It isn’t often a few seconds of a play can define a public sports persona. But that is what happened to Kyle Morrell.
Morrell, 57, known for his iconic goal-line defensive play in BYU’s 1984 win at Hawaii, passed away Sunday after a long illness, BYU athletic director Tom Holmoe confirmed. The former Cougars safety is remembered as a competitive, hard-hitting athlete who reached his dream of playing in the NFL and for his loyalty to friends.
So sad at the passing of my dear friend and BYU teammate Kyle Morrell - my little brother for 2 years on the field. He’s mostly remembered for the greatest defensive play in Coug history, but I’ll never forget his heart, passion, intensity & love for our team. Til we meet again!— Tom Holmoe (@TomHolmoe) November 17, 2020
Morrell has suffered from ALS for years. It is sometimes referred to as Lou Gehrig’s Disease, a malady that attacks the motor neurons that control movement of muscles throughout the body.
“Kyle was an elite athlete with sub-4.5 speed and he had a great vertical leap,” remembers former teammate, roommate and lifelong friend Jay McDonald.
A full obituary with funeral service plans and survivor information is expected later this week.
A former teammate of current BYU athletic director Tom Holmoe, Morrell was honored during the home game with Liberty a year ago as a flag bearer before kickoff. Arranged by Holmoe, some of his former teammates were at his side including Holmoe, Glen Kozlowski, Robbie Bosco, Jim Herrmann and McDonald, as were several of his children.
“Kyle felt very honored that Tom and Robbie would include him in that ceremony,” said McDonald, who most recently had visited the former Viewmont High star at the North Canyon Care facility in Bountiful.
“I would say next to his family, his BYU family meant the very most to him in his life,” said McDonald, who now lives in Cedar Hills. “He valued his friendships and he had many while he was at BYU.”
Morrell achieved legendary status during the course of his career at BYU from 1981 to 1985, but became symbolic of the 1984 season when he made a leap over the line of scrimmage near the goal line at Hawaii to sack quarterback Raphel Cherry to prevent a touchdown. The Cougars trailed 13-12 after a Hawaii field goal. Later, Bosco hooked up with Kozlowski for the winning touchdown to preserve an undefeated season and No. 6 ranking at the time.
I was a high school sr sitting in aloha stadium and watched Kyle Morrell silence the crowed in disbelief with this play.— #IamJackDamuni 🇫🇯 (@JackDamuni) November 17, 2020
We were going nuts and almost got into so many fights as we cheered on the Cougs.
Rip Kyle Morrell you are forever LEGEND!!!#GoCougs pic.twitter.com/CKPZIsBAqz
Kyle is the younger brother of former Utah star Guy Morrell. After his BYU career, Kyle played for the Minnesota Vikings before retiring from football.
Morrell was a BYU team captain and leader of a defense that included Cary Whittingham and Marv Allen.
What is impressive about Morrell’s life is how many obstacles he had to overcome, both as an athlete and as a post-career athlete, where his life had many ups and downs. A few years ago, he was run over by a car and survived.
Former teammate Vai Sikahema, in an interview with the Deseret News on the 25th anniversary of the 1984 season, labeled Morrell’s play at Hawaii the greatest play in BYU history.
“I’ve said this at numerous events at BYU,” said Sikahema. “Sometimes it’s met with raised eyebrows. It’s arguable, but the greatest single play in BYU sports was Kyle Morrell’s leap over the line at Hawaii. Our offense wasn’t playing very well that night. That play, to me, kept us on course that season. That one play, to me, epitomized an entire season. It was a microcosm of the entire season. Guys on our team did that — left their assignments for the greater good of the team, to make a play.”
Morrell’s death, while relatively early, was not unexpected, according to friends, who said he had suffered and was not doing well this past summer and needed extended care.
“I would say next to his family, his BYU family meant the very most to him in his life. He valued his friendships and he had many while he was at BYU.” — former teammate Jay McDonald
“Kyle was a great player and teammate,” Robbie Bosco said. “He was a key leader on the 1984 national championship team. Kyle was a guy who played at the highest level every play when he was on the field — he never took a play off. He was a great friend and someone you could always count on. I will certainly miss him and my heart goes out to his family.”
The year 2020 has turned out to be the final year for so many famous sports figures both nationally and locally with the passing of “Voice of the Utes” Bill Marcroft, also on Sunday. Others who passed this year include Gale Sayers, Chris Doleman, Tom Seaver, Lou Brock, Phyllis George, Jim Kiick, Kobe Bryant, Clifford Robinson, Wes Unseld and NFL kicker Tom Dempsey. Famous coaches who passed include former Jazz pilot Jerry Sloan, John Thompson, Eddie Sutton, Johnny Majors, Pat Dye, Lute Olson and Sam Wyche.
Ricky Dixon, 53, former Oklahoma defensive back and star of the 1988 Orange Bowl, passed away Aug. 1, also from ALS.
Correction: The original version of this story incorrectly stated that Morrell attended Bountiful High. He attended Viewmont High.