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BYU football, AFL legend Dick Felt made lasting impression

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PROVO — The wedding guests at the Salt Lake Temple waited for Dick Felt to arrive Saturday for ceremonies for his granddaughter. He never came.

At the beckoned call of family, a neighbor entered Felt’s home and found the member of BYU’s Athletic Hall of Fame, age 79, dead in his shower.

Dick Felt’s son Curtis left the temple immediately, so did his brother Russ, as the wedding ceremony continued without grandpa, father and brother.

It was a happy, yet very sad Saturday.

Felt, a star at Lehi High and BYU, once scored four touchdowns in a quarter for the Cougars and went on to play for the New York Titans and Boston Patriots. He then joined LaVell Edwards’ staff as the secondary coach with legends Fred Whittingham, and Dave Kragthorpe.

Felt had a reputation for detail, an innate kindness, a natural generosity. He loved golf and building relationships, especially with his players and coaches.

One of those players, a lanky cornerback from La Crescenta, Calif., became Dick Felt’s protégé. He starred in BYU’s secondary before earning four Super Bowl rings with the San Francisco 49ers. Tom Holmoe then coached at Stanford before becoming the head coach at Cal and is now BYU’s athletic director.

“I loved that man,” said Holmoe, standing outside the team bus at San Jose State’s Spartan Stadium late Saturday night.

Holding an umbrella over Holmoe’s head in one hand and a tape recorder in the other, I listened to Holmoe speak of Felt. His face lit up while reciting memories of the man who took him under his wing at a new home away from home, a man who taught him the nuances of the game — little cheats to set up a receiver and quarterback in coverage; how to be a man in a game that is organized carnage.

“He was a real, huge influence on my game,” Holmoe said. “He had a lot of faith in me — he took me aside and taught me the finer things I don’t think I would have gotten anywhere else. He was a pro. He taught me to love football, telling old pro stories about the Titans and Patriots and showing me tricks of the trade, and we watched a lot of film together.”

“I don’t know a player who didn’t love him. We had problems, we had issues, but he resolved them. If you messed up, he’d help you but he never made you feel bad.”

Holmoe laughed as he recounted the story of Felt, right before retiring from BYU, challenging corner Rodney Thomas to race him for 40 yards. “Rodney gave him a head start of a few yards and he was one of the fastest corners BYU ever had, but Dick beat him that day but he pulled both his hamstrings. He never let Rod forget it and it became one of his favorite stories, even before he died he’d tell that story.”

Holmoe said Felt made playing competitive and fun. “But he got it. It wasn’t all business. We won a lot of games and he wasn’t really excitable and when we lost, he could get us back to the center really fast.”

When Holmoe came back to Provo as a graduate assistant after his NFL career, he hadn’t really decided to get into coaching, but working with Felt, the decision came quickly. “We remained really close friends since that time because I was now in his pro club and he loved to hear stories of who I’d played with, receivers, corners and quarterbacks, what I’d learned. When I was athletic director, he’d come over to the office and talk about the team.”

The rain continued to fall. It hit our cover. When Holmoe hesitated for a few seconds, the moment suddenly engulfed him. The sound of the rain became louder and louder. Without shame or embarrassment, tears filled his eyes. He needed both hands to wipe his cheeks and he struggled to continue.

“As BYU player, I’d try to get to film early because he’d be there early. We’d just talk. Sometimes, he would talk about the gospel. I wasn’t a member of the LDS faith, but he knew I was rubbing against it and he just had a gentle way of being a great example.

“Dick was slowing down a ton lately. He was prepared. One of the things that was sweet to me is he had a great love affair with his wife and when she passed, he started to go downhill fast. We’d talk and he couldn’t remember things. It wasn’t Alzheimer’s, he just couldn’t remember and it frustrated him. We’d talk and he knew the end was near and he wanted to be reunited with Dayleen.”

This interview moment, a unique situation I stole with a surprise request, felt it had run its course. I had intruded on Holmoe, a very busy man.

Holmoe had just lost another coach. A protégé of the late Bill Walsh, who hired him at Stanford and for whom Holmoe had played for in the NFL, passed in July 2007. Whittingham, Holmoe's defensive coordinator while at BYU, died in October 2003 at age 64.

“I haven’t lost a lot of my coaches, but for someone like me, those guys are more than coaches. They are older guys who when you see them, you are happy for them because they’ve lived such incredible lives.

“I’m going to lose more of them; I know that. They are getting older and they’ll soon be gone.

“This isn’t easy.”

No, it never is and never will be.

Dick Harmon, Deseret News sports columnist, can be found on Twitter as Harmonwrites and can be contacted at dharmon@desnews.com.