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Lessons of persistence, preparation shared during football banquet honoring 14 Utah prep athletes

OREM — Olympus High's Ben Bywater knows the power of persistence.

The Titan senior met resistance in his football life when an injury — a lacerated kidney — stripped him of nearly his entire junior football season.

The Eagle Scout recipient, who had dreams of earning a college scholarship, met resistance to his goals head on. While the injury was devastating, he didn't let it stop him. Bywater returned to the field for the final two games of his junior season and starred as a senior at Olympus, earning first-team All-State honors from the Deseret News.

In February, Bywater signed with BYU as part of its 2017 recruiting class.

"Looking back at my high school career, this experience to me is more valuable than having a massive stat year of rushing yards or tackles," Bywater shared with the audience at the 23rd annual banquet for the Utah Chapter of the National Football Foundation on Wednesday night at UVU’s UCCU Center.

Bywater then shared how that injury — and the aftermath from it — helped him gain an appreciation not only for football but also for life beyond it, keying in on three lessons it taught him:

1. The value of setting goals

"I had the goal of making it back to all of my last few games, and because I set that goal, I made it to every practice, paid attention to weekly schemes and supported my teammates every day," Bywater said.

2. The value of making the most of every opportunity

"When I was cleared to play, I made sure I didn't take anything for granted. I took advantage of every snap, every practice, every film session and played harder than I ever had because I knew how easily it could be taken from me," Bywater said.

3. Have a plan for life beyond football

"I realized I needed to be more than just an athlete, but a scholar-leader-athlete. Hence I ran for student body officer and got more involved in doing church and community service. I increased my effort I put into my grades and got a summer internship to gain work experience," he said.

"I did this because I knew that with any play, it could all be gone, and I needed to have a plan for life beyond football."

The Titan senior was one of the several people to share how football has impacted his life and taught them valuable lessons in return.

In an event attended by the coaching staffs from BYU, Utah, Utah State, Weber State, Southern Utah and Dixie State, along with family and friends, 14 high school football players were recognized as scholar-leader athletes by the Utah Chapter of the NFF, and all received a $2,000 scholarship from the NFF and College Football Hall of Fame.

The criteria for choosing the honorees came down to a simple formula: 40 percent based on their on-field accolades, 40 percent on academics and 20 on the athletes’ achievements in the community.

Including Bywater, the scholar-athletes included: Ryan Baker, Juan Diego RB; Garred Blanthorn, Maple Mountain DL/RB; Payton Bowring, Juab WR/DB; Cole Clemens, Bingham OL; Joshua Davis, Alta RB; Chandler Dolphin, Alta OL; Malakai Fakahua, Dixie LB; Jackson McChesney, Lone Peak RB/DB; Ashton Seely, Juan LB/OL; Steven Skewes, Duchesne RB/LB; Dillon Smith, Beaver RB/LB; Jaren Wilson, Tooele OL/DL; and Tristan Woolstenhulme, North Summit RB/LB.

A pair of individuals also earned the Outstanding Service to High School Football Award: former Timpview coach Chad Van Orden and official Chris Reid.

In addition to presenting the awards to the young athletes, former BYU tight end Dennis Pitta took home the Distinguished American Award. The current Baltimore Raven was the concluding speaker.

Another former Cougar, Brian Billick, earned the Contribution to Amateur Football Award. Billick served as the Ravens’ head coach from 1999-2007 and is now an analyst for the NFL Network.

Billick emphasized that football is a breeding ground for learning: "If their passions take them there, I know that this sport, and sports in general, deliver lessons that can not be found, short of the military, any place else."

Pitta, whose NFL career included nearly two years taken away by a hip injury that threatened his career before he set individual single-season highs with 86 receptions and 720 yards last season, spoke of the power of preparation.

"The one thing I would say to the kids here today is always be prepared," Pitta said, "whether it's in football or in life after football, which I'm starting to transition to right now. Be prepared. Work as hard as you can so that you're confident in what you're asked to do when the opportunity presents itself."