He has been honest from the minute our relationship started. I’m always the first to know when he makes a mistake. ... He wants help. I want to help him. And I believe he can make it. He’s giving up a chance to go elsewhere. – Bronco Mendenhall, BYU football coach
Editor's note: This is the third of three excerpts taken from “THE SYSTEM: The Glory and Scandal of Big-Time College Football,” by Jeff Benedict and Armen Keteyian.
At the same time it was recruiting Kyle Van Noy, BYU was in the hunt to land Manti Te’o, another Mormon who was the nation’s top high school linebacker. The prospect of Te’o and Van Noy playing side by side had put BYU in position to have the best linebacking corps in the country. Although Van Noy didn’t have as much fanfare as Te’o, Mendenhall had concluded he had just as much talent. Van Noy was a bit smaller — six feet three inches and 209 pounds. But in terms of raw athleticism, he was actually faster and quicker. He ran the forty in 4.5, and he started both ways. While leading his team to a state title and a perfect 14-0 record as a senior, he terrorized quarterbacks and caught thirty-five passes for 731 yards and eighteen touchdowns on offense. On defense he made seventy-nine tackles, fourteen sacks and forced six fumbles.
“With Kyle all you had to do was watch a couple series of film and you knew,” said Mendenhall. “I thought very early on that there was no limit on how good he could be.”
On January 10–11, 2009, Te’o and Van Noy both made their official visits to BYU. Every detail had been considered to persuade Te’o to join Van Noy by committing to BYU. Even his cousin Shiloah, already a member of the team, had been assigned to be Manti’s host for the weekend. But things didn’t quite turn out as planned.
At the end of the visit Van Noy reaffirmed his commitment to BYU, pledging to sign with the Cougars on National Signing Day. “I didn’t want to go to a school where I knew I’d face challenges and temptations,” he said. “I knew I needed an environment like BYU.”
But before Te’o left Provo, he met with Mendenhall. The conversation was cordial and respectful. But BYU stopped recruiting Te’o after that weekend. Two weeks later, Te’o called Mendenhall a couple days before National Signing Day to say he was going to Notre Dame.
Later that day Mendenhall also got an unexpected call from Van Noy. “I messed up,” Van Noy began, his voice cracking. Mendenhall took a deep breath. “I got arrested,” Van Noy continued.
Mendenhall felt sick.
It happened the night before. Van Noy had been out and got arrested for drunk driving. He was underage. So the case would be disposed in juvenile court. But Mendenhall had a policy that prohibited him from offering scholarships to players who weren’t living in compliance with the honor code. He didn’t make exceptions— not even for the best recruits.
“You understand you can’t come to BYU under these circumstances?” Mendenhall asked.
Van Noy was silent.
“Kyle, I love you just the same,” Mendenhall told him. “I’ll release you from your commitment to BYU.”
“You can choose any of the schools that were recruiting you,” Mendenhall said. “My guess is that they will want you in a second.”
“But that’s not what I want,” Van Noy said.
Mendenhall didn’t expect that. “I was absolutely ready to release him at that point because of the honor code,” Mendenhall explained. “I told him I’d help him go anywhere he wanted to go. But he kept saying he wanted to come to BYU.”
Mendenhall wasn’t optimistic. But he told Van Noy to give him the rest of the day to explore options. They agreed to talk again later.
Kelly Van Noy was heartbroken. Her son’s arrest was all over the news in Reno. Juvenile arrests are supposed to remain confidential. But a reporter found out that the city’s top athlete had been charged, and the news spread fast. Friends and neighbors were talking. Plus, it looked as though all hope of her son attending BYU had been dashed.
While the Van Noys waited for Mendenhall to call back, other coaches who had seen the news of the arrest on the Internet started calling the house. “Kyle had coaches call him after the arrest and say you come here and you can play right now,” said Kelly Van Noy. “That is appealing to a seventeen-year-old kid. So is not having to face the music and not being on a campus where you feel judged and all they know about you is that you are the kid who got the DUI.”
Mendenhall went to see athletic director Tom Holmoe. They put together a scenario where BYU could still honor Van Noy’s scholarship. He’d have to agree to sit out the 2009 season and go a full year without violating the honor code. At that point, he’d have to get the endorsement of an ecclesiastical leader who could vouch that his personal life was in line with BYU’s standards. In other words, he’d have to live the honor code for a full year — whether at home or on campus — before he’d be eligible to be a student-athlete.
Holmoe was convinced Van Noy would never go for it. “That just doesn’t happen,” Holmoe said. There were too many top schools willing to overlook the DUI and play him immediately.
Mendenhall agreed. But he was also convinced that he would not be helping Van Noy by glossing over the arrest and making an exception to the rule. Besides, what message would that send to the rest of the team?
They took their proposal to BYU’s dean of students, Vernon Heperi. He signed off. Then Mendenhall called Van Noy and told him his options.
The prospect of sitting out a year had not entered Van Noy’s mind. He had every intention of starting as a true freshman. He wanted some time to think it over.
Later that evening Mendenhall’s phone buzzed. “I’ll do it,” Van Noy told him. “I’ll sit out a year.”
“I honestly don’t know what made me say yes to that,” Van Noy said. “But I did, and once I gave my word, I was committed to it.”
The next day — February 4, 2009 — when BYU announced its recruiting class for 2009, Mendenhall read off Van Noy’s name. Then he brought the media into a private room and read them a letter Van Noy had written the night before: “This past weekend, I received a DUI citation, which will delay my arrival. I know that I have disappointed you, my family and friends. You have my firm commitment that I will do what it takes to earn back your trust and be part of BYU’s winning tradition.”
One month later Van Noy went out with friends. They had alcohol. It got late. Van Noy didn’t go home. He ended up on a park bench on the streets of Reno, where he fell asleep. The next thing he remembered was waking up to police sirens and flashing lights. Scared, he took off running. Officers gave chase. Trapped in an alley, Van Noy shrugged off an officer and broke free. Then from behind he heard the clicking of a Taser gun. He dropped to the ground. Before he knew it, he was in police custody for a second time in a one-month span, this time cited for eluding an officer.
He was not charged with an alcohol offense this time, however. And when the authorities considered his juvenile status and the fact that he was already facing DUI charges, they opted not to bring a second case against Van Noy. Charges were dropped. And this time the local press did not find out. Under Nevada law, the report in the second incident was sealed. Fortunately for Van Noy, no one would find out about his second arrest, especially not Coach Mendenhall.
But Van Noy was uneasy. Mendenhall had given him a second chance. He felt he owed it to him to come clean, even though he knew that would likely end his football career at BYU before it started.
He talked to his parents and decided to fly to Provo and confess to Mendenhall.
“Up until that point I didn’t want to be helped,” Van Noy said. “But suddenly I felt like a kid who needed help. I wanted help.”
He went straight to Coach Mendenhall’s office. The door was ajar. He knocked and Mendenhall looked up and grinned. “C’mon in, Kyle. Why are you here?”
Van Noy looked away, biting his lip. The grin left Mendenhall’s face as he stood and walked toward him. Van Noy’s eyes welled up. So did Mendenhall’s. “Kyle, talk to me. Let me help you.” Van Noy took a seat. His voice shaking, he revealed every detail about the second run-in with the law. “I need help,” he said. Mendenhall recalled the opening lines to a favorite speech by BYU’s former president Jeffrey R. Holland: “It is the plain and very sobering truth that before great moments, certainly before great spiritual moments, there can come adversity, opposition, and darkness. Life has some of those moments for us, and occasionally they come just as we are approaching an important decision or a significant step in our life.”
He looked Van Noy in the eye and told him not to worry about the second incident. “That’s why I gave you the one-year plan,” he told Van Noy.
“There are no words to describe how bad I felt before I got to his office,” Van Noy said. “And no words to describe how good I felt when he accepted me.”
Mendenhall and Van Noy put their arms around each other.
After reaffirming his commitment to Van Noy, Mendenhall informed the athletic director and the dean of students. Both had reservations. But Mendenhall held his ground. “He never hides when his mistakes come,” Mendenhall said. “He has been honest from the minute our relationship started. I’m always the first to know when he makes a mistake.”
The dean had two simple questions: “Is this someone you believe needs to be at BYU?”
“He needs help,” Mendenhall told the dean and the AD. “He wants help. I want to help him. And I believe he can make it. He’s giving up a chance to go elsewhere.”
“Is this someone you believe will represent this institution and our faith?” the dean asked.
“Unlike so many people I deal with that will hide behind texts and e-mails and half-truths, he admitted what he did,” Mendenhall said. “Not only is he trying to do something about it, he’s already done something about it. He’s here.”
The dean and the AD signed off.
“Our administration knew the situation,” Holmoe said. “When you bring someone here who is high risk, you have to wonder. This is a different culture than Kyle was used to. But we trusted Bronco. And Kyle made a commitment to hang in there. That was Bronco’s risk, not mine.”
Excerpted from THE SYSTEM: The Glory and Scandal of Big-Time College Football by Jeff Benedict and Armen Keteyian Copyright © 2013 by Jeff Benedict & Associates, LLC, and Lights Out Productions, LLC. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. THE SYSTEM is available online at Amazon.com.