PROVO — Ask BYU football players Kavika Fonua, Chris Wilcox, Max Tooley or Bracken El-Bakri which of their fellow defensive standouts has taken a leadership role during the coronavirus pandemic and social unrest that has swept the country, and almost all of them point to one teammate in particular.
“I feel like the camaraderie that we have speaks for itself. There has never been any type of racial insensitivity involved with the team, which is great. I think us as players know that we support each other and we will do anything for one another.” — BYU senior safety Troy Warner
That would be senior safety Troy Warner.
“A lot of guys look up to him,” Fonua said.
Lately, Warner has been one of the more outspoken Cougars regarding the Black Lives Matter movement. He participated in a “Be The Change” video released by BYU football’s official Twitter account on June 10, along with teammates Shamon Willis, Talmage Gunther, Khyiris Tonga, Chaz Ah You, Jaren Hall, Malik Moore, D’Angelo Mandell, George Udo, Matt Bushman and Wilcox.
Warner said he’s been pleased with how his teammates of all ethnicities have discussed what’s going on in the country regarding race relations with maturity and thoughtfulness. He was also thankful that leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — the faith that owns and operates BYU — have condemned racism.
Warner is one of about 17 African American student-athletes on BYU’s roster.
“I feel like the camaraderie that we have speaks for itself,” he said. “There has never been any type of racial insensitivity involved with the team, which is great. I think us as players know that we support each other and we will do anything for one another.”
Warner is the younger brother of San Francisco 49ers standout linebacker Fred Warner, a former Cougar. Fred Warner joined a roundtable discussion on the NFL Network recently and said he doesn’t want the conversation regarding racial equality to end when NFL players return to their teams.
“At the end of the day, the change needs to start inward,” Fred Warner said. “I look at myself: How can I be a better person out in the community and in a society where I can treat others with the same love and compassion as I do with my own family?’”
Troy Warner said he’s trying to bring that same attitude to the BYU locker room.
“I think our unity shows by the amount of guys who were willing to do the video and were willing to use their voice to express their unity with the guys of color on the team,” he said. “With all that is going on, I think that it has been very comforting to know that there really hasn’t been anybody that has been insensitive to the topic.”
Although Blacks make up a small percentage of the football team and an even smaller percentage of the BYU student body, Warner said he has not experienced any racism on campus during his four-plus years in Provo.
He said he was especially appreciative when President Russell M. Nelson of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints spoke out against racism in early June and later joined senior national leaders of the NAACP to call for racial reform.
“I found it really comforting to see that the prophet spoke on the issue,” Warner said. “That was really comforting to hear as a person of color at BYU.”
Warner acknowledged that there isn’t a lot of diversity at BYU, which can lead to stereotypes of what life is like for Black students.
“I can’t speak for everybody else, but personally I have never had a circumstance where I encountered any type of racial injustice, or just racism in general,” he said. “And that’s been really nice because it is definitely (a stereotype) out there where a guy of color supposedly can’t come to BYU because this is a place with not much diversity.”
Warner said he feels like people on campus respect him for who he is.
“You could easily feel like, you know, ‘Am I being judged?’” he said. “But for me personally, I don’t feel like I have been in that kind of position.”
Even the offensive players have a lot of respect for Troy Warner, according to quarterback Zach Wilson and tight end Bushman.
“He’s a big presence in the locker room,” said Wilson. “Guys respect him.”
Added defensive coordinator Ilaisa Tuiaki: “Troy Warner has had a lot of influence on the team in the time that he has been here, but especially now. He is a kid that all the players trust and look up to as far as just doing it the way it is supposed to be done here at BYU.”
That’s true even though Warner hasn’t been a big contributor on the field lately, mostly due to injury. The former four-star recruit from San Marcos, California, hasn’t been the same since he sustained a season-ending Lisfranc foot injury against East Carolina during his sophomore season back in 2017.
“It has been incredibly frustrating,” Warner said last week.
But it hasn’t stopped Warner from emerging as a likely captain on this year’s team (assuming there’s a season), due to his leadership ability and example. Safeties coach Preston Hadley told the Deseret News after the shortened spring camp in March that Warner “is playing the best ball he’s ever played,” while Tuiaki said in June that Warner “is starting to get the form back from when he was a freshman, as far as athleticism.”
That Warner is a big team leader is especially noteworthy considering he barely made an impact in 2019. He didn’t play until late in the season because he reaggravated the foot injury prior to the season.
Still, he made six tackles in the bowl game against Hawaii on Dec. 24 and showed up for spring camp feeling better than he had in years.
“I feel like I have never felt as good as I do now,” Warner said. “Some injuries take forever to go away. And sometimes they don’t go away. So I am very fortunate to have figured out my foot injury. It feels normal now and I am able to compete and work as hard as I can and be in tip-top shape to play at a high level. I am very grateful to be in that position.”
Warner said he has “never worked as hard” as he has this offseason, “because the way I see it is that if I am not doing anything and everything that I can to make it to the next level and be the best player that I can for this team, put them in the best position to win games, then I feel like I am cheating myself and I am cheating those around me.”
He’s leading by example. And his teammates have noticed.
Troy Warner’s injury-filled BYU career
2016 — Started in nine games at cornerback as a true freshman, making 21 tackles and seven pass breakups
2017 — Started in eight games before sustaining a season-ending Lisfranc foot injury against East Carolina
2018 — Started in four games while battling nagging foot injuries and made 24 tackles
2019 — Redshirted after reaggravating foot injury in preseason and appearing in final four games of season
2020 — Finally healthy after multiple foot surgeries and ready to be a team leader in final season