Ghosts and greatness. The spirit of LaVell Edwards and the fruits of his labors are alive and well inside the BYU football program — with the caretaker, Kalani Sitake, having pulled off a night for the ages. Literally.
It’s been four days since an unprecedented gathering of former BYU football players walked or limped out of LaVell Edwards Stadium. The aches and pains should be gone by now, but the first alumni game left an impression with staying power.
The spotlight was on BYU’s history, but everything about the event was squarely focused on its future.
Sitake is sounding the clarion call for recruiting reinforcements as BYU prepares to march into the Big 12 on July 1, 2023.
“We have a great retention rate among recruits when they come to visit because of our players,” Sitake said during the BYUtv broadcast. “But imagine the influence of the thousands of former players that can give a testimony of what this place is all about? They are living testimonies. We are trying to get them more involved in recruiting and collaborate with them.”
Sitake made his pitch to the alums representing BYU’s illustrious past during a closed-door, pre-game meeting and prior to the group attending the team’s final spring practice.
“I’ve been there. As a former player no one gives you a playbook on what to do afterwards. It can be a little awkward at times,” Sitake said. “I thought it would be good for me to let them know that this is home for them. We want them back here. We want them involved in all that we do.”
Athletic director Tom Holmoe said the conversion rate from Sitake’s revival was 100%.
“All those guys left the room saying, ‘We are in!’” he said. “We need that. We need to level up. Everybody needs to come back and give everything they’ve got.”
Having old faces at practice brought new energy to the current roster.
“It was amazing. I wanted to go play a little better and show the guys that have been through here the type of work we have put together as a team,” said junior quarterback Jaren Hall. “We want them to know that we are carrying on their legacy and doing good things. It’s fun to have them around and see how they are still invested in this program and how much it means to them.”
“We want to play like those teams and honor those teams by the way we play,” said offensive coordinator and former BYU receiverAaron Roderick. “It’s good for our players to meet these guys and know who came before them.”
During the four quarters of mostly “touch” football, the likes of Max Hall, Brandon Doman, Kevin Feterik, Mitch Mathews, McKay Jacobson, Harvey Unga, Bryan Kehl, David Nixon, Kalin Hall, Curtis Brown, Chad Lewis and many others happily went “old school” and put on a show. Some gave their all, while others gave whatever they could — but everybody produced a memory.
Maximizing the moment
It’s not by happenstance that Max Hall is the winningest quarterback in program history (32-7). The former BYU star (2006-09) is a master at preparation. So when he showed up with a full playbook for the game, no one was surprised.
“A lot of these are the plays we run at the school I’m at,” he said. Hall is the offensive coordinator at American Leadership Academy High in Queen Creek, Arizona. His head coach is BYU legend and 1990 Heisman Trophy winner Ty Detmer.
“I printed it off, laminated it, went over it, put it all together and as you can see, we are dicing them up with it,” Hall said. “We are out here to win.”
Hall also had similar expectations for his navy teammates.
“He called me the second they announced the teams,” said former receiver Mitch Mathews. “He said ‘I hope your mind is right’ and he asked me if I wanted to get some extra practice in before the game.”
Hall threw two touchdown passes to Mathews in the first half.
BYU assistant head coach and safeties coach Ed Lamb played on the 1996 Cotton Bowl team that finished 14-1. He made a tackle on special teams during the No. 5 Cougars 19-15 win over No. 14 Kansas State in BYU’s only New Year’s Day bowl game in program history.
When Team Navy drove into scoring position in the second quarter, current BYU defensive backs and acting coaches D’Angelo Mandell and Kaleb Hayes called a timeout to try and substitute Lamb from the secondary.
Lamb rebuffed their efforts and stayed in the game. On the next play, Hall threw a pass to Devon Blackmon in the corner of the end zone and the 48-year-old Lamb broke it up in spectacular fashion.
“They left me in man-to-man coverage, which they shouldn’t have done, so I gave it my all,” he said, while relishing his accomplishment. “There was some talking out there. There was also a lot of talk from our own sideline (Hayes and Mandell). I’m a little disappointed in that. Those guys are going to run on the first day of camp!”
So much for busting his chops. Lamb returned in the second half for Team Royal and caught a touchdown pass from Charlie Peterson.
Father and son
Jaren Hall wasn’t born when his dad, Kalin, suited up for BYU during the 1992 and 1993 seasons. To see his dad wearing his royal No. 24 jersey and running around like a kid made it a night to remember, for both of them.
“He had a couple more (plays) than I had hoped,” said the cautious son, who also came with a warning. “My mom (Hollie) says he’s locked out of the house if he even steps onto the field, so he might be sleeping at my house tonight.”
Moments later, Kalin caught another pass to keep a Team Royal touchdown drive alive.
‘I’m going to Disneyland!’
Devon Blackmon caught 56 passes during his Cougar career that extended two seasons — 2014-15. None of those receptions went for touchdowns. So, when he pulled in a 21-yard strike from Hall in the third quarter it was no small achievement.
“I just want everybody to know that this guy’s first touchdown was from me,” Hall said while rubbing his head on the sideline. “Nice going, kid!”
Blackmon’s teammates surrounded him in celebration.
“It’s been a long time coming. It’s been about six years,” Blackmon said. “But I just kept fighting, kept grinding and I was able to get the touchdown. That’s how it works. Thanks Kalani! I’m going to Disneyland!”
Traitors can come in all shapes and sizes. In Team Royal’s case, the culprit was 5 feet, 7 inches tall, with an undetermined weight and an uncontainable personality.
At some point during the second quarter, Reno Mahe took off his royal No. 20 jersey and replaced it with Bryan Kehl’s navy No. 41 and entered the game.
Brandon Doman, Mahe’s quarterback during the 2001 season when BYU jumped out to a 12-0 record, promptly hit Mahe for a touchdown in the back of the end zone, giving Team Navy a 19-7 lead.
When asked which team he was actually on? Mahe said, “I’m on BYU’s team. I caught a touchdown from Brandon Doman, aka, The Domanator! We just had to run it back one more time!”
Moments later, Mahe was back in his royal No. 20 and on the appropriate sideline.
Jim McMahon’s hail-Mary pass to Clay Brown in the 1980 Holiday Bowl and Tanner Mangum’s last second bomb to Mitch Mathews at Nebraska in the 2015 season opener have company. Hall’s 55-yard prayer to Bryan Kehl to win the alumni game certainly has its place in Cougar lore.
Three plays earlier, Kevin Feterik hit Aleva Hifo in the back of the end zone to give Team Royal a 27-25 lead with eight seconds to play. Sitake, in his only play of the night, took a knee after catching Feterik’s shovel pass on the extra point attempt. Much to the delight of the crowd, he followed the play with what appeared to be some form of an Irish jig.
But the game wasn’t over.
Hall threw a 20-yard pass to Cody Hoffman and Team Navy called a timeout with three seconds remaining at the 45-yard line.
“We’ve just gotta chuck it up!” Hall yelled to his teammates.
Kehl, a former standout linebacker from 2002-07, had an idea.
“I ran over to Max and said, ‘I want the go route!’” Kehl said. “I’d been telling that all game. I said, ‘This is it. Throw it up!’”
Hall did just that. He rolled to his right and threw it up, and 60 yards later, Kehl, playing with two broken fingers from a recent fight with his snow blower, brought it down in a crowded end zone.
“Bryan said, ‘I got you! Throw it up to me and I’ll win the game,’ and he did it,” Hall said before adding with a wry smile. “I may or may not have crossed the line of scrimmage (5 yards), but we got it there!”
For Hall it was his second consecutive big finish at LaVell Edwards Stadium, separated by 13 years. The final pass of his senior season in Provo was an overtime strike to Andrew George to beat Utah 26-23 on Nov. 28, 2009.
“That’s how we do it, go big or go home,” he said. “Awesome experience.”
Ty Detmer tweeted after the game, “@mxrd15 he was ready!! All he does is win games!!”
Former Cougar star Taysom Hill turned more than a few heads as he and his wife Emily walked the sideline.
“This is great. It’s just a big reunion,” he said. “I’ve got a lot of great memories out on this field and it’s fun to see these guys running around. I’m a little jealous that I can’t be running around with them right now. If I didn’t have a bad foot, I’d probably go do something.”
Hill is 10 weeks out from surgery to repair the Lisfranc injury to his left foot that he suffered on Jan. 9 with the Saints. The all-purpose football player suffered the same injury, but to his right foot, during BYU’s 2015 season opener at Nebraska.
“I’ve been through this before. It’s a six-to-nine-month deal. I’m progressing according to plan,” Hill said. “It’s in the slow process right now, but things are good.”
The big finish
When the alumni football game returns next year it will be tough to top. The night turned all the right heads from the newcomers to the old timers as the Cougars finished spring workouts.
“It’s just great to see everybody back here on this grass. It doesn’t matter if you played for Coach Edwards, Coach Crowton, Coach Mendenhall, or me. It’s good to have everyone back. We are all part of the family.” — BYU coach Kalani Sitake
“I think it’s awesome. It’s a great community,” said running back Chris Brooks, a highly touted transfer from Cal. “As a transfer, it’s eye opening. To see the culture here and the lifestyle. It’s just great.”
“To have a chance to come back on this field with these guys and play, even though it was 7 on 7, that’s something we will always remember,” said Hall. “All of these greats on this field? Epic night!”
While no one claimed to see the ghost of LaVell Edwards around the stadium, his greatness, when it comes to football, was clearly dressed in navy and royal, with the caretaker in plain sight as Sitake stayed late to take pictures with every fan that wanted one.
“It’s just great to see everybody back here on this grass,” he said. “It doesn’t matter if you played for Coach Edwards, Coach Crowton, Coach Mendenhall, or me. It’s good to have everyone back. We are all part of the family.”
Dave McCann is a contributor to the Deseret News and is the studio host for “After Further Review,” co-host for “Countdown to Kickoff” and the “Postgame Show” and play-by-play announcer for BYUtv.