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Why James Empey was in a league of his own

After proving himself many times over during his years at BYU, talented offensive lineman now looking forward to pursuing his NFL dreams

BYU offensive lineman James Empey stands on the field during game against Washington State, Oct. 23, 2021, in Pullman, Wash.
BYU offensive lineman James Empey (66) stands on the field during game against Washington State, Saturday, Oct. 23, 2021, in Pullman, Wash. Empey recently announce he would be forgoing senior season and will now pursue his NFL dreams.
Young Kwak, Associated Press

There’s a brotherhood among offensive linemen. You know, the big hogs up front who get things done on a football team.

It’s a group comprised of jumbo human beings.

They are generally jovial souls. Most are very easygoing, well-liked and very close to teammates.

They are 50-gallon drums with legs running around pushing defenders. In “Hogdom,” once you are in the club, you are a lifer in football circles.

James Empey was steeped as deep in this culture on BYU’s football team as linemen could be. He was older, more mature, a trait of most Cougar linemen.

This past week he announced he would forgo an available year of eligibility for the Cougars and put his name in for the NFL draft.

To Empey: Well done big fella. Take your big hog creds and carry them onward.

BYU offensive coordinator Aaron Roderick tweeted out it is impossible to describe how much Empey meant to the offense, acting as a coach on the field.

Empey is a natural-born leader and earned freshman All-America honors his first season playing college football after enrolling at BYU in 2017. That came after a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Lisbon, Portugal.

He signed with the Utes out of American Fork High before his church service. He spent the past five years playing for his father Mike Empey, Ty Detmer, Jeff Grimes, Ryan Pugh, Eric Mateos, Roderick and Darrell Funk — anybody who’d poke a finger at the offense and say, “Try this.”

Trying this, and excelling at that, is what Empey did.

Unfortunately, the past two years he played hurt and missed games because of injuries. It makes sense that if he is going to play the game, he might as well do it at the next level and get paid for doing it in the NFL if a team picks him this spring.

Athletic director Tom Holmoe joined Roderick in high Twitter praise for Empey. “Best of luck moving forward James. You have proven yourself an exceptional scholar-athlete and leader and have a very bright future ahead of you. I appreciate all you have accomplished as a Coug and am grateful to the entire Empey Family for Reppin’ the Y so well.”

I asked radio host and former Cougars lineman Hans Olsen, very well acquainted with Hogdom in both college and the NFL, to chime in on Empey’s departure.

“For me, watching James Empey play the game of football is like a normal person watching a grizzly bear as one piece of a perfectly executed synchronized swimming routine in the Olympics,” said Olsen.

“The center position is extremely orchestrated and demands precision in footsteps, hand placements, helmet placement, hip angles, arm extension, and everything else you can think of the body doing mechanically.

“Some people might watch him and think, well, he does his job. I watch him and think that grizzly bear is in perfect tandem with the four women next to him in the water. He really is center position perfection, and this BYU football team is going to miss him dearly. James, if you can stay healthy, you will be an eight-year NFL vet.”

BYU offensive lineman James Empey watches his teammates warm up before game against Virginia Saturday, Oct. 30, 2021, in Provo, Utah.
George Frey, Associated Press

On Monday, Empey was named a finalist for the Pop Warner College Football Award.

Empey’s personality reminds me of four other big O-lineman, one from Utah, Jordan Gross, and BYU’s Orrin Olsen, Bart Oates and Eli Herring.

I covered all the BYU guys and got to know Gross during a media golf tournament in San Diego when the foursome in which we played won the scramble tournament with a score of 9 under par.

They all had the same traits as human beings: great guys.

Empey is a gentle giant, full of humility and kindness. Easy to pull for.

And he can absolutely push people around at 6-foot-4 and 305 pounds.

He did not play in the Independence Bowl and missed his share of this past season with injuries, but if there’s a guy who deserves to get healed up quick and pursue the NFL, it is James Empey.

Good luck, Sir Empey.