Excerpted from THE SYSTEM: The Glory and Scandal of Big-Time College Football, by Jeff Benedict and Armen Keteyian, published by arrangement with Doubleday, an imprint of the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Random House LLC. Copyright © by Jeff Benedict and Associates, LLC, and Lights Out Productions, LLC.
On April 29, 2008, Bronco Mendenhall stepped to the pulpit at a Mormon church in Reno, Nevada. He wasn't there to talk football. His topic was faith. But the event had been billed as an evening with BYU's head football coach -- a devotional. On that night in Reno, as Mendenhall looked out at hundreds of kids -- girls in modest dresses and boys in white shirts and ties -- his eyes were drawn to the one at the very back of the hall. He looked different from the others in every way -- taller, well built, sporting an Afro, and wearing a long black peacoat. When Mendenhall made eye contact, the boy returned his gaze with a skeptical, hard stare. It was clear this kid didn't want to be there.
That boy was Kyle Van Noy, then a sixteen-year-old junior linebacker and wide receiver at Reno's McQueen High. Arguably the best all-around athlete in the state of Nevada, he had recruiting letters from the top football programs in the country -- LSU, Nebraska, Oregon, UCLA and twenty others. BYU had written and called him, too. But he had ignored the Cougars.
Despite being a Mormon, Van Noy had zero interest in playing for his church's university. "I didn't like anything that had to do with BYU," Van Noy said.
Nor did he care to hear what Mendenhall had to say. "I didn't want to be there that night," Van Noy recalled. "My parents made me go. I figured it was going to be another talk about church stuff."
Instead, Mendenhall talked about geese flying in V formation, taking turns at the point and never abandoning a member of the flock. He had Van Noy's undivided attention.
"He taught us that if one goose fell off and was unable to fly, another goose would wait with him until he either died or was able to rejoin the group," Van Noy recalled. "At that time I felt so alone. And it felt like he was talking directly to me. I had never heard a football coach talk like that."
Afterward, Mendenhall introduced himself. A friendship was struck. "I had a clear impression when speaking and looking at him that night," said Mendenhall. "I said to myself: 'He needs to be at BYU.' "
Months later Mendenhall made an in-home visit. There he met Kyle's parents, Layne and Kelly. In 1991 they adopted Kyle weeks after he was born in Las Vegas. Devout Mormons, the Van Noys were living in California when they received a call from LDS Family Services, which assists Mormon families with adoption.
For the first two years of Kyle's life he wore corrective leg braces. At night he wore a bar fastened to his shoes in order to keep his legs apart. In the morning the toddler would climb out of his crib, crawl down the hall GI Joe-style and enter his parents' bedroom, the bar still fastened to his shoes. The impediment forced him to use only his elbows to pull himself from one end of the house to the other. That's when Layne and Kelly realized that their adopted son had an unusually determined spirit.
Eventually, the leg braces came off, and the Van Noys relocated to Reno, where Kyle blossomed into a three-sport star athlete. While he remained close to his parents during high school, Kyle became less comfortable around his fellow Mormon teens. Instead, he ran with kids who partied and drank. He felt more accepted by them.
Van Noy shared all of this, as well as other personal challenges he was facing, with Mendenhall during the in-home visit. "He didn't hide anything," Mendenhall said. "He was sincere and truthful. He just said, 'I've done this. I've done this. I struggle with that.' He was very blunt."
Mendenhall was equally blunt, telling Van Noy that he would be required to live every aspect of the honor code if he accepted a football scholarship to BYU. "BYU is a unique place," Mendenhall said. "I told Kyle who we are and that it's not for everyone. I was pretty clear about what he was getting into if he chose BYU."
Jim Snelling was Van Noy's defensive coordinator at McQueen High. A former player at Nevada, Snelling had coached plenty of kids who earned Division I scholarships, including a couple who went on to successful careers in the NFL. But he had never seen a player quite like Van Noy. "His acceleration from a standing-still position is remarkable," Snelling said. "At the snap of the ball he just explodes. All the college recruiters saw this when I sent out film on him."
By his sophomore year, Van Noy had a scholarship offer from Colorado. UCLA and Boise State soon followed. By the start of Van Noy's senior year in the fall of 2008, Snelling felt as if top recruiters across the country had him on speed dial. Oregon, in particular, was putting a lot of heat on Van Noy to commit early. But Van Noy's top priority for choosing a team was much more personal.
"I wanted to play for a coach who cared more about me as a person than a football player," Van Noy said.
Van Noy committed BYU a short time later. Then, in January 2009, Mendenhall also got an unexpected call from Van Noy.
"I messed up," Van Noy began, his voice cracking.
Mendenhall took a deep breath.
"I got arrested," Van Noy continued.
Mendenhall felt sick.
It happened the night before. Van Noy had been out and got arrested for drunk driving. He was underage. So the case would be disposed in juvenile court. But Mendenhall had a policy that prohibited him from offering scholarships to players who weren't living in compliance with the honor code. He didn't make exceptions -- not even for the best recruits.
"You understand you can't come to BYU under these circumstances?" Mendenhall asked.
Van Noy was silent.
"Kyle, I love you just the same," Mendenhall told him. "I'll release you from your commitment to BYU."
"You can choose any of the schools that were recruiting you," Mendenhall said. "My guess is that they will want you in a second."
"But that's not what I want," Van Noy said.
Mendenhall didn't expect that. "I was absolutely ready to release him at that point because of the honor code," Mendenhall explained. "I told him I'd help him go anywhere he wanted to go. But he kept saying he wanted to come to BYU."
Mendenhall wasn't optimistic. But he told Van Noy to give him the rest of the day to explore options. They agreed to talk again later.
Kelly Van Noy was heartbroken. Her son's arrest was all over the news in Reno. Juvenile arrests are supposed to remain confidential. But a reporter found out that the city's top athlete had been charged, and the news spread fast. Friends and neighbors were talking. Plus, it looked as though all hope of her son attending BYU had been dashed.
While the Van Noys waited for Mendenhall to call back, other coaches who had seen the news of the arrest on the Internet started calling the house. "Kyle had coaches call him after the arrest and say you come here and you can play right now," said Kelly Van Noy. "That is appealing to a seventeen-year-old kid. So is not having to face the music and not being on a campus where you feel judged and all they know about you is that you are the kid who got the DUI."
Mendenhall went to see athletic director Tom Holmoe. They put together a scenario where BYU could still honor Van Noy's scholarship. He'd have to agree to sit out the 2009 season and go a full year without violating the honor code. At that point, he'd have to get the endorsement of an ecclesiastical leader who could vouch that his personal life was in line with BYU's standards. In other words, he'd have to live the honor code for a full year -- whether at home or on campus -- before he'd be eligible to be a student-athlete.
Holmoe was convinced Van Noy would never go for it. "That just doesn't happen," Holmoe said. "There were too many top schools willing to overlook the DUI and play him immediately.
Mendenhall agreed. But he was also convinced that he would not be helping Van Noy by glossing over the arrest and making an exception to the rule. Besides, what message would that send to the rest of the team?
They took their proposal to BYU's dean of students, Vernon Heperi. He signed off. Then Mendenhall called Van Noy and told him his options.
The prospect of sitting out a year had not entered Van Noy's mind. He had every intention of starting as a true freshman. He wanted some time to think it over.
Later that evening Mendenhall's phone buzzed. "I'll do it," Van Noy told him. "I'll sit out a year."
"I honestly don't know what made me say yes to that," Van Noy said. "But I did, and once I gave my word, I was committed to it."
The next day -- February 4, 2009 -- when BYU announced its recruiting class for 2009, Mendenhall read off Van Noy's name. Then he brought the media into a private room and read them a letter Van Noy had written the night before: "This past weekend, I received a DUI citation, which will delay my arrival. I know that I have disappointed you, my family and friends. You have my firm commitment that I will do what it takes to earn back your trust and be part of BYU's winning tradition."
One month later Van Noy went out with friends. They had alcohol. It got late. Van Noy didn't go home. He ended up on a park bench on the streets of Reno, where he fell asleep. The next thing he remembered was waking up to police sirens and flashing lights. Scared, he took off running. Officers gave chase. Trapped in an alley, Van Noy shrugged off an officer and broke free. Then from behind he heard the clicking of a Taser gun. He dropped to the ground. Before he knew it, he was in police custody for a second time in a month, this time cited for eluding an officer.
The charges were eventually dropped, and this time the local press did not find out. Under Nevada law, the report in the second incident was sealed. Fortunately for Van Noy, no one would find out about his second arrest, especially not Coach Mendenhall.
But Van Noy was uneasy. Mendenhall had given him a second chance. He felt he owed it to him to come clean, even though he knew that would likely end his football career at BYU before it started.
He talked to his parents and decided to fly to Provo and confess to Mendenhall in person.
"Up until that point I didn't want to be helped," Van Noy said. "But suddenly I felt like a kid who needed help. I wanted help."
He went straight to Coach Mendenhall's office. The door was ajar. He knocked and Mendenhall looked up and grinned. "C'mon in, Kyle. Why are you here?"
Van Noy looked away, biting his lip.
The grin left Mendenhall's face as he stood and walked toward him.
Van Noy's eyes welled up. So did Mendenhall's.
"Kyle, talk to me. Let me help you."
Van Noy took a seat. His voice shaking, he revealed every detail about the second run-in with the law. "I need help," he said.
Mendenhall recalled the opening lines to a favorite speech by BYU's former president Jeffrey R. Holland: "It is the plain and very sobering truth that before great moments, certainly before great spiritual moments, there can come adversity, opposition, and darkness. Life has some of those moments for us, and occasionally they come just as we are approaching an important decision or a significant step in our life."
He looked Van Noy in the eye and told him not to worry about the second incident. "That's why I gave you the one-year plan," he told Van Noy.
"There are no words to describe how bad I felt before I got to his office," Van Noy said. "And no words to describe how good I felt when he accepted me."
Mendenhall and Van Noy put their arms around each other. After reaffirming his commitment to Van Noy, Mendenhall informed the athletic director and the dean of students. Both had reservations. But Mendenhall held his ground. "He never hides when his mistakes come," Mendenhall said. "He has been honest from the minute our relationship started. I'm always the first to know when he makes a mistake."
The dean had two simple questions: "Is this someone you believe needs to be at BYU?"
"He needs help," Mendenhall told the dean and the AD. "He wants help. I want to help him. And I believe he can make it. He's giving up a chance to go elsewhere."
"Is this someone you believe will represent this institution and our faith?" the dean asked.
"Unlike so many people I deal with that will hide behind texts and e-mails and half-truths, he admitted what he did," Mendenhall said. "Not only is he trying to do something about it; he's already done something about it. He's here."
The dean and the AD signed off. "Our administration knew the situation," Holmoe said. "When you bring someone here who is high risk, you have to wonder. This is a different culture than Kyle was used to. But we trusted Bronco. And Kyle made a commitment to hang in there. That was Bronco's risk, not mine."
Last December, BYU was playing in the Poinsettia Bowl against San Diego State at Qualcom Stadium in San Diego. Stretching side by side on the lush green sod, Van Noy and Ziggy Ansah got their first look and feel of an NFL facility -- gigantic, concrete and cold. It was exactly the kind of place where they would soon be making a living.
That realization sank in as they went through pregame warm-ups. Ansah's late-season surge had every NFL draft analyst calling him a surefire first rounder. Van Noy, meanwhile, was among the nation's leaders in sacks, forced fumbles and unassisted tackles. The two of them had anchored BYU's defense, which was the third best overall in the nation. Despite a rock-solid defense, BYU's often-anemic offense resulted in the team finishing 7-5. Most of the criticism was directed at Mendenhall.
"There is his always-controversial contention that winning football games is only fifth on his priority list, behind spiritual development, academic achievement, character advancement and service," one Deseret News columnist lamented after the 2012 season. "Rest easy, Alabama."
Ansah and Van Noy were aware of all the criticism directed at their coach. But they dismissed it. "The reason I respect Bronco so much is because he cares about our well-being," Van Noy said. "Football is just a short thing. The things he teaches last a lifetime. That's why I play so hard for him."
Fifteen minutes before kickoff, Van Noy and Ansah sat on stools in front of their lockers. Their teammates did the same. Assistant coaches stood, their backs against the wall. The locker room was dead silent -- no music, no talking. The only movement was the team trainer, going player to player, offering smelling salts. Everyone was waiting for Mendenhall, who was alone in his office. Finally, he emerged.
"Bring it up," he said.
Players circled him and took a knee.
"I just want to say how proud I am of you and how proud I am to be your coach," Mendenhall said. "It's such a privilege to represent what we represent. Leave nothing on the field today."
His pregame speech lasted all of thirty-nine seconds. He never mentioned the other team. He never raised his voice. He showed no emotion.
For 45 minutes the Poinsettia Bowl was devoid of offense and heading into the fourth quarter San Diego State clung to a 6-3 lead. But then Van Noy took over, forcing and recovering a fumble for a touchdown and then scoring on an interception return as BYU pulled out the victory. In a span of nine minutes, Van Noy had scored more touchdowns than both offenses combined. Along with his fumble recovery and interception, he had registered one blocked punt, two sacks and nine unassisted tackles.
At the conclusion of the game, BYU received the Poinsettia Bowl trophy in a midfield ceremony. Then Van Noy was named the game's MVP. While his teammates retreated to the locker room, Van Noy went to a corner of the stadium occupied by BYU fans for a lengthy postgame television interview. As the interview ended, Van Noy waved to the fans. They began chanting, "One more year! One more year! One more year!"
Alone, he turned and walked across the end zone where he had scored both touchdowns, waving over his shoulder to the fans. "What a way to go out," he thought to himself, pausing beneath the goalpost to look out over the empty field. "I have done everything I need to do. I have played my last game at BYU."
Later, Mendenhall and Van Noy were alone in the locker room. They looked at each other and smiled. Then they wrapped their arms around each other. "I'm so proud of you, Kyle," Mendenhall said. "So proud."
"Thank you," Van Noy said.
After the Poinsettia Bowl he went home with his parents to Reno to celebrate Christmas. But their conversations kept coming back to the question: stay in college or go pro?
Three different agents had assured him that he would be drafted at the start of the second round. Overnight he'd go from a poor student-athlete to a wealthy professional and fulfill his boyhood dream of playing in the NFL.
As good as it all sounded, something kept nagging him. The turning point was a conversation with one of his closest confidants, Chicago Bears running back Harvey Unga. Unga and his wife maintained a home in Provo. In 2009, Unga became BYU's all-time leading rusher as a junior, amassing 3,455 yards in his first three seasons. But Unga withdrew from BYU prior to his senior year after violating the school's honor code. It was a decision he discussed at length with Van Noy.
"Harvey is like an older brother to me," Van Noy said. "He told me that I didn't want to have regrets about not finishing my senior year."
After talking with Unga, Van Noy told his parents he'd made up his mind. He wanted to finish what he started. That meant obtaining his degree. He also felt as if he had unfinished business on the football field. The team, he felt, was on the verge of something big in 2013. He wanted to be part of it. But the main thing on his mind was his legacy.
"Especially with my past, staying will have an impact on a lot of younger people," Van Noy said. "There will be kids who say, 'If Kyle can graduate, then I can, too.' "
His parents took out an insurance policy in case Van Noy was injured during his senior year. Then Van Noy called Mendenhall. "I'm staying for my senior year," he told him. "I'm coming back."
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