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Afghanistan gives some perspective to rivalry

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Billy Priddis, once a Ute cheerleader, now with the 82nd Sustainment Brigade in Afghanistan, shows his colors.

Billy Priddis, once a Ute cheerleader, now with the 82nd Sustainment Brigade in Afghanistan, shows his colors.

Billy Priddis

If you know the name Billy Priddis, you know he punched the daylights out of a fan who tackled him during the Utah-BYU game, 11 years ago. That's the part he'd like you to forget. It was a moment of blind emotion.

Heaven knows, that never happens when it's Utah-BYU.

Besides, when you see friends killed in combat and children dying of an infection that wouldn't touch most American kids, it changes things. You understand that Saturday's game at Rice-Eccles Stadium really isn't war, but entertainment. And that life is more than trash talk and touchdowns.

So when he rides in his supply vehicle, thinking of land mines and mortar fire, pardon him if he doesn't consider Beck to Harline or Ratliff to LaTendresse life-and-death situations. That's not to say Captain Billy Priddis, of the 82nd Sustainment Brigade in Afghanistan, isn't still a Utah fan. Just listen.

"You might as well ask me if I still breathe," he says.

Last season he drove six hours on a motorcycle from Oklahoma to Texas to watch Utah lose at TCU.

"It's sad when a grown man on a motorcycle cries," he says.

Each year he receives requests to talk about the day in 1999. He consented for the first time, this week, speaking via telephone with the Deseret News from his military base in Afghanistan. The reason: the kids. Hundreds of them, at several hospitals and orphanages in his assigned area. Aside from his regular job as a Military Policeman, Priddis does volunteer work, running supplies to the hospitals.

"I wanted to do something to help people," he says.

Many wouldn't remember his name, but hundreds of thousands remember the day. Priddis, then a Utah cheerleader, was circling the field with a Ute flag after a touchdown, when BYU fan Brandon Perry leaped the fence and tackled him. That was a mistake. Soon Priddis was pummeling Perry as he tried to cover up.

"I don't remember much," Priddis says. "But I do remember ... I ended up on the ground and thinking, 'What the heck happened?' I looked behind me and this dude was holding onto my waist. I was like, hey, I'm not gonna let this happen. The rest was history."

Then-BYU athletics director Val Hale vowed to ban flag-carrying at future games.

Having served in the Army in both Iraq (16 months) and Afghanistan (13 months), Priddis now views his most public moment philosophically. "I wish (the incident) never would have happened," he says. "But if it had never happened, I probably wouldn't be talking to you and wouldn't get any help for the (hospital) project."

Priddis became a folk hero or a pariah, depending on which side of the divide a person stood. He says when introduced nowadays, people are sometimes taken aback. "Something that seems to surprise most people is that I'm not some degenerate monster," he says.

Priddis adds that he is a returned LDS missionary, active in church and married in a temple. The couple has four kids, a fifth on the way.

"I'm not sure what people thought they would get," he continues, "but I don't think they were expecting ... me."

Confounding expectations is something Priddis has been doing for a long time. He grew up a blazing Cougar fan. Born in Iceland, his family moved to Orem when he was young. His family also lived a year in Mexico. A graduate of Mountain View High, he applied to BYU but wasn't accepted.

He did, however, once take a summer math class there, and later enrolled in its ROTC program.

At Utah he quickly earned a spot on the cheer squad, which immediately made him a card carrying Utah man. All went quietly until opportunity and emotion converged on that wild day in 1999 when Priddis took Perry down for the count. It was a full-on UFC (Unexpected Fan Confrontation) moment, generating nearly as much news as the game.

"Funny," he says, "because to me it wasn't really that big a deal. But everywhere I go, it's ridiculous. Whenever I go back to Utah, I can hardly walk the campus without someone recognizing me. But it happens more often than I would like."

The good part, he says, is that 11 years later, there's reason to talk about it: Because it might draw attention to the children, 7,300 miles away from Utah. They arrive at the hospitals malnourished, lacking immunization, ravaged by war injuries and birth defects, missing such simple things as flu shots. Items like Pedialyte, baby formula and bottles are in short supply. (See accompanying box)

Priddis is scheduled to return to Fort Bragg (N.C.) next month. Later this year, he says, he expects to become an Army chaplain. Imagine that — the supposed End Zone Mauler becoming a man of the ministry. Not only that, he's calling for perspective in the rivalry.

"The only thing I would change is that I wish that the fans would just relax and realize it's just a football game. Enjoy it and have a good time," he says. "But I still live for the game. I wouldn't care if Utah lost every game, except I want them to beat BYU."

Priddis laughs when asked for his pick on Saturday's game.

"Oh," he says, pausing for a beat. "Can I say Utah, 34-31?"

How you can help

The Lindon Police Department Wives Service Project is looking for donations in both supplies and money to assist injured and ill children in Afghanistan.

The project is designed to aid hospital patients in the war-torn country. Among the needs are pajamas and clothing, books, toys, blankets, baby formula, rice and cereal. Cash donations are also needed.

For information, go to www.lindoncity.org/pd-wives-service-projects.html, or call Tracey at 801-636-2673.

e-mail: rock@desnews.com

Twitter: therockmonster