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Leaving a legacy: 17 players on the BYU football team have fathers who also played for Cougars

BYU football stars such as Isaac Rex, Jaren Hall, Payton Wilgar and James Empey followed in their fathers’ footsteps to Provo. Here’s why they did it

From top left to right: Jaren Hall, James Empey, Isaac Rex. Bottom left to right: Kalin Hall, Mike Empey, Byron Rex.
From top left to right: Jaren Hall, James Empey, Isaac Rex. Bottom left to right: Kalin Hall, Mike Empey, Byron Rex.
Composite photo

Known for his brash, fiery and in-your-face playing style and personality when he played tight end for BYU in 1986 and from 1989 to 1992, Byron Rex will never forget the day his alma mater offered his oldest son a football scholarship.

“I remember crying,” Rex said.

To make it even better, the offer to Isaac Rex, then a 6-foot-4, 225-pound tight end at San Clemente High in California, came from Byron Rex’s former BYU teammate and close friend, then-offensive coordinator Ty Detmer, on Feb. 19, 2016. Isaac Rex committed to BYU about a month later.

Ever since they met and married at BYU in the early 1990s, it was the dream of Byron and Amy Rex that Isaac would some day play for BYU like Byron did when he became an All-American and two-time All-WAC selection.

“We pretty much brainwashed him,” Byron Rex said, only half-joking. “We made sure he grew up a big BYU fan and I always sort of pushed him in that direction just because of the great experience I had there.”

Isaac Rex became new head coach Kalani Sitake’s first commit, Sitake having replaced Bronco Mendenhall in December 2015, and is now a star on the Cougars’ 3-0 and No. 15-ranked team as BYU prepares to host South Florida on Saturday (8:15 p.m. MDT, ESPN2) at LaVell Edwards Stadium.

Isaac Rex caught two touchdown passes in BYU’s 27-17 win over Arizona State last week.

He is also one of 17 players on BYU’s 2021 team whose father also played for the Cougars. BYU calls them “legacy players,” and the private school owned and operated by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Provo, Utah, just might have more father-son connections than any school in the country.

“I think it is somewhat unique to BYU because of how long LaVell Edwards was there, and the experiences we had playing for him,” Byron Rex said. “Kalani Sitake (who played for Edwards) is providing those same kind of experiences to our kids.”

The Rexes’ second son, Preston, signed with BYU in 2020 as a versatile athlete and is currently on a church mission.

He will return next season and could give BYU more sets of brothers in 2022 if Isaac, in his second season after catching 12 touchdown passes last year, does not leave early for the NFL draft.

The other sets of brothers are offensive linemen Clark and Campbell Barrington, receivers Puka and Samson Nacua, and offensive stars Baylor (quarterback) and Gunner (receiver) Romney.

Lots of programs talk about providing a family atmosphere. Sitake has delivered it — literally.

The sixth-year coach said having so many legacy players is not unique to BYU, but he makes it a priority because it worked for his mentor, Edwards.

“I am trying to do what a lot of the coaches have already done here, what Bronco and LaVell have already done, and trying to build on that,” Sitake said. “Everyone has their own idea of how to run a program. For us, it just falls really in line with me with what I got to enjoy when I played here at BYU.

“We just happen to have a bunch of guys whose dads played here, and it matters to them. I want young men that want to be here, and want to be part of this program,” he continued.

Special teams coordinator and assistant head coach Ed Lamb, who played for the Cougars from 1994-96 under Edwards and joined Sitake’s staff in 2016, has been involved in recruiting many of the legacy players whose fathers he played with some 25 years ago. Lamb said it is more prevalent at BYU than any other school, in his opinion.

“I gotta think a lot of it is the long legacy of success where fathers are graduating from here and look back fondly on their success and they want that for their sons regardless of the spiritual aspect (which also plays a big part),” Lamb said. “That is what makes BYU such a special place to coach as well. There is a strong tradition here that we get to inherit.”

Here is more on some of the more prominent father-son duos:

Isaac and Byron Rex

Isaac Rex began going to BYU’s fathers and sons camps with his father when he was 8, and continued that tradition until he was a senior in high school, having already committed to the Cougars by then.

“So we have always been around the campus, always hung out there and watched every BYU game,” Isaac said.

The first BYU game he remembers attending in person didn’t go well for the Cougars, however. In 2014, Utah State upset No. 18 BYU 35-20 and starting quarterback and fringe Heisman Trophy candidate Taysom Hill suffered season-ending leg injuries.

“It was in Provo and it was really cold, but it was a lot of fun,” Isaac said. “My dad, he has always ingrained BYU into our heads. I love him for that, because I love BYU.”

BYU was the first school to offer Isaac a scholarship, and he “kinda shut it down after that,” he said.

“I just wanted to play for BYU my whole life, because my dad did,” he said. “They offered, and it was over.”

Because he was affiliated with BYU from 1986 to 1992 (with a mission sandwiched in from 1987-88), Byron Rex was teammates with many other legacy fathers such as Garry Pay, Kalin Hall, Jamal Willis, Mike Empey, Warren Wheat, Peter Tuipulotu and Mike Keim. He was roommates with Willis and also played with Matt Redden, whose son Bentley signed with BYU in 2020 but is on a church mission.

“It is all about relationships, and because BYU is such an attractive place to be for coaches, that’s the uniqueness,” Byron Rex said.

BYU’s Byron Rex heads up field during his stellar career for the Cougars in the 1990s. Today, his son Isaac is following in his dad’s footsteps.
BYU Photo

Isaac says his dad scrutinizes the film of every play he’s in and offers tips on his blocking and route running, which is to be expected since Byron played the same position.

“He’s a really supportive dad and he is really loving and kind,” Isaac said, while referencing an incident in 1992 when Bryon had a few choice words and gestures, caught on camera, for a pro-Hawaii crowd at Aloha Stadium after catching a touchdown pass that were “out of character” for his father.

“He tells me what he sees and how I can get better.”

Byron’s take on offering critiques and advice: “I am going to say I mainly leave it up to tight ends coach (Steve) Clark, but I can’t help myself. I think I am always a coach, always a dad. I love the game. … In our family, we use football as an eternal learning tool to learn life lessons that they will take into their lives beyond football.”

The couple’s third son, Xander, is a freshman in high school “and might be better than all of them,” said Byron. “He is going to be a good one, too.”

So the legacy could continue.

Connor and Garry Pay

Freshman offensive lineman Connor Pay always knew his father played football for BYU, but it wasn’t until the family moved from the San Diego area to Utah County when he was 7 or 8 that he realized what a big deal that was.

Brigham Young Cougars wide receiver Neil Pau’u (2) celebrates his touchdown against the UCF Knights with Brigham Young Cougars offensive lineman Connor Pay (70) during the Boca Raton Bowl in Boca Raton, Fla., on Tuesday, Dec. 22, 2020.
BYU offensive lineman Connor Pay, right, congratulates wide receiver Neil Pau’u after a touchdown against the UCF Knights during the Boca Raton Bowl in Boca Raton, Fla., on Tuesday, Dec. 22, 2020. Pay’s father Garry also played for the Cougars.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

“We started getting season tickets to the games, so just being heavily exposed to the environment played a huge role (in recruiting) because I new the culture of the program,” Connor said. “I knew exactly what I was getting into before I even came here.”

Still, it almost didn’t happen. Garry Pay, an offensive lineman for the Cougars in 1986 and then from 1989 to 1992, has remained close to Mike Empey when they played together back in the day. When Empey was let go by BYU as part of the Ty Detmer dismissal in 2017, Connor started to re-think the commitment he made to BYU in June 2016.

BYU center Garry Pay prepares to snap to quarterback Ty Detmer during their playing days in Provo in the 1980s.
BYU Photo

“I was committed for almost two and a half years (before he signed), but when Empey was let go, I took some looks at some other schools before I took a look at the new staff they brought in,” Connor said. “Mike has been like an uncle most of my life. But it ended up that I kinda knew where my heart was. It was fun to go look at other schools and explore other options, but at the end of the day BYU is where I wanted to be.”

When he arrived at BYU, Connor wanted to wear the number the No. 67 that his father wore, but that number had already been taken by an offensive lineman by the name of Brady Christensen, an All-American who now plays for the Carolina Panthers.

“Brady knew that my dad wore that number, and said I could wear it the following year after he left (early for the NFL), but things had already gotten going, and No. 70 had sunk in already so I decided to keep it,” Connor said.

Of course, Empey has a son on BYU’s team also — center James Empey.

Garry Pay has a photo of Connor and James sitting together on a ride at Disneyland when they were little.

Current BYU offensive linemen Connor Pay, front, and teammate James Empey share a ride at Disneyland during their youth.
Garry Pay

“I love it,” Garry said of his son’s choice to follow in his footsteps. “But I didn’t push him. I wanted it to be his decision. It was all about his dream and what he wanted to do.”

Garry had offers from Nebraska and his dream school growing up, USC, but realized that his father let him decide and wanted the same thing for Connor.

“I love what the school stands for, love what the football team has done, and the history we have,” Garry said. “So yeah, it is a lot of fun, and super gratifying as a father to see your own son out there playing and doing his thing and fulfilling his dream.”

The Pays — Jeana and Garry — have two more sons that are into football; senior left tackle Trevor Pay is in the recruiting process right now with a preferred walk-on offer from BYU and freshman Austin, 14, is Trevor’s backup at Lone Peak High and will eventually be the biggest Pay.

“He is already taller than Connor (who is 6-5) and is just getting his feet wet in football,” Garry said.

Garry coaches the offensive line at Lone Peak and also has many former teammates with sons on BYU’s team, guys such as Rex, Empey, Tim Hanshaw, Warren Wheat (host of his recruiting visit) and Peter Tuipulotu.

“It is kind of fun as a dad to watch your buddies’ kids succeed and see that next group move on to BYU and do well,” he said.

Blake and Jim Freeland

Former Herriman High star Blake Freeland wanted to wear his father’s No. 42 when he got to BYU, but Jim Freeland played linebacker for the Cougars and you don’t see many offensive linemen wearing that number, Blake said, so he settled on No. 71.

The one-time high school quarterback and tight end almost didn’t settle on BYU, despite his father playing there in 1994 and 1995 after a standout career at Ricks College and his mother, the former Debbie Dimond, was an honorable mention All-American basketball player for the Cougars (1991-95).

Brigham Young Cougars offensive lineman Blake Freeland (71) celebrates after a touchdown during the second half of an NCAA college football game against Utah at LaVell Edwards Stadium in Provo on Saturday, Sept. 11, 2021. BYU won 26-17.
BYU offensive lineman Blake Freeland (71) celebrates after a BYU touchdown during game against Utah at LaVell Edwards Stadium in Provo on Saturday, Sept. 11, 2021. Blake’s dad Jim played for the Cougars in the mid-’90s.
Shafkat Anowar, Deseret News

Jim Freeland said Blake committed to BYU after his sophomore year in June 2017, but the Cougars promptly had one of their worst seasons in 50 years, going 4-9, and many of the offensive coaches that recruited Blake were dismissed.

Utah coach Kyle Whittingham made a late recruiting push, and Blake was apparently on the verge of flipping to the Utes. So Jim called one of his former teammates at the Y., assistant head coach Ed Lamb, and told him “there needs to be a Hail Mary here, we might be losing Blake to Utah.”

Jim said he and Debbie had tried to stay out of Blake’s recruitment as much as possible, but secretly wanted him to go to BYU in the worst way. He will never forget Lamb’s last-minute recruiting pitch that kept Blake in the BYU fold.

“Ed told him that at BYU you could be sitting in a locker room where you could turn and have conversations with people that are uplifting and knowledgeable and smart,” Jim said. “That conversation really did it. Coach Lamb really sealed the deal. His role as kind of an uncle to my son probably helped a ton.”

Lamb told Blake, Jim Freeland said, that if “you come to BYU, you are going to be strained. It is going to be hard. And it is going to be an experience unlike any other. But there will be a brotherhood that will be with you.

“Blake was still hemming and hawing, and Ed said, ‘Don’t forget: Our fans are not just the people who went to school here. Our fans are probably 8 million strong, and they are all over the world.’”

Speaking to the Deseret News via Zoom last week, Blake said his parents’ success at BYU played a big role in his decision, along with Lamb’s last-minute oration.

“They kinda urged me to come here, continue that legacy, and just their experiences, and them talking about what college life is like down here, that also influenced me to come here,” Blake said.

Payton and Dana Wilgar

Ever since he knew what football was all about, Payton Wilgar wanted to play football for BYU, where his father Dana played defensive back from 1973 to 1976 and was known as a hard-hitting safety from Las Vegas.

BYU’s defense came up with four sacks against Arizona in a 24-16 win on Sept. 4, 2021, but missed tackles are a concern.
BYU linebacker Payton Wilgar celebrates a sack on Arizona quarterback Gunner Cruz during game in Las Vegas on Saturday, Sept. 4, 2021. Payton’s dad Dana played for the Cougars in the 1970s.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Problem was, BYU didn’t offer young Payton a scholarship, so he had to walk on and earned his spot that way. Now he’s a team captain and one of the best defenders on the team, just like his dad was.

But he wears No. 49; Dana Wilgar wore No. 42.

“I would say my dad is super proud of me,” Payton said. “To do it the way I did, it wasn’t easy to stick with it. He is super proud that I stuck with it and got to where I am today.”

Jaren and Kalin Hall

BYU’s current starting quarterback has a father who also played football for the Cougars, but Kalin Hall was a standout running back, so dad doesn’t offer a lot of tips on playing the most important position on the field, Jaren Hall said.

“He used to coach me up a lot more when I was (younger),” Jaren said. “Then he turned the reins over to my quarterback coaches as I got older. I don’t know if he ran out of things to coach me on, or he didn’t want to waste his breath on me. But he’s still there for me mentally and in moral support. We still talk football most of the time. I love my dad and appreciate him.”

Kalin’s wife and Jaren’s mother, the former Hollie Hamilton, was a BYU gymnast. The couple’s oldest son, KJ Hall, played running back for BYU before injuries forced him to retire.

Their fourth son, Kyson, signed with BYU as a receiver last February and is on a church mission in Ghana. He is said to be the most athletic Hall of them all.

In 2018, Kalin Hall told the Deseret News that Jaren has an “elite arm and can use his legs. He is very fast, but he doesn’t use his speed just to be a runner, but to make plays and extend plays like Russell Wilson.”

Father was right, as Cougar fans have learned this season.

Not coincidentally, Kalin Hall’s running mate in the early ’90s at BYU was Jamal Willis, who also has a son on this year’s team. Shamon Willis is a backup cornerback on the squad, after originally starting his college career at Weber State.

Hobbs and Brent Nyberg

Like his buddy from St. George, linebacker Payton Wilgar, Hobbs Nyberg didn’t get a scholarship to play football for BYU. Instead, he got a scholarship to play baseball for the Cougars. But as was detailed in a Deseret News article last month, Nyberg decided after two seasons on the diamond that he preferred the gridiron, and has emerged as a fine punt returner for the Cougars.

Nyberg’s father, Brent, played receiver for the Cougars in 1989 and 1990 and had 71 catches for 1,275 yards in his career.

“He played here with Ty Detmer and did an amazing job up here and was a good player,” Hobbs said. He owns an interior design center and is a realtor down in St. George and is doing really well. He loved his BYU days and tells us about them once in awhile.”