FOR A PLACE that doesn't allow beards, long hair, caffeinated drinks or anyone more controversial on stage than Barry Manilow, BYU has maintained a fairly notable tradition of nonconformists, nonetheless.
There have always been a few athletes there who just didn't fit the mold. There was Jim McMahon, who once observed that the most welcome sight of his life was seeing Provo in his rearview mirror. And former linebacker Bob Davis, who did helmet-butts without a helmet. In basketball, there was Brett Applegate, who slept in his car to save money and Mike Smith, who wore loud colored knee braces, didn't shave on game days and passed the ball to himself off the glass.All in the name of individuality.
The latest nonconformist at BYU could well be junior middle linebacker Shay Muirbrook - the tattoo on his back being a dead giveaway. "I'd rather not comment on that," he says.
On one bicep is another tattoo, shaped like a biohazard warning sign. But he doesn't elaborate on that one, either. "It doesn't have any special significance," he says. "It's not like it's a design to show I'm dangerous. I just liked the look."
In a place noted for uniformity, Muirbrook is slightly out of uniform. He showed up for fall football camp with his hair dyed white-blond. "It seems like a lot of people on campus shop at the same stores and wear the same clothes," he says, sounding mystified.
Later, Muirbrook went back to his normal dark brown hair but buzzed it. "The blond thing had lost its pizazz," he adds. "It was time to change. People had gotten used to it so it was no fun any more."
There was a time when Muirbrook also had an earring, but he got rid of that because he thought it was too feminine. Truth be known, he'd really rather wear a nose ring. But there are those BYU rules . . . "If I knew I could get away with it, I'd definitely do it," he says.
Individualism notwithstanding, Muirbrook isn't what you would call a basic rebel. He claims he's not out to flaunt his differences in front of the coaches; in fact, he tries to "avoid them as much as possible."
"I'm not trying to say `Look at me,' " he says. "I'm not trying to make problems for someone. I just felt I did it for me."
Whatever the reasons, Muirbrook - in the Davis/McMahon tradition - still manages to attract attention more for his play than his looks. As a freshman he made the starting lineup for nine games. Against San Diego State, in the ninth game of the season, the BYU defense held All-America running back Marshall Faulk to 61 yards the first half. But Faulk went berserk, rushing for 191 yards in the second half, giving Muirbrook an up-close-and-personal look at how the superstars play football.
On one play, Muirbrook was following Faulk on a sweep before momentarily losing sight him behind the line. "I expected him to pop out close to me," Muirbrook says, "but just like that, he was 10 yards behind everyone. I was like, wow!"
Even though he got a firsthand lesson on the difference between great players and ordinary ones, Muirbrook still had one of his best nights of the year, collecting six unassisted tackles and a total of eight to lead the team.
This year the 6-0, 235-pound Muirbrook is expected to do more teaching about great football than learning. A second-team All-WAC player a year ago, he is projected to be All-WAC first team selection. He returns as the team's leading tackler.
Predictably, Muirbrook thinks like a defensive player, wanting to make BYU's defense as reknowned as its offense. Which is like asking people to notice Eric Clapton's singing voice. Did we miss something here?
"Our defense has a chance to bring something to Provo that they've not seen much of," he says.
So as the Cougars await next Saturday's season opener, Muirbrook is planning on drawing a lot of attention. But none of it has anything to do with white hair, nose rings or tattoos. The only kind of attention he really wants is the kind you get when they're handing out the trophies.