PROVO — On big plays, like a third-and-nine situation with the game on the line, with thousands of fans screaming, with BYU needing a defensive stop, senior linebacker Bryan Kehl blocks everything out except for one thing — a whistle.
Not a referee's whistle. The sound of his dad's whistling.
"During key moments, he sends that whistle out and I can hear it. I point to him, letting him know that I heard it," Kehl said of his dad, Gary, who has been to all of Bryan's collegiate games, home and away, but one. "It means the world to me, knowing that he's there, knowing the joy he has in seeing his son succeed. That's what I play for."
For Kehl, BYU football is a family affair. His dad and older brother, Ed, who was a Cougar defensive lineman from 1995-98, support Bryan now, just as Bryan supported Ed when he played in Provo.
Bryan Kehl's passion for BYU football, and what it represents, didn't begin when he signed a letter-of-intent in 2002. He's always been a Cougar. He wasn't simply a fan, but a younger sibling of a BYU player — and all that carries with it.
"Not only did I go to the games, but I went into the locker room, I was at practices, I met the players in the offseason," said Kehl, a Brighton High product. "I went to the bowl games. So I definitely have a unique perspective and am able to add that and enlighten (teammates) that don't understand (what it means to play at BYU)."
During a special teams meeting last year, Kehl described for his teammates an electrifying kick return by James Dye in the mid-1990s.
"I'm sure that was something he saw when he was a kid," said sophomore cornerback Brandon Howard. "Bryan definitely knows the background of this program. He's seen what this program has been."
BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall appreciates players like Kehl who are helping restore glory to Cougar football. Kehl is the poster child for "fully invested."
"The players who have grown up always wanting to be Cougars have really helped our program," Mendenhall said. "The passion they have and the commitment level is different than players who didn't grow up around the program. Bryan demonstrates that. Besides having enough athletic ability to do it, he has the right character to do it as well."
Kehl, who is the team leader in tackles with 42, earned Mountain West Conference defensive player of the week honors for his performance in the win at New Mexico. Kehl intercepted a Lobo pass on the first series of the game and returned it 36 yards for a touchdown, giving the Cougars an early 7-0 lead. Of course, Gary and Ed were there in Albuquerque, whistling and cheering. In that same game, Kehl recorded 10 tackles, a sack and a forced fumble.
"You see Bryan have a game like he did against New Mexico and it's just a huge confidence boost," said BYU quarterback Max Hall. "Not only for the defense, but for the offense, to see him and the defense get a stop when we need it and get a turnover when we need it. That was really the difference in the game. I love having guys like Bryan Kehl on the team. It's a comfort for me. In my mind, it always lets me know it's going to be OK if we have a turnover, our defense will get the ball back for us."
When times are rough, like during the Tulsa loss, many of Kehl's teammates look to him for direction.
"Bryan's the type of guy that pulls a team aside when our heads are down when they shouldn't be," said Howard. "Bryan will get us together — during a game, or at halftime in the locker room, after a loss — and lets us know that everything's OK. He keeps us motivated and trying hard out there."
When Kehl was a youngster, when he was known as Ed Kehl's little brother, he faithfully attended BYU games, soaking up every second.
"I watched the players coming out of the tunnel, making plays. I envisioned myself doing that. When that dream was realized, it was amazing," he said. "Whenever little kids come to the functions that we have now, I'm excited about that because I was that little kid. When we hit people's hands after the game or at halftime outside our (locker room) tunnel, I love that. I know how that feels. Those kids just want to be part of the action. I looked up to the players. Now, being one of those guys that kids look up to, I recognize the responsibility on my shoulders and I hope to explain that to my teammates."
Kehl has taken on a big brother role in a program Mendenhall wants to be known as a "Band of Brothers."
"He's definitely a verbal leader. He walks the walk. He's a great guy and a great guy to look up to and learn from," Howard said. "No matter what position you're on, whether it's quarterback or running back, you can learn something from Bryan Kehl, just the way he carries himself. He's definitely a big-time leader."
"Bryan's been a significant contributor to our program for his whole career here. Guys respect that," said junior linebacker David Nixon. "You usually get respect off your abilities and how you perform on the field. Younger guys respect him. I'm not that young, but I respect him and what he's trying to do for our team — that's win ball games."
No doubt, Kehl's passion stems from his longstanding ties to BYU football. And the sound of his dad's whistle.
Cougars on the air
BYU (3-2, 2-0) at UNLV (2-4, 1-1)
Saturday, 7:30 p.m.
Sam Boyd Stadium
Radio: 1160AM, 102.7FM; TV: The mtn.