bury it in our team expectations because there are more expectations for our team than there are for me.”
Ever since Britain Covey started playing sports, he’s been listening to people tell him what he couldn’t do.
“Brit has had naysayers at every level,” Stephen said. “When he was young and started playing flag football, I was coaching him, and when he had success, people said, ‘Yeah, he can do this in flag football but wait until junior high.’ Then in junior high, they said, ‘Sure, he can do it at this level, but wait until high school.’ At each level people told him, ‘Yeah, he can do it here but not at this next level.’ And he just kept succeeding at these different levels.”
In high school, he started 26 games and amassed 7,396 total yards of offense and 111 touchdowns (fourth all-time). More impressive is that he never lost, leading his team to two 4A state titles.
Still, there were a lot of people — fans, media and coaches — who didn’t think the 5-foot-9, 170-pound four-sport athlete could play college football — especially at a Power 5 conference school.
Covey never took offense.
He simply did what he’s always done when confronted with questions about his abilities or potential.
“It’s been part of his approach that he kind of wants to prove something,” Stephen said. “He focuses on not taking anything for granted, being humble, trying to earn something and wanting to make a difference.”
Even his father admits to being surprised by aspects of his son’s success as a freshman, when he led the team in reception yards and earned all-conference and national honors.
“Yes, it surprised me in the sense that he was a freshman,” Stephen said. “He comes in undersized and most people didn’t expect it, and I also thought he might not even get an opportunity to do (anything on the field). So when he got the opportunity early on, that somewhat surprised me.”
What didn’t surprise Stephen Covey is how his son performed once given an opportunity. That’s something he’s been watching for so long, both he and Britain said it is part of who he is.
“I still feel like that’s my identity,” Britain said. “I like either proving people wrong or rising above expectations. I feel like I perform my best when the stakes are highest.”
‘Gift of love'
What outsiders didn’t understand when they questioned his capabilities is a lot of what makes Covey successful and can’t be quantified.
“For me as a parent, I see his goodness and kindness,” Stephen said. “He’s not physically big, but he’s got great quickness. His specialness is his emotional and mental side. … I also think his genuine love and care for people makes him a really good teammate and helps him in being a leader.”
It is the combination of Covey’s fun-loving, people-centric personality and his competitive drive that seem to be turbo-charged by the desire to prove doubters wrong, and his athleticism that enable him to accomplish great things in a brutal, big-man’s sport.
“That’s the biggest part of his nature,” Stephen said. “He has the gift of love. He cares about people and he wants them to succeed.”
It is not uncommon for the Coveys to hear about some act of kindness offered by Britain from friends, neighbors and even strangers.
“The thing about Brit, he’s always been a fun-loving kid,” Stephen said. “He’s someone who has always loved people. … He doesn’t judge them, he just loves them for who they are.”
In fact, Britain has used his success, whether in high school or college, as an opportunity to lift and help those around him.
The real question is whether spending two years serving an LDS Church mission will help Covey as a football player.
There is no question it enhanced his life as a human being.
“There are things you learn on a mission, and you know, just growing up, that you can’t simulate,” he said. “I just feel like I’m a much more well-rounded person, and I know what my priorities are. I know I don’t have to be the most amazing football player to make an impact on the team.”
He joked about still struggling with a spare tire left by indulging in Chilean bread, but his pre-camp times were actually faster than his freshman season.
“I feel good,” he said. ‘My body is feeling good.”
Coach Kyle Whittingham praised the sophomore.
“Britain Covey is back,” Whittingham said. “He’s got all of his quickness, his speed. He lacks a little bit of endurance. But he is what we hoped he would be in talking about his return.”
His position coach, Guy Holliday, said his personality has helped him mesh with an almost entirely new position group and two new coaches.
“Britain is just a natural, he’s a people person,” Holliday said. “He walked back into the room and it was no problem. He never even hesitated.”
Stephen Covey said Britain’s affection for others is so genuine, it helps him in any setting of his life.
“He’s always been a smart kid,” Stephen said. “But he seems to be even a little more thoughtful or wise. He remains very competitive, but … he’s even kind of a little more thoughtful, wise philosophical about this season.”
As a father, he doesn’t see a downside to his son missing two seasons of football, even if some struggle to retain or exceed their former glory.
“I personally think the mission will be a net positive,” Stephen said. “It might not be fair to assess him too soon, but Brit is in this for the long haul. He’ll get his chances, and I think he’ll do really well. But as a parent, I couldn’t be more proud, whether he played another down or not.”
Covey said the two years he spent on his mission changed his view of what’s possible for his future.
“It gave me the ability to find out more what I want to do with my life,” said the recently declared business major. “I feel like I have the capacity now to find out (what I want) in the future. I know the process for finding out.”
One of the things he is most excited about is working with second-year offensive coordinator Troy Taylor.
“I’d say there’s a little bit more freedom on the offensive side,” he said of how things have changed since he left in the winter of 2016. “When you extend trust to someone, it makes them want to be trustworthy. We feel like we’ve had trust extended to us by coach Whit and coach Taylor, and so we’re stepping it up.”
Just one weapon
Nothing indicated the shift in expectation like the horde of reporters waiting to talk with Covey the second he stepped off the field. In fact, he couldn’t catch his breath or take his shoulder pads off before he was surrounded by at least a dozen people extending cameras and recorders while peppering him with questions.
“Day one was fun,” he joked with reporters. “It felt good. It’s weird. It’s almost like it hasn’t hit me yet. I’ve been saying for like three years, ‘You know, when football comes.’ And it’s never come. So the fact that it’s here is kind of weird.”
He jokes about being nostalgic for a time when the question was whether he’d even get on the field, not whether he could deliver a superstar season five months after returning from a mission.
Unfortunately, no one gets to go from leading the team in receptions (and jaw-dropping trick plays) without raising fan expectations. In his freshman season, he was named a first-team Freshman All-American by Sporting News (punt returner), Scout.com (punt returner) and Pro Football Focus (receiver), and All-Pac-12 honorable mention return specialist.
He led the team with 43 receptions and 519 yards, tied for the team lead in touchdown catches (four), and averaged 12.1 yards per catch. He really made any coach who passed on him cringe, as he led all Pac-12 freshmen in receiving yards (519), receiving yards per game (43.3), receptions per game (3.6), touchdown catches (four) and receptions (43, tie).
Unfortunately, none of that will help him succeed in his sophomore campaign. Luckily, Covey is not under the illusion that he is somehow going to single-handedly save or sink this season.
“He is really high on the receiving group,” Stephen Covey said. “He told me they’ve got so many really talented athletic players, more so than what they had in 2015. They had really good receivers then, but just the amount of players who are really athletic, talented, fast, at a different level, and he said, ‘I just want to contribute and be a part of this.’”
New coaches, new opportunities
Taylor’s offense requires depth, and Covey said they have it.
“He said coach Taylor needs at least eight receivers for this to run the way he wants it to run,” Stephen said. “That way they can’t key on anybody. … Britain is trying to fit into this and contribute to this without taking anything for granted. … He is working as if he’s a brand-new walk-on trying to earn a spot on the team, trying to earn respect.”
Covey spent the summer in player-run workouts catching passes from all of Utah’s quarterbacks. While he’s done everything he can to prepare, he said he’s just grateful to be working alongside his teammates.
In fact, he said it’s what he missed most while serving his mission in Chile.23 comments on this story
“I just missed being with the guys honestly,” he said, exhibiting the kind of gratitude that’s set him apart throughout his career. “It’s easy to get complacent in college football. And then you take a step back and you realize this is the greatest time in your life.”
And when his number is called, he will summon that "full count" mentality that has taken him farther than anyone expected.
“I just try to have a different mentality,” Covey said. “Instead of thinking about doing something wrong, I’m just thinking about doing something right.”