Editor's note: First in an occasional series on BYU football players and their famous fathers.
PROVO — As an NFL analyst for ESPN, Merril Hoge has a busy, demanding schedule during football season.
But he's made attending BYU games a priority to support his son, Beau, a backup quarterback for the Cougars.
“For me, it’s everything,” said Merril, who lives in Fort Thomas, Kentucky.
Beau Hoge is one of several current BYU players with famous fathers who played at a high level in college and/or in the professional ranks. Merril was a running back for the Pittsburgh Steelers (1987-93) and Chicago Bears (1994), rushing 825 times for 3,139 yards and 21 touchdowns during his eight-year NFL career.
But his most cherished job is just being a dad, cheering on his son.
Two years ago, when Beau was a true freshman, Merril traveled to Memorial Stadium in Lincoln to watch the season-opener between BYU and Nebraska.
Just weeks earlier, Merril had been told by doctors he needed to undergo heart surgery.
“They wanted to admit me that day,” he recalled. “I told the doctors, ‘Time out. I’m going to be at my son’s first game at Nebraska and then his first home game against Boise State. Then we can do the surgery.’”
Beau didn’t play in those first two games, and the Cougars won both on dramatic Hail Mary passes by Tanner Mangum.
Merril wouldn’t have missed out on the opportunity to be there.
The day that Merril was released from the hospital after successful heart surgery was the same day that Beau made his collegiate debut. Beau was thrown into the game against East Carolina at LaVell Edwards Stadium after Mangum suffered a hamstring injury.
Beau was at quarterback for three consecutive three-and-out drives and he tossed an ill-advised pass that resulted in an interception.
Mangum returned to the game with four minutes left and engineered another thrilling, last-minute BYU victory.
Had the doctors allowed it, Merril would have flown from Pittsburgh, where he had surgery, that morning to the game in Provo. But he had to settle for watching it on television. And he helplessly saw his son struggle in his first collegiate game.
“Beau did the one thing I never thought I’d see him do — throw across his body and he threw a pick,” Merril recalled. “As soon as it happened I was like, ‘Oh, nooooooo!’”
When the game ended, Beau called his dad.
“How’s your heart?” Beau said, jokingly.
Merril desperately wished he had been with his son that day.
“I felt for him. That was tough not to be there,” Merril said. “Everybody likes their support system, especially for the bad moments. I think about my first moments in college and the NFL and it was so fast. It was like a different world. Fans don’t realize that the backups get no reps. To be put in that scenario as a quarterback is going to be harder.”
Being the son of a standout player — sharing the same genes and same last name — can be a blessing or a curse.
How does Beau handle it?
“You definitely try to make your own name but I don’t have anything to compare it to, so it’s the norm for me,” he said. “Growing up with my dad, I’m used to big stadiums. I don’t feel overwhelmed when I’m out there playing.”
"Beau’s unique in the sense that he’s not flamboyant. He’s one of the most competitive people I’ve ever been around," Merril said. "He’s the most instinctive football player I’ve ever seen or been around. Because Beau is athletically so much better than I was, he’s never felt pressure.”
While Beau was born a few years after Merril retired from football, he was always around the game.
“You definitely get some neat experiences, going to some big stadiums and cool games,” Beau said. “Stuff like that was something I didn’t take for granted.”
How much advice does Dad give him?
“He analyzes me here and there. But we have plenty of other stuff we have in common,” Beau said. “We both like bow hunting and we talk a lot about that, too. We try to get a hunting trip set up for whenever I have a break.”
Beau appreciates his dad’s efforts to attend his games, even when he doesn’t play.
“He got to work it out with ESPN so he could come,” he said. “It’s meant a lot. Like any kid, they want their family around.”
Merril said he hasn’t put any pressure on his children to play sports.
“I judge my kids in the yardsticks of their years, not mine. It’s always given me patience and perspective with them,” Merril said. “I’ve encouraged all my kids and whatever you’re passionate about, let’s feed your passion. I don’t care what it is. Beau just happened to love football.”
While Beau was growing up, Merril coached his youth teams, which provided some memorable bonding experiences.
“Nothing’s ever fazed him but one time in practice when I was on him for something he said, ‘I’m not trying to go to the NFL, you know!’” Merril said. “I said, ‘Beau, don’t even try that with me. I’ve never said anything about that and I couldn’t care less. I just want you to play and have fun.’"
When Beau got to high school, Merril stepped out of a coaching role and into a supporting role as a proud dad.
“I knew it was time for Beau to get some new teaching and coaching. I needed to separate from him,” he said. “He’s hardly known when I was at practice. At games, I was in the back. He would be mortified if I were on the sidelines, screaming and yelling.”
As a high school senior in 2014, Beau led Highlands High to a 13-2 record and the Kentucky Class 4A state championship. He threw for 3,459 yards and 35 touchdowns and he rushed for 865 yards and 26 TDs.
A few years ago, Merril was at the Super Bowl and was watching an episode of ESPN’s SportsCenter Top 10 with former BYU and NFL star Steve Young. One of those highlights featured his son. Beau scrambled for 82 yards — making would-be tacklers miss 12 times — in a high school game.
Bill Polian, an ESPN analyst and former general manager of the Indianapolis Colts, approached to watch the play.
“Who is that?” Polian asked.
“My son,” Merril replied.
“You didn’t run the ball that good,” Polian said.
“I know I didn’t,” Merril said.
When it comes to parenting, Merril has learned the importance of seeing his kids’ perspective.
“Parents sometimes think that talking is the best thing. I’ve honestly learned more by listening to my kids than I ever learned by talking to them,” Merril said. “I would listen to Beau. We have a really balanced relationship. Beau is wise, he’s smart. I trust him and I’ve learned from him. I tell him all the time, ‘I want to be like you.’ I love how he handles himself. I wish I was better at that.”
Growing up in the Cincinnati, Ohio, area, one of Beau’s best friends is the son of former NFL player Chris Collinsworth. With NFL-playing dads, they have plenty in common. But according to Merril, Beau never took anything for granted.
“He wasn’t treated any different. He’s had to earn everything,” Merril said. “I have a lot of respect for him. He does things the right way. He earns them, he works at it, he doesn’t expect anything to be handed to him.”
At BYU, Beau, who redshirted last season and will be a sophomore this fall, has sat behind Taysom Hill and Mangum on the depth chart.
What advice has Merril given his son about his situation?
“Where he is now, my counsel to him is to be ready. If you’re working on being ready, that’s going to help you to be patient,” he said. “He’s good at that. There are days that he’s frustrated, like anybody. Beau doesn’t express his emotions too much. That helps him in football. I’ve never seen a guy who’s more composed. Beau’s a magical player and I don’t say that lightly, either. I’m not saying that as a parent, I’m saying that as a football guy. He has instincts you cannot teach.”
No matter what’s going on in his life, Merril will continue to support Beau the best way he knows how: as his No. 1 fan.
“Even though he’s got three years left at BYU, those years go by fast,” he said. “Beau likes it when we’re there at his games. I’m going to be there these next three years.”