FREER, Texas — The moment of truth arrives for Anthony Johnson. He’ll get just one shot, a trigger pull that he has waited hours to take while sitting perched in a hunting blind with BYU legend Ty Detmer on his T14 Ranch in South Texas.
With shadows creeping across the patches of purple sage and mesquite trees, a pack of coyotes howls in the approaching sunset. The target has arrived.
At that moment, Detmer’s demeanor changes. It's as if a switch has flipped in his brain and he enters a zone he’d found thousands of times before. It is a hunter’s carriage, part instinct honed from decades of routine and part muscle memory, a connection unique to the genetic wiring in his nervous system.
As a hunting guide, it is this moment when he earns his keep.
“Set the rifle here,” the 51-year-old Detmer tells Johnson, calmly but authoritatively. Johnson is excited, adrenaline surging from some ancient compartment humans developed eons ago. He has a little trouble steadying his aim.
Johnson traveled all the way from Saratoga Springs, Utah, and paid a lot of money for this opportunity. Detmer asks for a jacket and places it underneath Johnson’s right elbow. The loud boom from the .270 magnum rifle comes quickly. Johnson’s shot hits the target about an inch from where Detmer instructed, a placement from a hundred yards away.
“That jacket under the elbow made all the difference in the world,” says Johnson.
This is coaching for Ty Detmer these days.
Detmer left college coaching a year ago after being dismissed as BYU's offensive coordinator. His two-decade-old fallback retreat has never let him down. The giant T14 Ranch energizes and relaxes him. It’s an elixir, like football, that is part of who he is. It hatches frozen moments in time that gives him great satisfaction.
Last month, I visited the Texas ranch and was able to witness firsthand what the operation means to Ty and his family and see the satisfaction it brings him. I learned all about the animals he raises, the operation that he runs and his feelings for his alma mater's football program, and why things are different for BYU football now from when he was setting NCAA records as a player.
Life as a guide
Johnson visited Detmer's ranch for a father-and-son hunt with his dad, AJ, an eight-year veteran of the war in Afghanistan. That day, in two other blinds, Detmer’s guests succeed within the hour. The harvest is two boars and a white fallow buck that Detmer’s brother-in-law, Todd Cooley, had spent almost three days waiting to take.
These hunts, the taking of a trophy buck, split Detmer’s emotions in half. On one hand, that is their purpose. On the other, he knows them all, having bred them, fed them and cared for them all their lives.
Nobody shoots an animal unless Detmer gives the green light. When hunters are spread among his 11 blinds on the ranch, they communicate by cellphone with photos. If it’s a go, Detmer says, “It’s a shooter.”
The T14 Ranch is home to a hundred deer, from native whitetail to exotics like axis deer, fallows, red deer and blackbuck antelope from India that leap like impalas. He also has scimitar-horned oryx, and Aoudad and Barbary bighorn sheep, commonly found in North Africa and Morocco. Then there are the pesky wild boar, a bane to Texas ranchers. There are about 50 dug in on the T14.
A Detmer relative compared the South Texas climate and terrain to South Africa, and it takes little imagination to picture this landscape as something north of there, the wildlife-laden plains of the great Serengeti in Tanzania.
Detmer has a great respect for his big bucks. In the early morning light or just before sunset they can be seen in the open, majestic and picturesque, with wide-spread antlers, ears perking to the hint of danger, decked in winter coats.
“It makes it tough when you’ve watched them grow up,” says Detmer.
“What Ty Detmer is to football, he is to hunting,” says Lee Phillips, from Wheelersburg, Ohio, who was visiting the T14 Ranch for the second time. “This is his passion. He has a great knowledge of animals, from their behavior to nutrition. ... This is what he loves and you can tell by being around him.”
“He’s not a guy who made a ton of money and said he’d like to buy a hunting ranch," Phillips adds. "He’s a hunter first and had to make the money to do what he’s done.
“He has names for his deer, he knows them. He can tell them apart by the shape of their horns, a speck of color in their coats, and the way they graze. He can identify the dominant bucks and how they grew that way.”
Detmer has names for his most famous bucks — Macho, Dirty Dozen, Beast Mode, Hook and Bully 9. The names usually have something to do with their personalities or the rack of tines. He has hunters who put “dibs” on which ones they want to take when the time is right, usually in four to six years.
A moneymaker? Not for the College Football Hall of Fame quarterback. But he does count NBA legend Karl Malone as one of his clients. Malone took a big whitetail buck, three rams and a black boar.
“I lose money every year. I think I’ve made money one year on selling hunts,” says Detmer. “I minimize the damage you know and I enjoy it. I mean I love it. I just get a big thrill from people, seeing them get excited. It’s family-friendly. Kids come and they see a lot of animals and there’s always something, it’s fun. For some kids, this is where they got their first buck. That’s always fun for me.”
A lifetime dream
A blazing orange-ribbon sunset stretches across the western skyline of the T14 Ranch, silhouetting a hunting blind at the end of a rough road on a hill above Detmer’s precious 1,300 acres. A 9-foot-high fence protects the game within. If not for the fence, the animals would wander off and be killed on sight by hunters who have roamed South Texas for generations.
The T14 Ranch is one of many private hunting ranches in South Texas, a vast expanse of flatlands that stretches from the Hill Country of San Antonio to the Mexican border. Once giant cattle ranches of up to 50,000 acres, many cattlemen found it lucrative to parcel off and create private hunting ranches or sell hunting leases.
The T14 is located between San Diego and Freer, small Texas towns between Corpus Christi and Laredo. It is two hours south of Detmer’s childhood home of San Antonio just off State Highway 44. You go up dirt roads, pass through three locked gates, and through another ranch to reach his landlocked compound.
Filled with pastures and scattered with back trails, vehicle paths and watering holes, the ranch is filled with gnarly brush. You could get lost for a while out here, but Detmer knows every square foot of it. It is speckled with mesquite trees, cat’s claw, black brush, purple sage and guajillo plants.
The T14 Ranch houses a double-wide trailer decked out as a cabin with log siding that can sleep a dozen hunters in three bunk rooms. “I shouldn’t have put the logwood on it because the woodpeckers get to it,” says Detmer.
The hunters cabin includes a DirecTV satellite, and features a giant covered patio with barbecue area. For a hunter, this isn’t camping. It’s a neat, tidy distraction from the world with all the amenities.
About 50 yards away, Detmer built a beautiful, spacious, metal-roofed family ranch house because his wife, Kim, wanted some privacy from the hunters. The house is a display space for trophy buck hung on the walls, each with a story.
Above a long buffet table sits a giant cougar posed on rocks covered with artistic snow. It’s a cat Detmer shot in Diamond Fork Canyon near Spanish Fork, Utah, and is symbolic of his Cougarhood. In a long closet by the front door hang enough camo coats and jackets for every day of the month. They are like his Batman suits, and he outfits them to hunters in need. He even provides rifles and ammo. Everything but the aim.
Nearby sits his back buildings and feed towers. One building is for storage of vehicles and equipment, another is where the game is processed and hung on electrically controlled pulleys. It is a full-service hunting ranch complete with home-cooked meals and stories from a Heisman Trophy winner.
“When I booked my hunt at the Outdoor Expo at Utah Valley University, Ty gave me his cellphone number and said to call him,” says Johnson. “When I called, he answered it himself. When I asked where I could give a deposit, he said to come out to his house in Mapleton and when I did, his wife answered the door. Everything has this very personal touch.
In his blood
Detmer has hunting imprinted in the strands of his DNA. Aside from living an intense football life alongside his coaching father, Sonny, he grew up in a hunting family that frequently went to private ranches by invitation or fee.
As a teen, Detmer won the coveted Muy Grande Deer Hunting Contest. It is the oldest hunting contest in the world, its website claims, created by the legendary Leonel Garza, who lives and operates the Muy Grande store in nearby Freer. Garza’s contests have attracted thousands of participants, including Nolan Ryan, Josh Beckett, Earl Campbell, Slim Pickens, Bob Lilly, Detmer and Malone, to name but a few.
On his mother Betty Spellman’s side, Detmer is a seventh-generation Texan related to one of the original settlers of Texas, frontiersman Zadock Woods. The legendary Woods, along with Stephen F. Austin, was among a group of settlers called the “Old Three Hundred,” who received land grants by the ruling Mexican commandant of Texas in the early 1800s. Woods died alongside Davy Crockett in the Battle of the Alamo.
It was Garza who approached Detmer about buying his ranch, part of what was the 8,000-acre Welder Ranch. It has three wells, which feed a series of ponds.
In the late 1990s, Detmer received a decent-sized signing bonus with the San Francisco 49ers and was then traded to Cleveland. It is from this stash of money that Detmer drew from when he decided to pull the trigger on the ranch. Detmer paid $750 an acre for the 1,200 original acres, some $900,000. Since that purchase in 1999, with improvements, the T14 is worth triple that today.
“We always hunted by buying leases on private land so it was kind of a childhood dream to own my own hunting ranch when growing up,” says Detmer. “I flew down and rode around the property with Garza. It was kind of turnkey, a nice setup. It needed some work, had water, but the exotics (game) were a bonus because there are times you can’t hunt whitetail season. You can hunt the exotics year-round, so I just, you know, kind of dove right in and made the purchase.”
With animals already on the land, Detmer has basically managed it, adding when needed and caring for growth and the hunt. It is a labor of love, a Detmer dream, a get-away-from-the-world kind of place.
Sonny Detmer began dabbling in raising longhorn cattle when in Mission, Texas. He had 40 acres behind the house with longhorns. He put 40 head of longhorn on the T14. They are huge animals with those famed horns that span 3 feet from their heads on each side.
“So, I hate ’em,” says Ty. “They jump my deer feed bins and eat all my deer feed. He sells them and he’s got them all blood-typed. They’re the old-time purebred longhorn, they are not mixed. Some people mix them with Watusi or other types of cattle and try to make their horns bigger, but these are the purest of the pure.”
Every few days, Detmer or a ranch hand gets in a Polaris diesel 4X4 Ranger and rides the perimeter of the property, where along the fence line, marked with pink ribbons, he has set nearly 50 snares across the bottom of the fence where holes have been dug by intruders like bobcats, armadillos and raccoons. The bobcats can attack a defenseless fawn and Detmer isn’t having any part of that. They usually trap three or four a week and the kids like to hop in the Ranger and check the snares with the hall-of-fame host.
On one such snare check, Detmer pulled out a dead bobcat and loaded it in the Ranger while one of his father’s bull longhorns came over to inspect the scene. Detmer walked over to the huge animal and reached out to pet his nose. Smelling the scent of bobcat, the longhorn recoiled and immediately lowered his head, showing his big horns as Detmer backed away laughing.
The T14 Ranch is home to Detmer family gatherings on many a Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter. He hosts hunts whenever he gets the bookings. He could live there full time. His wife, he says, could not.
The Detmer children celebrated many a holiday weekend at the T14. His oldest is Kaili Sawyer, 25, who just gave the Detmers their first grandchild and lives in Idaho. The second is Aubri, 23, who works in nursing in St. George. Mayci, 20, is taking courses and working in Gilbert, Arizona, while the youngest, Rylli, is a senior cheerleader at Highland High in Gilbert.
Asked if this vast South Texas ranch might be filled with condos in 200 years, Detmer deadpanned, “That will never happen.”
Still a BYU fan
Detmer's brother-in-law, Rich Herbert, cooks on the ranch and was on T14 the week before Thanksgiving because he’s on leave from Southwest Airlines recovering from back surgery as a baggage handler. He jokes that he and Ty are unemployed, so they’re just hanging out and having fun. Rich lives a mile from Ty in Gilbert, Arizona.
Detmer loves his brothers-in-law and often golfs with Rich, Dave and Mike Herbert, who often argue and fight as Detmer laughs. None of them can beat him, and, unlike these siblings, he never talks smack unless they reach a threatening score.
Rich remembers one round in Arizona where he had a two-stroke lead on Ty on the 17th hole, but he hit his drive in a pond and Detmer tied him on 18. Going into a sudden-death hole, Rich’s approach shot hit the flagstick and dropped 2 inches from the hole. He thought he had Detmer for the first time, but Ty’s chip shot found the bottom of the cup for the win.
One night after dinner during my visit to the ranch, Rich asked me, “What happened with Ty and why was he let go the way it happened? He never says anything about why and he never puts any blame on anything or anyone.”
The answer will be debated for all time. BYU won just four games and then dismissed a guy who is on the Mount Rushmore of the school’s athletic program after lobbying him to come and coach. The offense struggled, as did the defense. The culture, youth and injuries were all a part of the team's struggles, but dismissing Detmer became the big change. Detmer publicly blames no one.
That is classic Detmer. He knows the business. Football is a volatile sport for both players and coaches. He often says his only regret at BYU is that he wasn’t given time to work through issues and fixes. He wishes he had spoken up and voiced a stronger opinion about some of the decisions that were made.
Last week marked the one-year anniversary of BYU releasing Detmer from his duties as offensive coordinator following a win at Hawaii.
Has he followed his replacement, Jeff Grimes, and BYU games this fall?
“I haven’t seen a game,” says Detmer. “I follow them on my phone but I really don’t want to hear all the talk about last year because every year is different. I mean, it just is what it is and I didn’t want to hear comparisons.”
This season, BYU won two more games, still lost to Utah, Utah State and Boise State, moved from 118th in total offense to 107th, and from 123rd in scoring to 94th. The biggest difference was BYU's defense, ranked 51st in 2017, which finished 19th after a regular-season loss at Utah.
Like a year ago, when Detmer cycled through quarterbacks Tanner Mangum, Beau Hoge, Koy Detmer Jr. and Joe Critchlow, BYU made a QB change this year as well, going to freshman Zach Wilson. Detmer understands when you do that, you change the offense, something he did several times.
“It sounds like they reworked the offense and that’s something you have to do with injuries, and they’re under center and in the shotgun, something we did. Obviously, it was disappointing the way it went down but, I don’t know, I just didn’t want to hear announcers talk about last year," Detmer says. "I’ll follow it, I still pull for them and hope for good things for the program and those players. I know the players are great young men and I root for them to do well and have success. That’s the kind of year I’ve had.”
A different era
Detmer said times have changed since the days he set 59 NCAA records and tied three more. Defenses have evolved and there are NFL influences.
“The old days were different. I think it’s hard for fans to kind of let that go, the whole passing system because so many teams have caught up with it and that makes it tough. You look at Washington State and Mike Leach and he’s throwing it all over the place. It can still be done if you recruit (to it) and develop for it.
“When we were doing it, the passing game was a little bit of a novelty. Teams didn’t know how to defend it and they didn’t prepare for it in the offseason because they were only going to see it one time a year. So, it was different then.”
Detmer said BYU’s admissions are more strict than when he played and that limits recruiting. “When you are on the outside looking in, you don’t know the ins and outs of it all," Detmer explains. "But being involved in it, it’s like, man, you know they gotta have the GPA and it’s a big issue for kids to get a high grade-point average and ACT score.
“Back when I was there, recreation management (major) was kind of an easy out. There are no easy outs now. Every major is hard, even religion classes are hard. I failed New Testament. Being a nonmember (of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) at the time, you’d think I’d know the New Testament, but it is even harder now. If I was coming out now, I probably wouldn’t have gone to BYU because there are a lot of schools that throw the ball. But back then, it was the place to go to pass. So, it’s different, but I still think it's a place where a quarterback makes it go.”
Detmer said back in the day he faced defenses with basic coverages. “You’re throwing the 15-yard dig route that they catch it and run for 20 more. I think we had a 96-yard touchdown against Utah one year so there were more big plays to be had then than now. Defenses are just better today.”
While at BYU, Detmer was the recruiter who offered Arizona four-star quarterback Jacob Conover, who is expected to sign with the Cougars and then serve a church mission. Ironically, Conover led his Chandler High team to a win over Highland High this fall, where Detmer’s nephew, Kaleb Herbert, was the quarterback. Herbert was 14 for 22 for 209 passing yards, with 33 rushing yards and an 8-yard touchdown run in that game.
One of the reasons Detmer moved to Gilbert from Mapleton this summer is so his daughter could go to school with Kaleb and he could be around family. “They are seniors together.”
After games, Detmer sits down with Kaleb and goes over film of his next opponent and talks through defenses and weaknesses. “That’s been fun for me.”
Another nephew, his sister Dee’s son, Zadock Dinkelmann, committed to BYU then decommitted after Ty moved on. That scholarship was ultimately given to Wilson and Dinkelmann is now at Navarro College, backing up a touchdown machine named Parker McNeil. Dinkelmann will get his chance next season.
A third nephew, former BYU preferred walk-on Koy Detmer, Jr., is at Texas A&M-Kingsville, and started every game this year. “He got nicked up in a few games but overall, he had a good season," Detmer says. "I got to see him play on TV a few times and he really enjoyed getting a chance to play.”
Two other nephews are just starting their high school careers. Ty’s brother Koy has a second son, Cole, who is a freshman at Somerset High and plays for Ty’s father. Rich Herbert, the cook, has a son named Austin playing for former Cougar QB Max Hall in Arizona.
BYU is paying Detmer’s contract through December and he plans to try to get his foot in the door in the NFL, where he has far more contacts than the college game. He visited the Saints for a few days last year. New Orleans coach Sean Payton was his quarterback coach in Philadelphia and Ty recently got to sit in Saints meetings and be with Taysom Hill. “If that doesn’t work out, then I’ll see what is available.”
Detmer plans to continue tutoring and training players. He is still a primary consultant for QB Elite and Dustin Smith in Utah. “I enjoy the coaching side where it’s the scheming and game-planning. That part was fun for me. The training is fun where you are working on an individual basis and hands-on with techniques.”
Detmer’s job search won’t pick up again until January when NFL seasons wind down. He did talk to Kansas City Chiefs coach Andy Reid last year and jokingly asked if he needed anybody to hold the cord to his ear set on the sidelines. Reid answered: “We don’t have cords anymore.”
Reid said he didn’t have any more room in the building. “We’ve got the worst designed offices. We’ve got people in storage closets right now,” Detmer recalls Reid saying.
“You never know,” says Detmer. “People move on, coordinators become head guys and head coaches have other plans. We’ll see.”
Personal Heisman touch
Dinner at the T14 is the big meal of the day. Detmer prepares a barbecue on the huge patio by stoking a fabricated barrel before heading out for the late-afternoon hunt.
The BBQ unit, built by Garza and friends as a gift, has a lettered halo on top with metal work declaring “Heisman Trophy Winner” below artwork that shows the T14 Ranch label with bookend big bucks. Detmer starts the mesquite logs with a blowtorch hooked to a 5-gallon propane tank. He wants the logs to fire up and burn down to usable hot coals when he returns from the hunt. He’ll then put on ground venison steaks peppered with jalapeño cheese, part of a night’s big feed for guests. “If you make the last meal a big one, they’ll remember it,” he says.
Right after the hunt, Detmer unloads the game from the bed of his truck for processing and it is dark. He is worried about the coals and if they’ll be ready. He declares to the group, “I hope they’re ready or we’ll be barbecuing peanut butter sandwiches.”
In the lighted work area, 19-year-old Tate Hansen from Ingram, Texas, uses sterilized surgical scalpels, a buck knife and battery-operated saw to dress down the animals. He is efficient, fast and respectful as hunters stand by and watch him do the hard work. Periodically, after every hunt, Detmer helps Hansen prepare the game. Later, the meat will be packaged, frozen and taken home in coolers or even suitcases or footlockers. Sets of big buck horns are carefully packed in big boxes to be mailed home where they’ll find their way to a wall.
“Hey, Rich!” yells Detmer. “Get those ‘taters ready!”
In all, it takes a lot of work to run a hunt and the T14 Ranch. Detmer has Hansen do the nitty-gritty, gutting and dressing down the game, not that Detmer can’t. He jumps in when he's able. “If I’m not going to cape it, I can go pretty fast. My brothers-in-law and my daughter call me the hacker because the knife just starts going. They really don’t get near me when I start going. I’d say I can dress down a deer in five minutes.” He has a long scar on his left hand from a slip with the scalpel.
Detmer can host four to five hunters comfortably but he does have a group of 13 coming. “A group of four or five, I can interact with them and the experience isn’t diluted.”
That interaction is important to Detmer. His guests pay to be around him. But the past few years when coaching, his oldest daughter, Kaili took over operations. She guides the hunts in his absence, mostly all by herself.
When Detmer cannot be at the ranch, he has a caretaker show up several times a week to see that there is feed and water and that the snares are checked.
To see the operation and imagine Kaili doing all the cooking, guiding, meat processing alone, you appreciate the strength of his firstborn, a descendant of Zadock Woods, indeed.
This T14 Ranch in all its Texas glory stands alongside Detmer's storied high school career as a Texas High School Player of the Year. It is part of the orbit he lives as a member of the College Football Hall of Fame, represented by his Heisman, Davey O'Brien and Maxwell trophy hardware.
But above it all, it is his personality, his love of life, games, loyalty to family and friends, and the devotion to the hunt that make him who he is.
This is the legacy Ty Detmer will leave for his family and friends.