There are many things I am thankful for outside of the sports world. But since this is not my personal blog, I won't get into that. Instead, I will discuss what I am thankful for in the sports world on this Thanksgiving and I'm guessing many of you will agree with me.
In 2004, I remember waking up very early on the morning of the Holy War, taking a shower and then heading, alone, to Rice-Eccles Stadium to watch GameDay. None of my friends wanted any part of that early morning experience and I guess I couldn't blame them. It was cold, it was Saturday and when I ventured down to the stadium, light still hadn't pierced the darkened sky. I parked at the Unitarian Church on 1300 East and then walked the few blocks to the stadium, where I stood with my sombrero in sea of red. It was pretty cold and I couldn't really hear what was being said on the stage, but I remember that moment so well.
I also remember every aspect of that Utah-BYU game. I went to the game with my cousin, because the person I originally had planned to go with was sick. Our tickets were located in the BYU visitors section, which I was dreading, because I wanted to spend this moment among Utes, not with BYU fans.
We entered the stadium through the south-east area, as we came from the tailgate lot and wandered up to our seats about 30 minutes before kickoff. To my surprise, the BYU visitors section lay mostly empty, though there were two men next to me on my row. The man directly beside me had no school colors on and I couldn't tell if he was a BYU or a Utah fan. In front of us was a row of Cougar fans, one of them had their face painted blue and on the end -- the very south-part of the this section -- a teen and what looked like his grandfather sat. We would have a bit of a back and forth when Alex Smith threw a pick and then Austin Collie followed it up by throwing one on a trick play -- a pass intercepted by Eric Weddle.
Though I entered the game expecting Utah to win, I was nervous. I was nervous because this was a rivalry game and I knew the Cougars were playing for Gary Crowton's job and they would come out fired up. When the game started and the Utes went nearly a quarter without scoring, it only added to my anxiety. Then Steve Savoy found the end zone and Utah was up 7-0, giving me some time to sit back and relax, but it didn't last.
Not too long into the second quarter, John Beck found Todd Watkins, tying the game up at 7-7. Since I was in a half-empty BYU section, you could understand how unbearable it was watching the Cougars score. I wasn't worried just yet, but I tightened up a bit when that happened.
The Utes followed that up with a Marty Johnson touchdown and BYU once again had an answer, as Curtis Brown took it in to tie the game at 14. After a promising drive began to fizzle in BYU territory, I started to panic a little. I remember looking to my cousin and telling him I needed to get a drink and use the bathroom, since it was almost before the half. I was walking down the stairs, toward the larger group of BYU fans, as the Utes were setting up to punt the ball. Something told me to stop before I walked through the tunnel to enter the concourse, so I did. I waited at the bottom of the steps, where security apparently didn't mind, and watched as the Utes faked a punt. Bo Nagahi took the fake and ran it for more than just a first down. It put Utah in the Cougars' redzone and three plays later, Alex Smith, I believe on a broken play, ran it into the end zone. Utah would take a 21-14 lead into the half.
Those two plays, that fake punt and subsequent score, really changed the game and I'm not just talking about on the field. Prior to that score, BYU was hanging around and it was putting me on the edge of my seat because I could not imagine this game coming down to the final moments. But since I took my time to watch those four plays unfold at the end of the half, by the time I was in line to buy a drink, the third quarter had already begun and Utah pretty much blew the game open.
The Utes had already kicked a field goal to put them up ten when Beck threw a pass to Jason Kukahiko, who then was hit and fumbled the ball. Bo Nagahi scooped it up and ran it in for the touchdown. In a matter of minutes, the Utes expanded their lead from 7 to 17. At that point, I knew it was over and by the time I made it back to my seat, I could relax and enjoy the game knowing that it was very unlikely BYU would make a comeback. They didn't and Utah went on to win the game 52-21.
As the final minutes played out, the fans began their celebration. The section we were in became even more empty and I remember waving goodbye to the BYU fans as they hurried out of the stadium. I don't think many stuck around and it left pretty much the entire 20 or so rows vacant. It was a beautiful sight, only topped by Steve Fifita's amazing touchdown run. At this point, the fans began venturing toward the field and we both decided to join them. We walked down the stairs and into where the BYU band was and lined up and waited for our turn to dive onto the field. At this point, though, I had lost my cousin, but it didn't matter, I had already found my way onto the field and lined up behind a FOX 13 news reporter on the sideline, just right and behind where the BYU bench was.
I snapped some photos with my camera, watched the clock tick and then we rushed the field. I remember almost flying into some BYU players, who obviously looked dejected, as they left the field. But there were no fights, no pushing and no exchange of words. I continued toward the center of the field and they continued on to the locker room.
On the field, I looked for my cousin and then wandered over to the south end zone, watching the dismantling of the field goal post. I saw Paris Warren and a bit of Urban Meyer and then a few minutes later, watched as the Liberty Bowl released Utah to play in a BCS bowl game. And then there was Urban Meyer's press conference. I don't exactly remember his words, but I do remember thinking this was the last time he'd coach in Salt Lake. It was painfully obvious that he had already checked out and very tough to watch, because Meyer had delivered us greatness. Though it put a slight damper on the night, I eventually met up with my cousin, grabbed a commemorative newspaper from the Tribune and then we left the stadium.
It was a great night and one I told myself I would never forget and when Urban Meyer eventually left Salt Lake for Gainsville and Kyle Whittingham was named the head coach, I conceded it might be the only time we here at Utah experienced such a moment. It wasn't a knock on Kyle, because I didn't know how good or bad of a coach he would be, but a realization that a coach like Urban Meyer only comes around once in a lifetime, so it wasn't unreasonable to believe the type of season he put together was a once in a lifetime deal, as well. Which made it even better to be apart of, since that whole moment from the start of GameDay to the celebration on the field felt like it could not be repeated. I knew that no matter what happened with Utah football, I still had those memories and even if we could not duplicate an undefeated, BCS busting season, at least I could say I was there for the first and only time it happened. And then this season came along.
It's hard to believe four years ago we were making history and now it's hard to believe four years later we're repeating history. But what I am thankful for is that I've been allowed to have that chance once again. No program at this level, the non-BCS level, can claim they've experienced the euphoria twice in a lifetime. When we stormed the field in 2004, it felt as if that was the pinnacle of Utah football. A height that probably would not be reached again. When we stormed it again in 2008, we realized this program isn't leaving. It will continue to succeed and reach for new heights, new moments and new memories. So on this Thanksgiving, along with my personal gratitude, I thank Utah football for providing me yet another unbelievable memory. One that I did not think I would experience again, especially this soon.