Having grown up in New Orleans, and the southeast Texas region before playing junior college football in Kansas and then major college football at Oklahoma State in Stillwater, towering offensive lineman Caleb Etienne finds himself getting used to a lot of new sights, sounds and people in Provo these days.

“My son is with his mother during this time, so that’s been the hardest thing. It is a big sacrifice for me to be away from him. I just gotta grind this year out, and hopefully I can see him sooner rather than later.” — new BYU offensive lineman Caleb Etienne

“I am really enjoying it,” says one of the BYU football program’s newest additions, a 6-foot-7, 325-pound gentle giant who, in a shock to some, landed on coach Kalani Sitake’s team in April with virtually no ties to BYU.

“There are a lot of great people out here who are showing love and respect to me,” Etienne said in mid-June. “They encourage me to reach higher. ... It’s been fun to experience a lot of new things in a short amount of time.”

From the huge mountains, to the thin air, to the unfamiliar food and different culture, Etienne freely acknowledges that it has been quite the adjustment, an adjustment made a bit easier by his “friendly and helpful” teammates and new coaches.

He’s also learned that several of those teammates are fathers, just as he is, which hasn’t made living away from his 2-year-old son, Caleb Jr., any easier but has given him some added perspective of the importance of fatherhood.

Shortly after arriving at OSU in July 2021 from stints at Butler and Fort Scott community colleges in Kansas, Etienne and Sataizha Buckner White welcomed Caleb Jr. into the world.

Buckner White is still back in the Midwest, finishing up work on her degree and raising young Caleb while Etienne does the best he can to stay involved in the toddler’s life from afar, hundreds of miles away in Provo.

“My son is with his mother during this time, so that’s been the hardest thing (about transferring to BYU),” Etienne told the Deseret News last week. “It is a big sacrifice for me to be away from him. I just gotta grind this year out, and hopefully I can see him sooner rather than later.”

Returning BYU offensive lineman Connor Pay said Etienne — and his family — are welcome additions to the team and culture of “love and learn” established within the program.

“Obviously, when you have a little son, you want to see him,” Pay said. “So that’s been hard on Caleb, obviously. Hopefully they will be able to spend a little time together here. But (the child’s mother) has her degree to finish up at Oklahoma State. That’s why she’s sticking around out there — she wants to finish it, which, good for her.”

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Naturally, one of the first questions Etienne is asked is why he picked BYU, of all places, after deciding he wanted a change of scenery after starting in all 13 games at left tackle last season for the Cowboys. When he hit the transfer portal, he drew “tons” of interest before deciding on the incoming Big 12 school in the mountains of Utah.

Etienne said that former BYU player Brayden Kearsley was a graduate assistant offensive line coach at OSU when he was there, but had recently moved back to BYU to be an offensive line grad assistant in Provo.

“So once I officially got into the portal, we just reconnected,” Etienne said. “He knew me, I knew him, and our relationship just grew in the time I was at Oklahoma State. I felt comfortable making my decision to come here and continue my journey here.”

Not long after Etienne announced he was transferring to BYU, longtime OSU coach Mike Gundy offered some not-so-glowing speculation on why the big lineman moved on.

“Caleb felt like he got beat out (for the starting job), so he left, but that’s his choice,” Gundy told reporters in Stillwater. “He didn’t feel like he was going to start here and he was going to lose his job, so he wanted to go somewhere else.”

Gundy’s comments made their way to Etienne’s ears, but the well-traveled lineman took the high road when asked about them recently.

“I don’t have any comment for that one,” Etienne said. “You gotta let than one be. When the season starts, we will see what is happening, to be honest. Honestly, you just gotta let than one be.”

That said, Etienne acknowledged that the Cougars’ season-ender on Oct. 26 in Stillwater is “most definitely” circled on his calendar, and not just because he played there.

“It is going to be some good competition, but nothing new for me,” he said. “I have been going against those guys since I have been there. I am here now, and it will be a big game for me, for sure.”

At BYU’s football media appreciation golf tournament on June 26, Sitake described Etienne’s brief time in Provo in glowing terms.

“Softspoken, hard worker, big, athletic and really strong,” Sitake said. “We are really excited to have him here. So I know that he loves being here, he loves being with our team. Such a positive young man. I am excited to see him play. … We will take as many of those guys as we can get.”

Caleb Etienne and Sataizha Buckner White pose with Caleb Jr. while donning their new BYU gear.
Caleb Etienne and Sataizha Buckner White pose with their son, Caleb Jr., while donning their new BYU gear. | Jaren Wilkey, BYU Photo

Sitake said Etienne has arrived with a humble attitude and willingness to play whatever position best helps the team. Former five-star recruit Kingsley Suamataia is moving to the left tackle spot vacated by NFL-bound Blake Freeland, so Etienne is probably going to battle for the starting right tackle spot, although he played left tackle at OSU.

“Our strength staff and our coaches have seen a guy who wants to get better, and will do whatever it takes and is not afraid to work hard,” Sitake said.

Etienne said he’s eager to show people his versatility, and put it on film that he can play multiple offensive line positions.

“I am strong. I am fast. I am agile. I can play both sides,” he said. “I am really looking forward to this year and what I can show. I am looking forward to being in the O-line room and just having the best season I can have.”

Etienne saw action in only three games for the Cowboys in 2021, then declared that his redshirt year. He was a second team Academic All-Big 12 honoree last year and one of only six OSU players to start in all 13 games.

Those academic honors were a nice achievement for the nonqualifier out of Warren Easton High in New Orleans who had signed to play for Ole Miss but had to take the juco route through Kansas.

Because COVID-19 kept him off the gridiron in 2020 at Butler CC, Etienne technically has two years of eligibility remaining. Will he stay at BYU for two years?

“It all depends on how this year goes. If it is a breakout year for me then I might move on. If it is just an OK year then I might stay still,” he said.

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Choosing his words carefully to avoid saying anything negative about OSU, Sitake said Etienne was probably looking for the type of team culture that BYU can provide. 

“I just think he fits into what we want from our players and our program. You can talk to him about it. But I know that he is thriving here in more ways than one,” Sitake said. “I really like the young man. I know he’s doing a great job in competing and also doing a great job (in the weight room).”

Etienne said he weighed nearly 370 pounds when he arrived at OSU in 2021, but was able to shed nearly 50 pounds under the direction of the Cowboys’ strength and conditioning staff, all while spending as much time with his young son as he could.

“Caleb Jr., he means the world to me, man,” Etienne told The O’Colly, the student-run newspaper at OSU, in 2022. “It is hard diverting my full attention to him sometimes, ’cause I mean he wants all of it. … Plus my school work and film time, it takes a toll on me for sure. But he’s all worth it.”

Even if that means living worlds apart — for now.