Unholy War: Taking a Trip on Rival Soil

Oct 12, 2013; Salt Lake City, UT, USA; A general view of Rice-Eccles Stadium during the second half of a game between the Utah Utes and the Stanford Cardinal. Utah defeated Stanford 27-21. Mandatory Credit: Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

I hate the University of Utah. It’s not something I was born with. It’s not something I was raised with either. It’s been a gradual, very personal development. The hatred is deep and real. Some sports journalists have accused me of using hyperbole to get my point across. Maybe I can get a little over ambitious in my language, but I struggle to put into words my passion for football and struggle to convey my total disdain for the Utes.

From an early age I was coached by men from a simpler time. They taught me the benefits of disliking your opponent so much that you did your best to not only beat them, but to humiliate them in front of their mothers. Even at seven years old they instilled a “survival of the fittest” mentality in all the young boys on my squad. These coaches climbed the ranks with us and coached our team until we entered high school. One of my coaches was a Baptist preacher from Carson, CA. He would run us until we puked and cramped up until we couldn’t continue. The other was a chain-smoking truck driver from Long Beach. He would cuss us like dogs until we would snap and cry and wanted to quit. Both of them were fine men, but they raised me to believe that the other team needed to die. If the other team died, they could not win. Coach Robinson and Coach Baabs would not let us drink water during practice. Water was for the weak. They would tell us the thick smog in the air would strengthen our lungs and that the enemy was to be beaten into submission.

Needless to say the Holy War between Utah and BYU came naturally to me. It was almost too mild for my tastes. Lenny Gomes [former BYU defensive lineman] was one of my mentors. I learned to play defense under his tutelage. In addition to the traditional trash talk and banter between the teams, I had a couple very personal experiences with Ute players and fans that cemented my dislike for their classless program. These negative experiences supported my perception that they were to be public enemy number one. Forever.

Photo: Herald Extra

But a couple weeks ago, I found myself in a very awkward situation. I’m not a person that is made to feel awkward easily. I’m pretty comfortable and not intimidated in almost any situation. Somehow I found myself in a University of Utah defensive coach’s staff meeting. Kalani Sitake, Utah’s Defensive Coordinator and former Cougar running back (pictured), asked me to pull up a chair and get comfortable. He wanted me to help him dissect a little recruiting film. What? Let me back up.

Some business associates of mine in Salt Lake were arranging to tour the new athletic facilities up at Utah. I was invited to join their group. Initially I declined. The thought of going up there made me feel dirty. It made me feel like somehow it would make me unfaithful to my true love. I eventually convinced myself that somehow going behind enemy lines would be a good thing. I justified the trip by telling myself that it would be a surveillance mission where I would spy to get secrets to pass back to BYU. Really I wanted to compare their new facilities to BYU’s so I could talk trash about how we still had better digs than they did.

Sadly, the Utes have leap-frogged the Cougars in the facilities category. I guess football socialism is alive and well. It’s amazing how non-performance in a “Big 5” league can reward you handsomely even when you can’t win many games or contribute to the conference with bowl game revenue. Before you Utes jump down my throat for the jab, I learned a couple things from my tour that BYU better wake up to fast. When you join Utah’s football program, you are a member for life. The partnership they develop with their alumni and former players is amazing. It’s not a four to five year relationship. It’s forever. You become a family forever. Ironically, BYU has failed to grasp that concept with their former players. The U alumni have free reign at facilities, stay involved in recruiting & fund raising efforts, and even have their own wing in the facilities. It’s not that way at BYU. Gary Crowton did a lot of damage in that area when he took over in 2001. Initially Bronco was slow to correct the problem. They’re getting much better now. I was so impressed with what I saw on the hill I even sent pictures of the Utes’ Alumni facilities directly to Tom Holmoe that very day.

As I made my way through the Utah coach’s offices I spotted an old friend. When Kalani Sitake and I played together at BYU he became like a brother to me. We bled together. We cried together. We played the game the same way. We were both out for blood even though we played on opposite sides of the ball. Before the game, during the game, even after the game, Kalani was always down to rumble and get into a little extracurricular activity with anybody. Didn’t care if you were Alabama or UCLA. He and I used to give some of the “players only meeting” pep talks before big games. Ironically, the speech I remember most vividly was prior to the 1998 game against Utah. Kalani hated Utah. He gave a very impassioned pre-game pep talk. I don’t know if LaVell ever got the bill from the hotel for the badly damaged furniture, but if he did he never said anything to us.

Coach Sitake introduced me one by one to his position coaches and graduate assistants. They couldn’t have been more gracious and welcoming. Kalani explained our personal relationship to them and he began to reminisce about our days at BYU together and the fond memories he had. We talked openly in front of his colleagues about how BYU will always be considered his “family”. He explained the love he has for the program, the school where he met his wife and started his family. He explained how he hopes BYU still feels the same way about him that he does about them. He considers BYU his roots. I sensed the pride and respect that he hopes is mutual. I could tell that he had matured a lot more than I had in our years since hanging up our helmets. I entered their facilities almost looking to pick a fight, but left with a better understanding for what sports and rivalry should probably be about. My heart was filled with negative emotions and hate.  When the tour was over I was left trying to square that with the respect that I had for an old brother who is now a full-blown Ute.

I learned that day that the best warriors probably don’t fight because of their hatred of what’s in front of them, but they fight because of the love they have for what’s behind them. Don’t get me wrong. I still hate the University of Utah. I still won’t allow my daughters to wear red clothing. I’ll still mock them tirelessly online and to their face. But at some point I need to grow up and be the warrior that loves BYU more than I hate Utah.

Die Utes. Go Cougs.

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