From zero to hero: The unlikely rise of Utah State linebacker Eric Munoz
Eric Munoz started the season with little chance of starting, let alone seeing real playing time, but Saturday against Wyoming he was the Aggies’ leading tackler and playmaker on defense
LOGAN — A couple of weeks ago, Eric Munoz walked into the office of Utah State head coach Gary Andersen. Located on the second floor of the Jim & Carol Laub Athletics-Academics Complex on the north side of Maverik Stadium, overlooking Merlin Olsen Field, the setting was apropos.
Munoz — a 6-foot, 230-pound redshirt junior linebacker — was in search of more playing time.
Munoz had appeared in just two out of eight games this season, and only on special teams at that. He hadn’t recorded a single statistic, making him a veritable unknown to all but the most diehard — possibly obsessive — of Utah State supporters.
“It is an unexplainable feeling. In the most humble way possible, I was right. My family was right. It feels so good to prove them right.” — USU linebacker Eric Munoz
On that day, two or three weeks ago, Andersen didn’t have an answer for Munoz.
At least not one he wanted to hear.
“Eric asked me, ‘Coach, what do I have to do to get an opportunity to play?’ and I didn’t really have an answer for him,” Andersen said, “other than keep on fighting and keep on battling.”
More than 16,000 Aggie fans saw Munoz fight and battle firsthand Saturday afternoon, in Utah State’s 26-21 win over Wyoming.
Less than a month after there appeared to be little to no avenue for increased playing time, Munoz started at linebacker for Utah State, finishing with a game-high 13 tackles. He also intercepted Wyoming quarterback Tyler Vander Waal twice, the latter of which was the game-sealing interception.
“Eric was awesome tonight,” said Andersen. “He patiently waited for his opportunity. He never pouted. It is a great story.” Then, with a frog in his throat, he added, “It is great for him to be in that position and to excel the way he is. It is one of the pretty cool moments of coaching.”
Munoz’s breakout performance against the Cowboys was one of the pretty cool moments of the season for Utah State football, and a long time coming.
He began his college football career at Upper Iowa University, located in Fayette, Iowa, after earning all-conference honors as a senior linebacker at Belvidere High in Belvidere, Illinois.
Munoz excelled with the Peacocks, the only Division II football team in Iowa. He played in eight games as a freshman, registering 32 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss and a sack. He was even named Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference Defensive Player of the Week after he intercepted a pass to set up Upper Iowa’s first touchdown in a 41-21 victory over Concordia-St. Paul.
Following his freshman season in 2016, Munoz made the decision to leave Upper Iowa and transfer to San Diego Mesa College. That meant giving up a scholarship.
“My dad” — Gerardo Munoz — “was pretty mad at me at first,” Munoz conceded. “We kind of butted heads for a good amount of time.”
Support from his parents, Gerardo and Bertha Munoz, was and remains of immense importance to Munoz, and fortunately, Gerardo came around.
“He rallied behind me and believed in me,” Munoz said. “When your parents are behind you and believe in you when you are rolling the dice, it means a lot.”
The dice roll took Munoz to San Diego and he was no less impressive as an Olympian as he was a Peacock. In his single season at Mesa College, Munoz earned all-conference honors, recording 69 tackles, 7.5 tackles for loss and 2.5 sacks while helping lead the Olympians to a Southern California Bowl Championship.
His success facilitated another dice roll, this one even more audacious than the first. Munoz turned down scholarships at the Division II, National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics and Football Championship Subdivision levels, as well as a few from smaller Division I or FBS schools in order to walk on at Utah State.
For much of his almost two years in Logan, the decision appeared to have been the wrong one.
Munoz redshirted his first season at Utah State, appearing in only four games. This season he had to watch as younger linebackers earned spots ahead of him on the depth chart, soaking up whatever playing time was available behind David Woodward and Kevin Meitzenheimer.
“Being a redshirt junior and having to sit behind some guys was tough,” Munoz admitted. “Coming in as a walk-on is tough. You aren’t that first guy up, and a lot of people aren’t looking for you to be successful. It is a bonus if you make plays; it is a bonus if you can contribute. Transferring three different times is tough — financially, academically, mentally and physically.”
“I couldn’t let them down, especially not Kevin (Meitzenheimer). Lining up next to him was some of the most fun I have had playing football. That felt really good to have him next to me, believing in me. Really, all 10 guys on defense were rooting for me.” — USU linebacker Eric Munoz
Munoz relied heavily on the support of his parents, his faith in God and his friendship with Meitzenheimer — the pair are best friends — as he watched from the sidelines more often than not.
“I have to give a big shout out to Kevin,” Munoz said, choking back tears. “He is my best friend and he has believed in me since I got here. When I wasn’t getting much playing time or I wasn’t getting an opportunity, he was always cheering for me, telling me to keep my head up.”
It was Meitzenheimer’s belief in him, as well his parents’ unwavering support, that motivated Munoz to play the way he did against Wyoming. Having finally been given an opportunity for real playing time — Munoz played in the fourth quarter of Utah State’s victory over Fresno State two weeks ago and made enough plays to warrant consideration for a starting role — he did not want to disappoint.
“I couldn’t let them down, especially not Kevin,” Munoz said. “Lining up next to him was some of the most fun I have had playing football. That felt really good to have him next to me, believing in me. Really, all 10 guys on defense were rooting for me. They were excited to see me out there. It felt good to be out there with them. With Coach A and Coach (Justin) Ena giving me an opportunity, I had to make the most of it.”
To borrow from the 1997 Disney animated film “Hercules,” Munoz “was a no one, a zero. Now he’s a honcho, he’s a hero … From zero to hero in no time flat. Zero to hero just like that.”
After what he did against Wyoming, Munoz has indeed gone from zero to hero.
“It is an unexplainable feeling,” he said. “In the most humble way possible, I was right. My family was right. It feels so good to prove them right.”
Aggies on the air
Utah State (6-4, 5-1) vs. No. 21 Boise State (8-1, 6-0)
Maverik Stadium, Logan
Saturday, 8:30 p.m. MST
TV: CBS Sports Network
Radio: KZNS 1280 AM