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He could have played anywhere. How did BYU become his last option?

The most prolific quarterback in Utah prep history was wanted by everybody and then nobody in two short years; he borrowed money and walked on at BYU, where he has played six different positions

Brigham Young Cougars defensive back Austin Kafentzis (24) plays special teams against thanks Washington Huskies in Provo on Saturday, Sept. 21, 2019.
BYU defensive back Austin Kafentzis (24) plays special teams against the Washington Huskies in Provo, Utah, on Saturday, Sept. 21, 2019.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

PROVO — How could this happen? How could Austin Kafentzis, one of the most prolific prep football players in the history of Utah and recipient of a Big Ten football scholarship, find himself getting nothing but special teams duty in his senior year?

How is it possible that he was wanted by everyone and then no one, or that he was without a team for six months and BYU was his last option, as an 11th-hour walk-on?

How is it possible that, with “Rudy”-like persistence and desperation, he once embarked on a 2,000-mile car ride through the West, going from school to school, pleading to meet with coaches — even sitting uninvited in their offices for days hoping to talk to them — and couldn’t get an audience with any of them? Some were the same coaches who offered him scholarships in high school.

This was in December 2016, two years after the star quarterback had left Jordan High being among the leaders in just about every state career category possible and had been named the state’s Gatorade Player of the Year two different seasons. He had received dozens of calls from college coaches since he was 15 years old, wanting him to sign a letter of intent.

Jordan’s quarterback Austin Kafentzis, tries to break free of Caden Beyer as Davis and Jordan play Friday, Oct. 31, 2014, in the first round of the 5A football playoffs at Davis. Jordan won 41-29.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Bronco Mendenhall, BYU’s head coach at the time, offered him a scholarship the summer following his ninth-grade year of school — months after Utah coach Kyle Whittingham made the same offer in his office (his father had to pick up Austin at his junior high school for the meeting). Whittingham’s offer came with one caveat: He had to commit immediately, as a 15-year-old. Kafentzis believed he was too young to make such a commitment, so he waited a year and verbally agreed to sign with Wisconsin, where newly hired head coach Gary Andersen offered him the coach’s first scholarship.

Other schools vied for his services anyway — Boise State, Oregon State, Colorado, UCLA, Oregon, Stanford, Washington, Washington State, Texas A&M, LSU, Notre Dame, Michigan, Florida State, Florida, Baylor, Alabama and Hawaii. He accepted invitations from Utah and BYU coaches to sit in on team meetings.

Two years after Kafentzis graduated, no FBS school would have him, even as a walk-on.

And here he is, 4½ years, four schools and six position switches later, playing his final season of football at BYU, having moved to linebacker three games into his senior season. He had to borrow money to walk on at the school and makes a daily 40-minute commute from his Draper home, where he continues to live to save money.

“I just want to get on the field,” he says.

That has rarely happened since he left Jordan High. He didn’t play for Wisconsin. He didn’t play for Nevada. Even at Arizona Western Junior College, he barely saw playing time, throwing a mere 11 passes.

That’s about how many passes he threw in a quarter at Jordan High. In those days his future in the college game seemed promising, especially with the proliferation of the spread offense, which suited his skills perfectly. At 6-foot-1, 200 pounds, he produced astounding statistics:

• 37 games of at least 100 rushing yards. The second-best mark is 26.

• 100 rushing touchdowns. Second place is 70. This makes him the only player in the nation ever to have at least 100 rushing touchdowns and 100 passing touchdowns.

• 12,929 passing yards. Second place is 11,372.

• 6,749 rushing yards. Second place is 5,663

• 19,678 yards total offense. Second place is 13,610 — a difference of 6,068. (Note: A game between Jordan and East was canceled after about three quarters of play because of a fire, and the statistics were not officially counted; otherwise, Kafentzis would have finished with more than 20,000 yards).

• 213 touchdowns responsible for (running and passing). Second place is 132.

It is believed that Kafentzis is the first player in the nation to hold state career records in both rushing and passing.

In all, Kafentzis started 52 games and won 38 of them — both records — taking his team to the state title game three consecutive years and winning one state championship.

He had an advantage when it came to career marks simply because he played more games than his rivals, starting every game for four years, but it was to his credit he was able to play at such a high level at a young age. And there’s this: Kafentizis’ single-season marks are impressive, too. He ranks No. 2 in state history for single-season passing yards, with 5,707 (he also owns the ninth-best mark).

There was a lot for college recruiters to like. He certainly didn’t lack arm strength. As a high school freshman, Kafentzis joined the track team intending to be a sprinter. He developed shin splints and was unable to run, so he decided to try the javelin for the first time. With his father Kyle as his coach — he was a former standout javelin thrower in high school — he went on to throw the javelin a state-record 217 feet, 9½ inches as a junior. No Utah prep has come within 12 feet of that mark. (Kafentzis did not compete in track as a senior, so he could graduate early and participate in Wisconsin’s spring practices.)

Jordan’s Austin Kafentzis wins the 5A javelin competition at the state track meet at BYU in Provo on Saturday, May 17, 2014.
Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

If all of the above didn’t bode for success at the collegiate level, there also was his pedigree. Kafentzis comes from a long line of college football players (see sidebar).

Austin played quarterback in little league, but even then some coaches weren’t certain what they had. He was moved to running back in the Alta Ute Conference program in the eighth grade, so he transferred to Jordan, where he was spotted by Eric Kjar (“Care”), the Jordan High coach at the time. Kjar’s quarterbacks during his 10 years as a head coach are sprinkled throughout the all-time top-10 lists for passing in Utah. Four rank in the top 10 for yards per game in a single season and several moved on to college rosters — McCoy Hill (Southern Utah), Drew Lisk (Utah), Alex Hart (Utah State), Crew Wakley (Utah State — he played for Kjar through his junior year) and of course Kafentzis. Then Kjar moved to Corner Canyon and coached Zach Wilson, BYU’s starting quarterback.

Kjar recognized Kafentzis’ dual-threat ability after watching him run and pass Jordan to a come-from-behind win in his first game as a freshman quarterback. The coach designed running plays for his quarterback and tailored the playbook to utilize his particular passing skills.

Together they rewrote the state record book during their four years together, and in June 2013, Kafentzis signed with Wisconsin, six months after Andersen had become the Badgers’ head coach. Kafentzis, who had a 3.95 grade point average, planned to play his senior season and graduate early, in December 2015, so he could enroll at Wisconsin in January and participate in spring practice.

Wisconsin Badgers quarterback Austin Kafentzis in action as team Gasser defeats team Dukan (35-7) in the Wisconsin Badger annual spring game at Camp Randall Stadium in Madison on April 25th, 2015.
AP

The unraveling

Two weeks before he was going to leave for Madison, Kafentzis was getting a haircut when his phone began to blow up with texts from friends alerting him to the news: Andersen had abruptly and mysteriously resigned as coach of football powerhouse Wisconsin and was taking the head coaching job at lowly Oregon State.

To complicate matters, the NCAA dead period was in effect — coaches weren’t allowed to talk to athletes — so he couldn’t contact Andersen. Kafentzis had to make a quick decision — remain at Wisconsin and take his chances with a new coach, or go elsewhere, but by then most scholarships were taken.

Through a third party, he learned that Andersen’s replacement, Paul Chryst, still wanted him at Wisconsin and that Andersen wanted him to join him at OSU. But Andersen didn’t even have an offensive staff yet and Kafentzis had no way of knowing what kind of offense the team would employ. He chose Wisconsin — then almost immediately regretted it when spring practice began. The Badgers also brought in another freshman quarterback, a pocket passer named Alex Hornibrook, and it was clear from the start that the coaches favored him.

“He got all the reps,” says Kafentzis. “I was at the back of the line.”

He transferred to Nevada at the end of spring practice after Kjar reached out to the team’s offensive coordinator, Nick Rolovich, who had previously recruited Kafentzis. Per NCAA transfer rules, Kafentzis sat out the first season only to see Rolovich leave the school at the end of the season to take the head coaching job at Hawaii. Once again, a coaching change had derailed his plans.

The new coordinator at Nevada wanted a more traditional drop-back quarterback. In May 2016, 13 months after his arrival, he left school again. He had already burned two seasons — one of them as a redshirt — and if he transferred to a four-year school he would have to sit out a third season. He transferred to a JC, Arizona Western. He was told the team’s starting quarterback wasn’t returning, but the latter showed up at the first team meeting, along with a transfer from Boise State. Kafentzis saw little playing time. After five months at the school, he graduated and was seemingly out of options for his football career in December 2017.

Road trip

“Well, what do you want to do?” his father asked him. Austin wanted to hit the road and find a school. His father rented a car in Arizona and for the next seven days they drove some 2,000 miles in a quest to save his football career. They headed west on Highway 8 and drove deep into Southern California before turning north on Highway 5, which they followed up the coast to Oregon, then headed south into Idaho, Nevada and Utah. When Austin wasn’t taking a turn at the wheel, he sat in the passenger seat making calls and sending emails and texts to coaches trying to get an impromptu meeting.

He sent queries to coaches at Arizona and Arizona State, USC, UCLA, Cal, Stanford, Oregon, Oregon State, Washington, Washington State, Boise State, Utah State, Utah, BYU, and even smaller FCS schools, Southern Utah and Weber State. Only the latter two coaches responded. So the Kafentzises tried a more direct approach, stopping by coaches’ offices without an appointment.

They stopped in Los Angeles and waited all day to meet with coaches at USC and UCLA. None would meet with him. It was evening when they gave up and resumed their drive. Austin called Cal, Stanford and Oregon State as the reached the Bay Area, but no coach returned his call. They drove through the night from L.A. to Eugene, Oregon, and pulled into the parking lot of the University of Oregon football office at 5 in the morning.

Theirs was the only car in the parking lot, so they sat there in the dark and waited. Finally, a secretary arrived and Austin followed her into the office while his dad waited in the car and got some work done on his laptop.

Austin told the secretary he wanted to meet with the Oregon coaches. She told him the coaches wouldn’t arrive until later. He sat with his dad in the car a couple of hours, then returned to the office. Still no coaches. He returned to the car, and they checked into a hotel.

Austin left his dad in the hotel and returned to wait in the Oregon football office. After another long futile wait, he returned to the hotel and he and his dad found a field and worked out, with Austin throwing passes to his father as they had done for years. Austin returned to the Oregon office again and still got no audience with a coach. They went to a movie that night, and the next day — and the day after that — Austin was back in the OU office, waiting. “Man, you’re persistent,” one of the support staff told him. For three days he waited. He never did talk to a coach.

They drove south and stopped in Boise, hoping to meet with Boise State coaches, but again were unsuccessful. Their next stop was Weber State, where head coach Jay Hill gave Austin a warm welcome, but all his scholarships had been filled. They returned home and waited.

In the end, the only school that offered him a scholarship was Southern Utah. Kafentzis packed his bags and he and his father began the drive to Cedar City. They were about half-way there when Austin received a call from SUU informing him that his scholarship had been given away to another player.

“That was the low point,” says Kyle.

“I was in desperation mode now,” Austin says. “I had no idea what was next.”

Stop in Provo

He began firing texts to every coach he had ever met. Until now he had insisted he was a quarterback, but now he was telling coaches he would play any position, that he just wanted to play football.

They turned north toward their home in Draper, but en route Kyle pulled off the freeway in Provo and Austin showed up unannounced at the office of BYU head coach Kalani Sitake. Kafentzis had tried previously to contact him by text but got no response. He waited a couple of hours before finally meeting with the coach.

Sitake was gracious but said he had few open roster spots and no scholarship. Nothing much came out of the meeting. For the next five months, Kafentzis was out of school and football. He watched BYU spring practices from the sideline and trained with a personal trainer preparing himself in case he was given an opportunity. He stayed in touch with Sitake and in June 2017 the coach informed him that he could walk on the team, just weeks before fall camp opened.

His tryout at quarterback lasted a couple of weeks. He moved to wide receiver for two days and then to running back. It appeared that he had found a home in the final game of the 2017 season. He totaled 106 yards from scrimmage — 98 yards rushing on 18 carries and eight yards on a reception — against his father’s alma mater in Honolulu. But in the spring, he fell down the depth chart and made yet another position switch, this time to free safety, and then to strong safety.

He played on special teams in 2018 and 2019. During the fourth week of the season coaches moved him again, to field-side linebacker. Besides special-teams duty, he played two defensive plays against Washington and had one tackle. He is also part of BYU’s so-called scrum package, which calls for him to play quarterback in a stacked backfield. In a win over USC he handed off for a goal-line touchdown. The search for playing time continues.

“He’s the best teammate you could ever have,” says BYU head coach Kalani Sitake. “He’s willing to do whatever it takes to help the team win. There’s nothing entitled about him. He’s just grateful to be here and to play this game. I just love the way he approaches every day with gratitude. It’s an honor for me to be his coach.”

BYU players are asked to tell the team about their “hardships and highlights,” and Kafentzis had much to say about the former — the pride-swallowing, 2,000-mile search for a team and a few minutes of a coach’s time, the fall from hot recruit to afterthought, the sheer bad luck of having a new head coach and/or offensive coordinator every semester for the 2½ years of his college career, the tenuous position that NCAA rules place on athletes affected by free-moving coaches, the ongoing and constant change of positions. Teammates told him afterward that they probably would have quit against such obstacles.

“I have four years to do this,” Kafentzis explains. “It’s a short time compared to the rest of your life. After this, it’s just work. Why not try? Drag it out as long as you can. I’ve loved it since I was a kid. I might as well try to play. I didn’t want to give up and quit if I knew there was more I could do.”

No regrets

On a number of levels, Kafentzis has paid a steep price to play the game. His father told him that since he had given up scholarships at Wisconsin and Nevada, he would have to pay his way to walk on at BYU. Kyle is a successful entrepreneur who lives in a large home on Draper’s east bench. He could easily afford to pay tuition. But he notes that he grew up in a family of 13 kids and had nothing given to him.

“Teach kids to earn their way,” he says.

To walk on at BYU, Austin borrowed money from his dad and moved into his father’s home in Draper, which meant leaving the house at 6 a.m. every day to drive to Provo and returning home at 8 or later. He was awarded a scholarship after a year at the school, before the start of the 2018 season, and used part of his scholarship money to repay his father.

“He’s repaid every dollar,” says Kyle. “I’m very proud of that.” Austin continues to live in Draper and make the daily 30-mile commute to Provo to save money.

“I never really regret anything,” says Austin. “I look at every situation and learn from it — what I can do better. Yeah, it sucks. It’s been a long journey, but I’ve made new friends everywhere and learned a lot.”

Kyle thinks about his son’s experience a moment and says, “This is what I love about him the most. He has never missed a practice or a meeting or a 6 a.m. lift in any of these places, including high school. Not in the spring or fall. If you want to be successful, half the battle is just showing up. He has not given up or grown complacent. That’s why he shows up every day. He’s not going to give up. If you’re persisting, then you’re going to be successful in life.”