Mitch Mathews on ‘Mangum’s Miracle,’ Kalani Sitake’s culture and why BYU has a good thing going
The former BYU star reflects on being on the receiving end of Tanner Mangum’s Hail Mary against Nebraska, and shares why he loves what the BYU coach is doing with the program
Mitch Mathews doesn’t go a day without somebody bringing up his iconic Hail Mary touchdown that brought down Nebraska in Lincoln almost a decade ago.
It was a mind-bending last-second game-winner, launched by scrambling freshman quarterback Tanner Mangum to Mathews at the goal line in the 2015 season opener. Mathews was surrounded by Nebraska defenders, clawing, bumping, hacking and pushing him as he came to pay dirt.
The pressure of the moment aside, Mathews brought it down. Game over. The Cornhuskers fans that filled the stadium were deadly silent. You could have heard a coffin open from the red-clad Nebraska side.
Today, the 6-foot-6, 220-pound Mathews is an entrepreneur who lives in Lehi with his wife and daughter Myka and is expecting a second girl in November. He’s maintained his athleticism, kept off the weight, still sees himself as an athlete, and acts that way.
He married former BYU soccer star and track sprinter Madie Lyons, granddaughter of former BYU quarterback and KSL Newsradio colorman Marc Lyons. “I had to get those genes in the family,” said Mathews. “Her senior year, she was probably the fastest sprinter at BYU.”
The pest control company he founded, Anthem Pest, Inc., has 100 sales representatives, 50 full-time employees and expects 40,000 to 42,000 contracts in the next two months. He also founded a car detailing company named Dapper.
“I haven’t gone a single day without hearing about it,” said Mathews. “So, it’s definitely had an impact on my life. You know, my whole career does. Every day someone will come up to me and say that they loved watching me play. It’s always a joy to hear after all the hard work I put in, that people remembered it.
“People from different schools come up and mention it, like, ‘You’re the Hail Mary Guy.’ They tell me where they were and what they were doing when they saw it. They describe the reaction of their friends and family, that they were at their dad’s house, or grandma’s house, I was here, I was there.”
It’s become one of those sports bookmark things for a lot of people. Even NFL scouts and players brought it up when Mathews made a brief stop in the big league.
“It definitely runs deep in my life.”
A moment like this is like the improbable victory of Rich Strike in the Kentucky Derby where every racehorse fan is breaking down every gait move of the two-minute race at Churchill Downs. Why? Because it’s fascinating.
Mathews said that Hail Mary is a play BYU practiced at least twice a week in practice during camp leading up to the opener at Nebraska. The receivers involved were the tallest receivers on the team, Nick Kurtz, Terenn Houk and Mathews.
It was the 2015 opener of the final Bronco Mendenhall season and starter Taysom Hill left the game with an injury before halftime. Mangum would complete just 7 of 11 passes. The 11th was the golden truth.
Mathews can relive that play to minute detail. He does it every day, as routinely as brushing his teeth.
Remembering in slow mo
Throughout the entire game, Nebraska’s defense refused to cover Mathews man on man, electing to throw a cover-two scheme at him. He wasn’t exactly having his best game. BYU was fighting and scratching to get back in the game and take the lead. “I was frustrated the whole game that I wasn’t getting the ball and dominating like I wanted to.”
Mathews said despite the loss of Hill, the Cougars began dominating the Huskers and there was a swing in momentum toward the end. With seconds to play, the call came to run the “Big Ben,” the Hail Mary the team had practiced for years.
The play called for Mathews to cut diagonally across the field. “The three of us were at least 6-6 tall. I would come from the left side of the field and be incognito, like I wasn’t seen and the others would come across from the other side, tying up linebackers in coverage. We knew where to line up and where to be. Tanner sprinted out to the right so he could avoid any pressure Nebraska planned up the middle or on the ends. There was literally one second left.”
Rewinding the play in his mind, Mathews sees it in slow motion and will for the rest of his life.
“I remember as I was running downfield thinking “Man, I’m pretty ticked off. I haven’t had the kind of game I wanted to begin the season. I need to go make a play right now no matter where this falls.’
“I used my body as the ball was coming down and I could see all the defenders behind me. I purposely caught the ball on my chest which I hated doing. I hated having the ball hit my plastic shoulder pads. I want to use my hands, but I had to let the ball come to my body first so that I could catch it in an already tough position rather than already be in the end zone falling backward, because if I caught it in my hands, there’d be three or four people snapping the ball away.”
Another thing Mathews did was do the splits in the air. He wanted to make a fence around his body so no defender could come around and attack the ball as he came down.
“There’s a picture of a defender behind me. It was the biggest pass interference of all time. I mean, those guys were swatting at me. They hit my head before I caught the ball. They were all over me. It was a huge P.I. but of course, you can’t call it that late in the game on that kind of play, right? So, there are bodies all around me, but luckily I have a big frame. I put my legs out wide, got it on my body, and gave them no chance to bat the ball away.
“I knew how to catch with my body and as I caught it I remember my feet hitting the one-yard line. It was all clear to me. All this is in like slow motion. It would be the biggest bust of all time to catch a Hail Mary and be one yard short.
“When my feet hit the ground, I was pushing as hard as I could backward and kind of rolling into the end zone so I could get in, and I did, even if only by six inches. They had to look at a replay to see if I made it in, but I knew I was in. I was the only one in the stadium that was 100% certain I’d made it in.”
Seconds later, his roommate Kurtz came running in and piled on Mathews screaming, “We are legends! We are legends!”
Then came the dogpile. He felt the weight of his teammates. He felt the air pushed out of his lungs and he was a little concerned about claustrophobia, but he celebrated like crazy. “It was a great moment. I knew it was then and afterward. It was great for the team, for the program, for the fans, for Tanner, and for me. To win a game in that fashion was fun.”
Loving Sitake’s culture
Mathews is all in on Kalani Sitake’s stock and the trajectory of his program at BYU.
“I love that guy. I wish I had a year to play with him as well. I love the culture that he brings. His players play really freely, really confidently. One of the superpowers I think that he has that people don’t know about is he instills a lot of confidence in players. The era I played in, the coaches tried to break you down as much as possible like in the military. Whoever was standing by game time was gonna start.”
Mathews played in 41 college games and led the team in receiving his senior year. He had a career 2,083 yards on 152 catches with 24 touchdowns. His TD total in 2015 ranked him 12th nationally and his 16 catches against Nevada put him No. 2 on the school’s all-time list.
He signed as an undrafted free agent with Kansas City in 2016 and spent time with the Dolphins and Vikings.
An opposite approach
“These guys are the exact opposite,” said Mathews of Sitake’s staff. “It’s like, ‘Let’s see how much we can build every single player up, creating a lot of competition and rewarding the most confident and prepared players while making them believe that they are the best in the country.’
“You can sense that. You can sense how much fun they’re having. You can sense it by the way the players are producing and more important, how many recruits they are getting with more star rankings or whatever you want to call it.
“Probably the second super power is when recruits come in, there’s a sense of, ‘If I play here, I’m gonna have fun. I’m gonna enjoy myself. And I’m going to be confident.’ And as a high school kid, that’s really all you want,” said Matthews.
“Sitake,” he claims, “is getting better and better players, bigger players and a lot of transfers. I love that. You’ve got older players that I played with who loved the experience that we had and had an awesome time. You look at them with this team and see how they play and how much fun they are having in this era. To have older guys say that, it must be perceived that something is happening that is pretty exciting.”
Back in his day, Mathews operated in an atmosphere that was tough, rewarding and effective, but tiring.
The Robert Anae-theme “Go Fast, Go Hard” took a lot of energy. Mathews didn’t want to knock it, but he did wish he’d made more plays for the targets he got and for all the running and effort. He also wishes his older brother Marcus, a kind of tweener at 6-5, had been given more opportunities to make plays in his BYU career.
“The ‘Go Fast, Go Hard ‘thing worked. But, you know, it wasn’t very fitting for a body like mine at 6-6 220 pounds, running 80 plays a game.”
Mathews said he had a tracker attached to his shoulder pads and wore it on game days. The data showed that from warmups to the end of the game he’d run 81⁄2 miles in a few games.
“I was fine with it because we passed the ball a lot. We got the ball all the time and had a ton of catches and I kept positive. But no one was really able to see my max speed capacity because half the game I didn’t have much fuel in the tank. That was kind of how it was. Now these guys are playing less plays but making more big plays. These receivers (at BYU) are not as worn down by the middle of the game, the third and fourth quarter where they’re running. They are there with their 4.4 and 4.5 speed and burning defensive backs for 65 yard shots.”
Mitch Mathews. The catch. The memories.
They’ll never fade away for him and many others.