Former BYU receiver Eric Drage offered an important piece of advice to Cougar football players who will make the trip to Laramie for Saturday's game against Wyoming -- leave your helmet on at ALL times.
Drage, who was part of the last BYU team to play at Wyoming, in 1992, says he loved the combative atmosphere there. "The fans were ruthless and verbally abusive," he remembers. Not to mention physically abusive. "I wasn't worried about it while I was on the field, but when you go from the field to the locker room, you kept your helmet on to protect yourself from flying debris from the stands."What kind of debris? The usual. Beer, beer bottles, ice, bodily fluids. Ex-Cougar Derik Stevenson, a freshman linebacker on that '92 team, told defensive lineman Hans Olsen a Cowboy fan urinated on him that day.
Yes, when you're wearing blue (no matter what shade) and you're representing BYU, you must to exercise extreme caution inside War Memorial Stadium.
"The fans wanted to send us home in our coffins," former BYU running back Hema Heimuli, also part of that '92 team, once mused about that game, which was won 31-28 by BYU. "They are worse than Utah fans. They cuss, throw beer bottles at you. You feel unsafe, like you need bodyguards. It's a nasty atmosphere up there."
BYU couldn't have hand-picked a more hostile place to try to win the inaugural Mountain West Conference championship on Saturday. Cowboy fans don't downplay their hatred for BYU. They flaunt it. Not even a prolonged layoff in this series has dulled the edge on this rivalry for Wyoming.
"People are very excited about playing BYU, especially having them here in Laramie," says Dave Walsh, who has broadcast Cowboy football for 16 years. "A lot of people expressed dissatisfaction over not playing BYU when the WAC expanded. That's one of the big reasons why Wyoming wanted to form a new conference. I think the rivalry has become more intense because they haven't been able to play each other. It's a great rivalry. It has stood the test of time."
Ralph Zobell, a longtime member of BYU's sports information staff, a Cheyenne native and a former Wyoming student, agrees. "They haven't forgotten about BYU," he says.
So what is it about BYU that has drawn the Cowboys' everlasting ire? "People there see BYU as responsible for their demise," Zobell says. "Wyoming had a great program in the 1960s."
In 1969, BYU unwittingly sparked the "Black 14" controversy. The week the Cougars traveled to Laramie that year, 14 black Wyoming players were booted off the team by Lloyd Eaton after they told him they were going to wear black arm bands to protest BYU and the LDS Church, institutions they saw as racist. The Cowboys won that day, 40-7, but never fully recovered from the long-term effects of that incident, recording just one winning season in the 1970s.
Early in that decade, BYU hired coach LaVell Edwards and the Cougars have more or less dominated the series since, including a current six-game winning streak against the Cowboys. Perhaps Wyoming's most bitter loss came in the 1996 WAC Championship game in Las Vegas, the last time these two teams met.
Cougar receiver Kaipo McGuire called a timeout with one second remaining in regulation, setting up a game-tying field goal by kicker Ethan Pochman. Then, in overtime, Pochman connected on the game-winner, lifting the Cougars to a 28-25 victory. BYU later finished the season with a 14-1 record, an appearance in the Cotton Bowl and a No. 5 ranking. The Cowboys, sporting a 10-2 mark, were not invited to a bowl game.
Results aside, insult has been added to injury over the years. The longtime voice of the Cougars, Paul James, has provided these directions to Laramie: "From Denver, go north until you smell it, then go east until you step in it."
Former BYU basketball coach Frank Arnold once called Wyoming fans "despicable." In 1981, BYU lost a football game to the Cowboys in a driving snowstorm. In October. That prompted Edwards (whose wife, Patti, is a Wyoming native) to offer a quote that made Sports Illustrated's famous "They Said It" section: "I would rather lose and live in Provo," he said, "than win and live in Laramie."
But after seven years away, it seems Edwards is glad to be going back. "They have great crowds. They get into it," he said this week. "I'd much rather play a game where there's energy, even if they're booing you. We're looking forward to playing there."
Cougar players are also eager. "I hear it's a pretty energetic crowd with a bunch of drunken cowboys," says BYU linebacker Josh Lowe. "They don't like us much up there. We excited for it. It's almost a rush to be hated."
Olsen wrestled for BYU at Wyoming as a freshman a few years ago, so he is somewhat familiar with the Laramie experience. And in high school, he attended a football camp in Wyoming and remembers being yelled at unmercifully by fans. "They start 'em young," Olsen says. "They grow up to be rude."
While Utah is BYU's archrival, Wyoming enjoys its annual "Border War" with Colorado State. Whether CSU or BYU is Wyoming's biggest rival is debatable. "It depends on who you talk to," Walsh says. "People in the western part of the state say it's BYU. In the eastern and southern part of the state, they say it's Colorado State."
If this is any indication, Wyoming's largest crowd of the year is expected for the BYU showdown.
"I'm anxious to get that rivalry back," Randy Welniak told the Wyoming Tribune-Eagle. Welniak was the last Wyoming quarterback to beat BYU (in 1988) and is the executive director of the Cowboy Joe Club. "There is something special about playing BYU."
And Cougar players are about to find out there's something, um, special about playing Wyoming in Laramie. Just remember to keep those helmets strapped on.