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Sounds of silence: What it was like covering a BYU football game in a fan-less stadium

It will go down as one of the strangest games I’ve ever covered. Due to the ongoing global pandemic, no fans were allowed into the BYU’s stadium for the first time in school history.

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View from the press box at LaVell Edwards Stadium on Saturday, Sept. 26, 2020, where the Cougars defeated the Trojans in front of an empty stadium.

Jeff Call, Deseret News

PROVO — One of the most frequently asked questions I receive as a sports writer is, “What’s it like being in the press box during a BYU football game?”

Before I can answer, that’s followed in rapid succession by another question: “Can you get me in?” (The answer is no.)

I usually tell inquiring minds that besides the succulent pregame meal courtesy of Tucanos, they probably wouldn’t enjoy it.  

That’s because there’s no cheering allowed in the press box, which is enclosed by glass. It’s quiet, like a library or a morgue, punctuated by bursts of crowd noise. Reporters aren’t supposed to cheer. We’re busy tweeting, writing, taking notes, making snarky comments and eating snacks.

The “no cheering” stuff is something the NCAA takes seriously, because prior to games, we’re reminded of the professional decorum we are expected to exhibit. I’ve seen people, not reporters, physically removed from the press box at other stadiums for violating that rule.

We media members have been accused of not working for a living. But we are part of the “working press.” It’s one of those classic oxymorons, like “alone together” or “sweet sorrow.” Or “deafening silence.” 

Which brings me to last Saturday’s BYU-Troy game at LaVell Edwards Stadium. 

It will go down as one of the strangest games I’ve ever covered. Not necessarily because of anything that happened on the field during the Cougars’ 48-7 victory (though BYU passing for over 400 yards these days is unicorn-like, unlike 30-40 years ago.)

Due to the ongoing global pandemic, no fans were allowed into BYU’s stadium for the first time in school history. As part of the coronavirus protocol, there were fewer people than usual allowed in the press box that night, as well. 

Noise from the crowd is the soundtrack of the game and it enhances the experience.

The first clue this night would be different? I arrived at the stadium without having to navigate through traffic. For the first time, my car was socially distanced in the parking lot west of the stadium. 

Those of us who were allowed into the grounds of Edwards Stadium Saturday night had to prove that we were healthy (which gives a whole new meaning to “Saturday Night Fever”). In the press box, we had to wear masks throughout the game and we were socially distanced. 

The usual pageantry of college football at Edwards Stadium was conspicuous by its absence. There was no band playing, no student section filling up, no smell of Cougartails wafting in the breeze.

In the press box, we still received our usual Tucanos meal, in a box, which served as comfort food that night. 

Gazing out into the stadium during warmups, there was sort of an apocalyptic, dystopian vibe. Two words I heard more often than usual in the press box that night were “eerie” and “surreal.” Only one player from each team strode to midfield for the pregame coin toss. 


LaVell Edwards Stadium is empty of fans, because of COVID-19 restrictions, before an NCAA college football game between BYU and Troy on Saturday, Sept. 26, 2020, in Provo, Utah.

AP Photo/Rick Bowmer, Pool

BYU has a reputation for late-arriving crowds. But nothing could have prepared us for the nonarriving crowd. Across the way, on the opposite side of the press box, we could see cardboard cutouts of an eclectic mix of prominent celebrities/BYU alums/fans — including Mitt Romney, Danny Ainge, Steve Young, Jimmer Fredette, Andy Reid, Taysom Hill, Jim McMahon, John Stockton, Karl Malone, Donovan Mitchell and Marie Osmond, surrounded by a sea of empty seats in the foreground and an empty MTC in the distance. 

This was the first college football game west of Texas played in the 2020 season. Yet it was on national TV, courtesy of ESPN. Talk about an oxymoron. 

During the pregame festivities, some traditions were done away with (like the ceremonial “Lighting of the ‘Y’”) or altered. The singing of the national anthem was taped and so was a performance by the Cougarettes that was shown later that night on the big screen. Some traditions, like the flag-bearers running out onto the field, remained intact.


A BYU player carries a U.S. flag onto the field at the start of the team’s NCAA college football game against Troy on Saturday, Sept. 26, 2020, in Provo, Utah.

AP Photo/Rick Bowmer, Pool

Certainly, there were some strange dynamics with no fans. 

BYU piped in recorded crowd noise on the public address system. And, of course, the reaction was delayed as plays unfolded. It was like counting the number of seconds between the flash of lightning and the sound of thunder. When Dax Milne caught a pass early in the second half and sprinted downfield, the crowd noise didn’t catch up until he was about 20 yards down field, just prior to his 70-yard touchdown. 

They say if a tree falls in a forest and nobody is there to hear it, does it make a sound? If Zach Wilson throws an 40-yard pass and Gunner Romney makes a beautiful leaping grab near the goal line and nobody is there to hear it, does it make a sound? The answer is yes. 


BYU wide receiver Gunner Romney makes a catch during the first half of the team’s NCAA college football game against Troy on Saturday, Sept. 26, 2020, in Provo, Utah.

AP Photo/Rick Bowmer, Pool

It was so quiet at Edwards Stadium you could hear something like fireworks.  

When someone on the sidelines fires a blank round from the famous George Q. Cannon, a vintage World War II M120 75mm howitzer cannon, after a score, which is a longtime tradition at BYU, it usually amounts to white noise when the stadium has 60,000 screaming fans. 

But in an empty stadium? The boom discharged from the cannon Saturday startled some people in the press box to the point that some jumped in their seats every time. I guess the number of times that stentorian George Q. Cannon erupted made up for the cancellation of the Stadium of Fire celebration back on the Fourth of July. 

But other than those things, everything seemed, um, normal. Which is a great thing during a pandemic. 

I usually feel fortunate to be able to cover games and I felt especially grateful last Saturday. Before that night, the last in-person game I covered was BYU’s basketball loss to Saint Mary’s in Las Vegas during the West Coast Conference Tournament on March 9.

Back then, I never would have believed that the NCAA Tournament would be canceled and that COVID-19 would wreak such havoc on our lives and our sports. I remember wondering last spring when I would get to cover a sporting event in person again. For me, it came last Saturday.

On the other hand, I felt for all the fans that were not able to attend the game in person. 

“My dad went to the game against Pitt (in 1984) with my grandfather,” Cougars fan Scott Bischoff wrote to me on Twitter. “Once back in Utah, found out my grandfather passed away and missed the next home game to go to the funeral. Hasn’t missed a home game since.”

BYU fan Matt Curtis told me he missed the 1989 and 1990 seasons due to his mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Besides that, since 1982, he missed only one game and that was for hip surgery (seems like a legitimate excuse). He drove to Provo on Saturdays for two years while living in Idaho. 

Others told me they hadn’t missed a home game in 30 years. Yes, some prolonged streaks of attending BYU home games were broken that night. 


BYU head coach Kalani Sitake, left, speaks with Troy head coach Chip Lindsey before the start of their NCAA college football game Saturday, Sept. 26, 2020, in Provo, Utah.

AP Photo/Rick Bowmer, Pool

Meanwhile, BYU coach Kalani Sitake, his players and staff — clad in royal blue — didn’t seem to mind the empty stadium, based on they way they played and all the dancing they were doing on the sidelines. It looked like the Ivy Tower, circa 1991. I’m pretty sure dancing, like cheering, is prohibited in the press box. If not, it should be. 

Those dancing performances went viral on social media. As Sports Illustrated’s Pat Forde tweeted that night, “The BYU dance videos are achingly BYU.”

Cringeworthy or not, the dancing felt like unbridled joy — not just a celebration of the outcome, but the return of college football in Provo. I’m sure people across the country were enjoying it, too, from the comfort of their living rooms. With the Pac-12 not playing until November, some referred to it as #BYUAfterDark.

Truth is, for months, COVID-19 has run up the score on us. It’s dunked on us, it’s struck us out, it’s sacked us, it’s spiked the ball in our collective mask-wearing faces. 

Again, I’m sorry fans couldn’t be at Edwards Stadium Saturday and I’m humbled that I was able to be. I’ve realized that many people, including BYU’s media relations staff, worked tirelessly to make that night possible. I appreciate their efforts. As I write this, I’m performing a standing ovation, which, of course, I can’t do in the press box.  

Some might choose to focus on, and lament, the zero fans in the stands. But considering all we’ve been through as a country since March, the real final score Saturday night was College Football 48, Pandemic 7.

Take that, coronavirus.