Growing up in Colonia Juarez, a small town of about 1,000 residents in the northern part of the state of Chihuahua, Mexico, quarterback Baylor Romney and his two younger brothers who are also part of the BYU football team often had to invent their own competitions because the only opportunities to play organized sports were hundreds of miles away in the United States.
There were “fumble-the-football” games on the trampoline in which every youngster in the “Mormon Colony,” first settled in 1886 by members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, seemed to participate.
Or Baylor, Gunner (now a rising senior receiver) and Tate (a linebacker who signed last year and was called to serve a church mission in Argentina but is currently serving in San Antonio, Texas, waiting out the pandemic) would see who could throw the little white rocks off the roof of their great grandmother’s house the farthest.
While they were standing on said roof.
“Growing up in Mexico, the boys ran wild most of their youth,” said their parents, Jeni and Cade Romney, farmers and cattle ranchers who moved the family to El Paso, Texas, when Baylor was 14 and about to enter his freshman year of high school.
Indoors, Baylor would show off his “picture-perfect” golf swing — when he was just 2 years old — and could make any shot imaginable on a mini basketball hoop in the family room. The fun and games were once halted temporarily when Gunner left a fishing lure on the floor and Baylor accidentally stepped on it and punctured two toes, necessitating the half-hour drive into Nuevo Casas Grandes to have a doctor pull it out.
“It is a whole different lifestyle, growing up down there in Mexico,” Jeni Romney said.
When Baylor Romney was in the seventh and eighth grades, his parents would drive him to the U.S. — Texas, Arizona or New Mexico — to play football against varsity teams “where the boys were twice the size,” Cade Romney said. “They got knocked around a bit but also had success and learned a lot.”
Baylor Romney’s next big competition figures to be just as wild, daunting and intense — and more highly publicized.
Let the derby begin
When BYU’s spring practices begin on March 1, the four-man race to replace NFL-bound Zach Wilson as the Cougars’ starting quarterback kicks off in Provo, with the junior Romney squaring off against three guys he calls his “good friends” — freshman Jacob Conover, sophomore Sol-Jay Maiava-Peters and junior Jaren Hall.
“Obviously, it is a huge opportunity for me now to be the starter,” Romney told the Deseret News last week. “I mean, I don’t want to get into speculation, things like that, but as far as the overall competition is concerned, I feel pretty confident that I can be the guy next season.”
The man who will ultimately make that call — new offensive coordinator Aaron Roderick — said “all four guys are going to get reps in the spring and by the time we play Arizona (on Sept. 4 in Las Vegas) each one of those guys will have had a chance to show what they can do.”
The Deseret News profiled Hall last month and will profile Conover and Maiava-Peters soon. Here’s a closer look at Romney, the most experienced quarterback in the group that also includes Mason Fakahua and walk-on Rhett Reilly from the 2020 roster.
Late-bloomer to walk-on to Boise State-beater
Baylor Romney was “small and skinny” as a freshman at Franklin High in El Paso, had to fight for playing time as the third-string quarterback on the freshman team, and wanted to quit football to concentrate on basketball, his father said.
Added Gunner Romney, three years in school younger than Baylor and a highly recruited receiver after the family moved to Chandler, Arizona, before his high school years: “Baylor was a pretty late bloomer.”
Baylor Romney stuck with it, played junior varsity football his sophomore year, then had a growth spurt before his junior year and saw some playing time that season before taking over full time as a senior.
“He had an amazing senior year,” Jeni Romney said.
But he still didn’t catch the attention of BYU, which was more interested in traditional, drop-back passers at the time.
Romney passed for almost 3,000 yards and threw 29 touchdown passes with just three interceptions, completing 70% of his passes and leading Franklin to a district championship in 2014. He also rushed for 884 yards and 10 TDs. He accounted for seven TDs in one game and was named Texas Player of the Week — not shabby considering the number of teams and amount of talent in that state.
“What (BYU fans) don’t know is he is a dual-threat quarterback,” Jeni Romney said. “He can run. He is actually pretty fast.”
Shortly after the Romneys moved to the United States, 14-year-old Baylor Romney met 15-year-old Elise Machen at a youth conference in El Paso, and that chance encounter would eventually lead to marriage and Baylor Romney landing at BYU.
Despite Baylor Romney wearing a cowboy hat, cowboy boots and a big belt buckle to the church get-together for teenagers, “I thought he was kinda cute,” Elise Romney said last year. “And that’s how it started.”
Baylor says his childhood was filled with adventure, lots of long drives and bonding with his grandparents, parents and two best friends, younger brothers Gunner and Tate.
“But I don’t wear boots or cowboy hats around any more,” he said, chuckling. “Not for awhile anyway.”
There’s a tendency to discount the 6-foot-2, 195-pound Romney’s chances to be the starter in 2021 because, while the others were three- or four-star QBs who were more highly recruited out of high school, he had just a few offers his senior year at Franklin High and ended up signing with Nevada in February 2015 before a church mission to Carlsbad, California.
“We never thought he would end up at BYU,” said Cade Romney, a former professional basketball player in Mexico. “That was never in the plan.”
However, when Nevada offensive coordinator Nick Rolovich took the head job at Hawaii while Romney was on his mission, he decided to walk on at BYU, partly because Elise was there as a record-setting pole vaulter on the women’s track and field team. They married in 2017.
Here to stay
Baylor Romney first joined the BYU football team before the 2018 season but was buried on the quarterback depth chart — fifth- or sixth-string — and there was talk that he might be moved to receiver or safety, because of his outstanding athleticism.
He would have none of that talk, however, and doggedly stayed the course. Romney eventually got admitted to the Marriott School of Business at BYU — he’s majoring in global supply chain management — and patiently waited for his chance as Kody Wilstead and Joe Critchlow transferred, Tanner Mangum graduated and Wilson rose to prominence.
Even now, there are fears that he might transfer if he doesn’t get the starting job. That’s not happening, he said, noting that Elise graduated from BYU last April and begins physician assistant school this spring in Provo.
“Early on in my career here at BYU, the thought of transferring did enter into my head,” he said. “Like, I was pretty deep on the depth chart. I didn’t know how much of the field I would see. But you have to think that wherever you go, there are going to be guys you have to compete against that are going to be the quarterbacks that were the best in their state, that did all these great things in high school. So there is going to be competition wherever you go.”
In 2019, Romney’s perseverance paid off, and he got his chance to play as the third-stringer — for the first time in a real game since 2014 — after Wilson sustained a fractured hand against Toledo and Hall suffered a concussion against South Florida.
He wasn’t able to deliver a win against the Bulls, despite driving the team into scoring territory twice, but showed he was capable. A week later, Romney engineered a 28-25 win over No. 14 Boise State in horrific weather conditions in Provo in his first college start, one of the most memorable first starts for a QB in BYU history.
Hall returned two weeks later against Utah State, on Nov. 2, 2019, but sustained another concussion and was out for the year. Romney entered in the second half, led the Cougars to a 42-14 win, then directed them to a 31-24 win over Liberty the following week.
He played in all four of those games with a broken right big toe, his parents said.
“His whole life, he has kinda been the underdog, kinda been overlooked,” Cade Romney said. “Even now at BYU, he’s been there three years now, he has just been working, working, working himself up the depth chart. That’s his story his whole life — never the big star, never highly recruited. He has had to work for everything he’s gotten his whole life.”
Romney said he wouldn’t still be here if not for the support of his wife, his parents, his brothers and BYU’s coaches, particularly Roderick, who recruited him to Utah back in 2014 when Roderick was on the Utes’ offensive staff.
“It has been a journey, just getting to BYU and grinding my way up the depth chart,” Romney said. “There has really been no easy part of my football career here at BYU, and everything that I have gotten has been earned. … But it has been worth it. It has been fun.”
And it isn’t over.
Not ready to retire
Because his fractured toe — some called it “turf toe” — was not fully healed when spring ball started last year and lasted for just two weeks before the pandemic shut everything down, Romney never really pushed Wilson to be the No. 1 guy in 2020.
Having been put on scholarship in January 2020, Romney was in a tight battle with Hall to be Wilson’s backup in fall camp last August, but got the spot by default when Hall decided to take the entire season off with a hip injury. Conover joined the team a couple weeks into the season — having had his mission cut short by the COVID-19 pandemic — and played scout team QB the rest of the way.
He’s traveled too far to let anything stand in the way now, even if it means holding a clipboard on the sidelines again.
“I feel pretty settled into the program right now” he said last week. “I will be at BYU for the rest of my football career, however long that may be. I have three more years of eligibility. I just think this is a great program and it is going to continue to rise, and I want to be a part of it.”
As for finally earning a scholarship, Romney said it is “something I have dreamed about since I was a little kid, to be a Division I athlete on scholarship. Financially, it means all the difference in the world when you are not paying your own way for school and everything else, and not having to work when you are not playing football.”
Before he was put on scholarship, Romney started a business washing windows in the Provo area, and also worked at a sporting goods store. Elise was on a partial scholarship, but money was tight.
“It was a huge blessing. Me and my wife were both super excited when I got the news,” he said.
With Hall out and Maiava-Peters still acclimating to college life, Romney got all the No. 2 reps in practices last season, and played in the seven of the 11-1 Cougars’ 12 games that were complete blowouts. He finished the season 24 of 35 passing for 261 yards and a touchdown, with one interception.
“Obviously I didn’t have any crucial playing time. I didn’t have any starts last year,” he said. “But in the times that I did get in, even though we were up by a lot, I did OK.
“I was in with younger guys who hadn’t had a lot of reps, or much experience,” he continued. “I feel like we took advantage of it, and we all got better, especially some of the younger guys, and developed for the future.”
Romney says most of his improvement came in practice, as he got “a ton of reps throughout the season,” getting some time with the ones and all the time with the twos.
“I got really comfortable with the offense and the operation of it,” he said.
That offense figures to remain the same with Roderick replacing outgoing OC Jeff Grimes but keeping his title as quarterbacks coach and Fesi Sitake moving into a role as passing game coordinator.
“I feel like for me the biggest thing I improved on since I last saw (meaningful) playing time was just being in live game situations, just understanding the game, understanding the flow, and really just putting myself into situations where I got live practice reps, live game reps. The game became more natural to me,” Romney said.
Romney and Roderick chuckle a bit when they hear people say Hall is a better athlete and more mobile than Romney, because Romney is actually a pretty good athlete and an excellent runner, Roderick has said since Day 1.
“And he’s a really competitive, tough kid,” Roderick said. “He’s got a quiet confidence about himself that his teammates really like. They really respect him. The underrated thing about him is what a good passer he is. He can throw it. There aren’t any throws in our offense he can’t make. We don’t need to change offenses. He can do everything that we have been doing, and he is going to have a great opportunity in the spring to earn the job.”
And see if he can run wild with it. Like those fun-filled days in Mexico.