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BYU football’s Clay Brown changed team history

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PROVO — Clay Brown wasn't as big as I expected, but that's not so surprising. He has grown larger than life in a lot of peoples' minds.

"It's nice to meet you," he said politely.

"Actually, we've met," I said. "Thirty years ago, but ..."

But I can still feel the dampness of the night and recall the field lights haloed in the creeping fog. I can see the Southern Methodist University band pooling on the sidelines, waiting to celebrate the end of the 1980 Holiday Bowl.

The details of BYU's first bowl win are as recitable as a poem. A 20-point deficit with four minutes remaining. A rushed and rapid comeback. Jim McMahon calling what the Cougars had termed the "save the game pass." His drop-back to midfield. The ball falling out of the mist into a sea of SMU whites and a solitary BYU blue.

It was in that instant that BYU knew it could do great things, even impossible ones. There, the seeds were sown for a national championship four years later.

I asked him if making the winning catch seems like a long-ago dream.

"If it seems like a dream," he said prior to BYU's game last Saturday against Utah, "it seems like a dream come true."

Brown has always been the more mysterious of the two players. McMahon has been a public figure for decades, making news for football and foul-ups. Brown quietly played for two NFL teams, then lived in California, Colorado and most recently Arizona.

Yet wherever he goes, his past nudges like a gentle, persistent wind.

"It's hilarious, isn't it?" he said. "I mean seriously, I still have people ask me if I caught the ball. What, do you think I'm going to tell you, I didn't? I got 30 years out of this and I'm going to tell you I didn't catch the ball?"

I concurred, but mentioned a previous touchdown pass to Matt Braga that had skipped before being caught.

"It didn't (skip)," Brown said with a pretend stern face. "I called that touchdown. I was standing right next to the official and he looked at the other guy and I'm like, 'Touchdown! Touchdown!' "

"But it did bounce, didn't it?" I said.

"No. No. Oh, OK, I don't know," he said, stifling a laugh. "No, it didn't! Yeah, he caught it ... otherwise it wouldn't have been ruled a catch. I'll stand by Braga any day."

Brown's college career changed not only the Cougars but college football. He was the first of a long run of brilliant BYU tight ends: Gordon Hudson, David Mills, Trevor Molini, Chris Smith, Byron Rex, Jonny Harline, Chad Lewis, Itula Mili, Doug Jolley, Dennis Pitta.

A high school running back in a wishbone offense, Brown had no idea he would be a pass-catcher in college. He estimates he made just four catches in high school. His famous reception in the Holiday Bowl was designed to either be caught or tipped to a nearby player as they converged.

Brown had an impressive nine catches in the previous Holiday Bowl, a 38-37 loss to Indiana. That year, his wife had dreamed he would make the winning catch. The next year, as he was leaving the hotel for the SMU game, he leaned back through the door and said: "You remember that dream you had last year? Maybe this time."

The play is a memory he treasures. At the same time, he stops short of being sentimental. He said he doesn't think about it often, except when people ask — a regular occurrence. He was on ESPN a few days ago.

"I'm like, 'Oh, yeah, we won. Yeah, I remember. Forty-one yards, yeah.' But other than that, it's mostly when other people talk about it."

Drafted by the Denver Broncos, he played just four games in the NFL, three in Denver and one in Atlanta. But he never made a catch as a pro. In between high school and the pros was his All-American college career. Millions of fans unborn in 1980 have seen the catch on TV or the Internet. It remains the most lionized play in BYU football history. Yet more than half the crowd left the stadium — including his mother — after SMU went ahead by three touchdowns.

But a belligerent quarterback and an unyielding tight end accelerated the rise of the program.

"Yes, it changes your life, but it would have changed my life in a different way if I had not caught it," Brown said.

A life that will never be far from that wild and murky night.

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