Mornings in San Diego are nearly perfect. No matter the time of year, the marine layer of clouds eventually surrenders to a new day of ocean air and warm sunshine.
Except for Dec. 30, 1990, for Ty Detmer.
He woke up at the San Diego Marriott Marina in a personal fog that showed little signs of lifting. Carefully, he climbed into the back of the family van and settled into a captain’s chair equipped with a pair of armrests.
The armrests were important because it allowed the senior quarterback at BYU to keep his two separated shoulders upright. Slouching during the 24-hour drive to Texas, without any medication for the pain, would only make things worse.
The Cougars were departing from the team hotel after getting routed by Texas A&M in the Holiday Bowl the night before. Detmer was knocked out of the game, with his second shoulder injury coming just seconds into the third quarter.
“My parents had driven out from San Antonio to see the game and the plan was to drive back with them for the holidays,” Detmer said. “It was a long ride home.”
As the family van pulled onto the freeway, Detmer tried to stay balanced in his captain’s chair — any movement brought back sharp, painful memories of getting wrecked by A&M’s vaunted “Wrecking Crew” defense.
The chair was no throne and certainly nothing fit for the king of college football, who just weeks earlier was crowned with the Heisman Trophy.
Too sore to turn around and look, Detmer trusted 1990 was in the van’s rearview mirror. What he didn’t know was the most challenging year of his life was just getting started.
Moment of a lifetime
A December swim in Honolulu. It’s fantastic. For Detmer, he climbed out of the Princess Kaiulani Hotel pool soaked to the bone with his Texas-sized smile stretched from ear to ear.
It was just moments earlier that he had been awarded college football’s greatest individual prize — the Heisman Trophy, beating out Notre Dame star Raghib “Rocket” Ismail for the honor.
Not only was Detmer the first to do it at BYU, which had produced a cornucopia of quarterbacks that transformed the college game, but he is the last one to even come close.
Detmer’s teammates threw him into the pool. He hit the water as a guy who was on top of the world, or at least an island king in paradise. Why shouldn’t he feel that way? In addition to winning the Heisman, his Cougars were 10-1 and favored to beat Hawaii later that night. Their No. 4 national ranking also had them in the mix for the program’s second national championship.
Life was good. But, in the time it took Detmer to come up for air, his world had changed. The Heisman award that moments ago set him apart from every other college football player in 1990, also put a bull’s-eye on his back.
A rough reception
Hours later, Hawaii pounced on him like a pack of hungry hyenas. They took Detmer’s award personal and harassed him all night long in a stunning 59-28 victory. The Warriors intercepted four passes and threw Detmer to the ground for three sacks.
Four weeks later, an unranked Texas A&M team continued the assault. The Aggies, also playing offended, sacked Detmer four times and separated both his shoulders during a 65-14 demolition at the Holiday Bowl.
The season, including Detmer’s NCAA record of 24 straight 300-yard passing games, was history. The Heisman Trophy winner limped out of Jack Murphy Stadium with ice on both shoulders and a date for surgery.
Soured, but not lost in the ending, was Detmer’s incredible journey. The consensus All-American, Heisman Award, Maxwell Award and Davey O’Brien Award winner as the nation’s best quarterback, put together a season unlike any other for a Cougars football player, including the 28-21 victory against No. 1 Miami in Provo.
However, if given the option while bouncing around in the family van on the arduous drive home from the Holiday Bowl, Detmer might have traded it all for some Advil.
The hunting trip
Shortly after arriving in San Antonio, Detmer embarked on a hunting trip, but he never fired his gun. Like winning the Heisman, this was a first.
“I wanted to, but I knew if I did, my shoulder would hurt too much,” he said. “That was the last straw.”
Texas surgeons put a screw in his right shoulder to help repair his ligament. He opted against surgery on his left shoulder, but knew that football, including all of spring practice, would be on hiatus until April.
Faith and family
Prior to returning to Provo for winter semester, Detmer dropped a bomb on his parents.
“I told them I was going to ask Kim (Herbert) to marry me, and I was going to take the missionary discussions,” he said. “We were engaged about a week later.”
Sonny and Betty Detmer were fine with Kim, but they had concerns about his joining The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Those concerns grew as Ty prepared for his February baptism.
“I probably didn’t communicate with them as well as I could have. Back then, when you called home, you called collect so you didn’t call very often,” he said. “Being thousands of miles away, there was some concern. They were hearing about misconceptions with the church, and they were concerned about what I was getting myself into.”
Detmer flew home a few weeks later and resolved their issues. He and Kim were married on July 2 in Sandy and sealed in the Salt Lake Temple by then Elder Thomas S. Monson one year after his baptism.
In addition to dealing with the Heisman notoriety, healing his shoulder, getting married and joining the church, Detmer’s offseason also included the death of his beloved grandfather, Hubert Detmer. It all added up to the most difficult time in his life, and the 1991 season was still weeks away.
“It probably was,” he said. “The season for the trophy was fun, but the pressure mounted when the offseason hit, when you are living your life. I don’t think people realize that. It’s an important time when you are developing into who you are and what you are going to be, but all they see is the football side of it. It was hard.”
With his shoulder healed and fall camp opening, football felt like a blessing from heaven, almost an escape from real life.
Not only did Detmer face a tougher schedule in 1991, but as the reigning Heisman winner, he became a measuring stick for ever opposing defense. In addition, and perhaps the greatest challenge of all, Detmer had to contend with his own shadow.
Defending the Heisman
Only one man has ever won back-to-back Heisman trophies. Ohio State’s Archie Griffin did it in 1974 and 1975. Having earned the award as a junior, Detmer had a chance to do the same.
“Defending it is harder than winning it. You look at all the guys that came through that had opportunities to win it again. The expectations go way up. It’s like you have to do something better than you did the year before when you won, and that’s hard to do.” — Ty Detmer
“Defending it is harder than winning it,” he said. “You look at all the guys that came through that had opportunities to win it again. The expectations go way up. It’s like you have to do something better than you did the year before when you won, and that’s hard to do.”
The odds of a repeat were stacked against him. The coveted trophy was out in front of every move he made, and the No. 1-ranked Florida State Seminoles couldn’t wait to get their hands on him.
“For me, I wasn’t trying to win the Heisman again. I knew we had a different team. We lost our top four receivers and a couple of linemen,” he said. “We were a new, young team coming it. I knew it would be different. I was like ‘OK, I won the Heisman last year, let’s try to win games, have a good season and get back to the Holiday Bowl.”
Aug. 29: No 1. Florida State 44, No. 19 BYU 28
As was the case in 1990, Detmer got an early season shot at taking down the No. 1 team in the nation. But unlike Miami, which couldn’t stop him, Florida State was prepared to beat him.
“Miami was totally different. They came in taunting our crowd before the game,” Detmer said. “Florida State just came in and played hard and fast.”
The Seminoles scored early and often. They contained Detmer to just 229 passing yards and two touchdowns while sacking him three times in a 44-28 win in Anaheim, California, at the Pigskin Classic. The tackles were Detmer’s first since the shot that knocked him out of the Holiday Bowl nearly nine months earlier.
“I threw an interception to Terrell Buckley when our guy ran the wrong route and I thought, ‘Man, this could be a long year if we don’t get it figured out,’” Detmer said. “It was a bad feeling. It felt like the way we ended the year before.”
Sept. 7: No. 23 UCLA 27, No. 25 BYU 23
Despite five sacks, Detmer dazzled the Rose Bowl crowd of 61,542 for 377 yards and two touchdowns, but the Cougars’ final drive ended at the Bruins 17-yard line with 1:10 to play after an incomplete pass on fourth down.
“We checked to a quick pass on that final play. Our tight end ran a flat route instead of a seam route and got in the way of the throw to the outside receiver. He got mixed up on the audible,” Detmer said. “I jumped on him pretty good and had to apologize after the game. I felt terrible, but it was in the heat of the moment. We should have won that game. That one hurt the most.”
No. 23 UCLA escaped with a 27-23 win.
Sept. 21: No. 12 Penn State 33, BYU 7
This was a day to forget against a third straight top-25 opponent. Detmer was sacked six times and managed just 158 yards passing in front of 96,304 fans in University Park, Pennsylvania.
“It was super loud,” Detmer said. “I got sacked in the end zone for a safety. The ball was snapped, and our right tackle didn’t even move. He couldn’t hear. I think we put the shotgun in after that game.”
The Nittany Lions rushed 67 times for 293 yards and controlled the clock 41:07 to BYU’s 18:41 in a 33-7 victory.
Having left Beaver Stadium, badly beaten and deeply bruised physically and emotionally, Detmer and the Cougars had to turn things around.
First, he needed better protection. Florida State, UCLA and Penn State combined for 14 sacks. The young linemen had to grow up.
Second, he needed to play better. Detmer’s five touchdowns and four interceptions wasn’t good enough and not near the standard he set the year before.
Third, he just needed to win. Since the moment he came out of the pool on that perfect Heisman afternoon in Honolulu, Detmer had lost five straight games and four of them weren’t even close.
He was suffocating in his own shadow. Fortunately, some home cooking and a few easier opponents highlighted the menu ahead.
Sept. 28: BYU 21, Air Force 7
After five straight games away from Provo, Detmer settled into the friendly confines of LaVell Edwards Stadium for four straight home games. He threw for 340 yards and two touchdowns to beat Air Force 21-7.
“The monkey was off our backs a little bit,” he said. “The talk of us going 0-5 since the Heisman was out there. This allowed us to take a deep breath against some lesser opponents, but the pressure to win was still there.”
Oct. 4: BYU 38, Utah State 10
Detmer threw for 329 yards and two touchdowns and ran for another as BYU built a 38-0 lead on Utah State and won 38-10.
“The offensive line started to gel and come together,” he said. “After facing those first three, we knew we could calm down and actually block people now.”
Oct. 12: BYU 31, UTEP 29
The surprising Miners led 17-7 in the second quarter before the Cougars’ offense came alive. Despite six sacks, Detmer threw for 378 yards and three touchdowns in a 31-29 win.
Oct. 19: BYU 35, Hawaii 18
Detmer didn’t win another Heisman Trophy on this day, but he did beat Hawaii. The Cougars never trailed in a revenge game where Detmer threw three touchdown passes in a 35-18 win.
“They are a different team off the island,” he said. “That one felt good.”
Oct. 26: BYU 41, New Mexico 23
Returning to the road, BYU ran past New Mexico 41-23. Detmer threw for 375 yards and four touchdowns. The Cougars rushed 48 times for 263 yards.
Oct. 31: BYU 40, Colorado State 17
Halloween delivered another big night for Detmer as the Cougars jumped out to a 40-3 lead in Fort Collins. Detmer threw for 337 yards and four touchdowns, three to receiver Eric Drage, in a 40-17 win.
Nov. 9: BYU 56, Wyoming 31
Detmer threw for 306 yards and two touchdowns and for the fourth consecutive game, no interceptions. He also rushed for two scores in Provo as BYU’s ground attack dominated Wyoming 244-58 in a 56-31 victory.
Nov. 16: BYU 52, San Diego State 52
With their first WAC championship and trip to the Holiday Bowl on the line for San Diego State, Detmer marched BYU back from a 45-17 deficit to force a 52-52 tie and deny the Aztecs of what would have been their landmark moment in front of 56,737 fans at Jack Murphy Stadium in San Diego.
In a game of incredible offense on both sides, Detmer threw for 599 yards and six touchdowns. Jamal Willis caught eight passes for 163 and two scores.
“I think Marshall (Faulk) got hurt, which helped, and they (Aztecs) got a little conservative,” Detmer said. “Our defense started getting stops and momentum shifted. We got into no-huddle and wore them out. They couldn’t stop us.”
Prior to his injury, future NFL Hall of Famer Marshall Faulk amassed 234 yards of total offense and four touchdowns while Darnay Scott caught seven passes for 222 yards and two touchdowns.
“When we scored the last touchdown (with 30 seconds remaining) LaVell asked what do you think — should we go for two or kick for the tie?” Detmer said. “We had Utah at home the next week to win the title outright, so it was a no brainer to go for the tie.”
Keith Lever’s extra point notched the game at 52 and triggered a BYU celebration while the Aztecs walked off their home field in shock.
“I remember their quarterback (David Lowery) was just sobbing,” Detmer said. Lowery torched BYU’s defense for 568 passing yards and five touchdowns. “I kind of consoled him. I mean, we ended in a tie. They didn’t lose. But he was just sobbing because they had put so much into it. He played a great game.”
Nov. 23: BYU 48, Utah 17
Detmer threw for 378 yards and five touchdowns against the rival Utes in Provo. Drage caught six passes for 188 yards, including a 97-yard touchdown in the first quarter. BYU erased a 10-nothing Utah lead with 34 unanswered points in a 48-17 win to finish 7-0-1, claim the outright WAC title, and earn another trip to the Holiday Bowl.
“I didn’t know much about the rivalry coming in, but you learn real quick that it’s a big game,” Detmer said. “They got after us with Scott Mitchell in 1988 (Utah beat BYU 57-28 in Salt Lake City). That’s when I realized what it was all about. I was like, ‘OK, this isn’t going to happen again.’ We hung 70 on them the next year and got back to where we needed to be.”
Dec. 14: Heisman Trophy announcement
With the regular season over, Detmer was invited to New York’s Downtown Athletic Club for the announcement of the 1991 Heisman Trophy winner. Despite the much tougher schedule and fewer wins than 1990, Detmer was still dominant enough to warrant an invite as a Heisman finalist.
The votes favored Michigan receiver and punt returner Desmond Howard, with Florida State quarterback Casey Weldon finishing second, just 58 votes ahead of Detmer. The senior from San Antonio joined the ranks of former Cougars Marc Wilson (1979), Jim McMahon (1981) and Robbie Bosco (1984-1985) as a third-place finisher. Steve Young was No. 2 in 1982.
“Finishing third was a nice ending to it and I think people saw that I wasn’t a one-year wonder,” he said. “This time, there was no pressure. I was able to be in New York for the ceremony and I didn’t have to worry preparing a speech. I just went and enjoyed the event.”
For Detmer, his journey didn’t end in Manhattan. There was still a Holiday Bowl to play and one more major test against No. 7 Iowa.
Dec. 30: BYU 13, No. 7 Iowa 13
The Hawkeyes rolled out the Big Ten’s No. 3-rated defense, and while both teams struggled to score, Detmer threw for 350 yards and two touchdowns. However, the last of his 1,795 plays at BYU remains a sore spot.
“It was a bad throw. It was too high,” he said. “I’ve replayed that one in my head a lot of times over the years.”
With the game tied at 13. Detmer drove the Cougars to the Hawkeyes’ 18-yard line with 25 seconds remaining. BYU needed a field goal to win, but Detmer’s final pass to Drage sailed high and deflected into the hands of Iowa’s Carlos James who was waiting for it at the goal line.
“That’s one you preach as a QB coach. Take care of the football, you are in field goal range,” he said. “I remember thinking at the time that ‘we couldn’t leave it up to the kickers tonight.’ We had missed some opportunities earlier in the game (two field goals and an extra point). So, I made a throw that I’d like to have back.”
Understandably, Detmer offered no smile for the cameras while accepting the game’s Most Valuable Player award after a 13-13 tie.
“I was thinking, did you not see the pass I just threw?” he said. “How could I be the MVP?”
1990 vs. 1991
When debating BYU’s best seasons, 1991 is nowhere in the conversation. An 8-3-2 record doesn’t hold water against 13-0 (1984), 14-1 (1996), 12-1 (1980), 12-2 (2001) 11-1 (1979), 11-1 (1983), 11-1 (2020), 11-2 (1981), 11-2 (2009), 11-3 (1985) and even 10-3 in 1990, but statistically, the comparison between Detmer’s Heisman year and his encore season isn’t far apart.
“I was a better quarterback in 1991 because I played smarter and more under control,” he said. “I’m not saying I was a better player, but I played the quarterback position better.”
In 1990, BYU finished second in the nation in total offense, passing offense, scoring offense and No. 22 in the final AP Top 25.
“That junior year was like the Wild, Wild West,” Detmer said. “We had the guys. I was most dangerous when we were up 14 because I knew I was going to take a shot, take a chance, throw it up there and see what happened. It was just different.”
In 1991, against a schedule that included four P5 programs and swollen expectations, the Cougars finished fifth in total offense, second in passing offense, 11th in scoring offense and No. 23 in the final poll.
“Those numbers weren’t as big as 1990, but they were still good for a college quarterback (62% completion rate, 4,381 yards, 37 touchdowns),” he said. “It was different in 1991, but my interceptions were down from the year before (from 29 to 13) and I just played the position better.”
Detmer won the Heisman, Maxwell Award, Davey O’Brien Award and was a consensus All-American in 1990. In 1991, he finished third in the Heisman and won the O’Brien Award, the Sammy Baugh Award, and again, was a consensus All-American.
“That’s why I say ‘we’ a lot. When you look at my junior year and the guys we had, you can see how easy they made it for me,” he said. “Then you go to my senior year and see how hard it was for me at the start, but you can see how the new guys grew and matured into the team that we were at the end. It was great to see where we ended up after that 0-3 start.”
As for those first three opponents, Penn State finished the year ranked No. 3, Florida State was No. 4 and UCLA was No. 19. After the tie with BYU in the Holiday Bowl, Iowa finished No. 10.
Hall of Fame
The culmination of those two seasons, along with 1989 and parts of 1988 made Detmer a slam dunk for the College Football Hall of Fame. His 15,031 passing yards and 121 touchdowns were just two of his 59 NCAA records.
Detmer was inducted in 2012, a dozen years after being enshrined in BYU’s Athletic Hall of Fame and 10 years into his 14-year NFL career.
All of those honors followed a dubious debut at Wyoming in 1988. Replacing an injured Sean Covey, Detmer threw four second-half interceptions in a 24-14 defeat.
To his credit, and despite throwing one interception after another, the freshman kept coming back.
“I share that story all the time with quarterbacks,” he said. “You have to go play the next down. You can’t dwell on a bad play. I’ve had my share of them. We’ve all been there. That Wyoming game probably did more for me than if I had gone out and thrown for five touchdowns. It showed me that I didn’t know everything and that I had to go back to work and get better.”
Just like his father Sonny, Detmer has settled into a career as a coach. After a brief stint as the offensive coordinator at BYU, the 14-year NFL veteran is head coach at American Leadership Academy in Arizona. Former Cougars quarterback Max Hall is his offensive coordinator.
Hall stole the show at BYU’s inaugural alumni football game in March. Detmer had been invited to play but opted out because his daughter Kaili was expecting — and delivered her baby on the day of the game.
“I remember as a freshman sitting around the office in the fieldhouse and looking at all of the accolades up on the wall and thinking, ‘Man, it would be nice to win some of those someday. You don’t expect to end up in the Hall of Fame. That’s a whole other deal. You just live in the moment and then you look back and say, ‘I did some good things and played some good football.’” — Ty Detmer
Detmer is not ruling out an appearance in 2023.
“I’m gonna have to start working out. I still throw it around with the guys here,” he said with a laugh. “I’ll take a few reps but I’m not going to train like Max did, that’s for sure. I won’t come up there with my own playbook either. We’ll just wing it.”
On the football field, Detmer had a way to make it look like he was “winging it” all the time. His improvising style and his inner fight to succeed fueled enthusiasm that radiated throughout the huddle and into the crowd.
“I remember as a freshman sitting around the office in the fieldhouse and looking at all of the accolades up on the wall and thinking, ‘Man, it would be nice to win some of those someday,’” Detmer said. “You don’t expect to end up in the Hall of Fame. That’s a whole other deal. You just live in the moment and then you look back and say, ‘I did some good things and played some good football.’”
Winning the Heisman was one thing, but defending it proved to be quite another. While 1990 has its rightful place in BYU history, 1991 should be remembered as the year Detmer, while juggling challenges on and off the field, beat his own shadow and finished within two players of winning college football’s greatest individual award — for a second time.
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.