Talk about a memorable birthday week. Three days before he turned 22 on Sept. 8, BYU backup quarterback Tanner Mangum got thrust into the spotlight when starter Taysom Hill went down with an injury in the Cougars’ season opener at Nebraska. A freshman—he returned from a two-year LDS mission in June—Mangum wound up completing the craziest pass of Week 1, connecting with senior wide receiver Mitch Mathews on a 42-yard Hail Mary as time expired to beat the Cornhuskers 33–28.
Then, four days after he turned 22, Mangum heaved a 35-yard touchdown pass to junior receiver Mitchell Juergens with 45 seconds left in the fourth quarter that gave BYU a 35–24 comeback victory at Boise State. Mangum has been hounded for photos and autographs since, and he might be the most popular guy in college football heading into Saturday, when the Cougars travel to Southern California to face UCLA. Bruins coach Jim Mora has gone so far as to compare Mangum to former Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel.
Mangum is a man in demand right now, but caught up with Campus Rush to talk big moments on and off the field.
Campus Rush: You seem to be a Hail Mary expert. If you were teaching a class on throwing them, what would be your top lesson?
Tanner Mangum: The key is the receivers you're throwing to. That’s what makes my job easy: I have some really good receivers. All I have to do is throw it up, and let them go make a play.
CR: Your older brother, Madison, is a senior receiver at Idaho State. Did you guys practice Hail Marys growing up?
TM: In a roundabout way, yes. We went out and threw the ball all the time and sometimes we’d see how far we could throw it, how high. My brother has always been good at making acrobatic catches and plays. So, I guess I’ve thrown a few before, but definitely none in front of that many people. It used to be just me and him in our backyard.
CR: You seem to be really good at something extremely difficult. Is there an ordinary task you’re especially bad at?
TM: (Laughs.) You’d have to ask my parents on that one. There are a lot of things I’m not very good at. I’m not good at soccer, that’s for sure.
CR: So, you won’t be asked to kick a game-winning field goal?
TM: Definitely not.
CR: Your older brother, Parker, played receiver at BYU from 2006 to ’08. Have you always wanted to follow him?
TM: He’s always been a role model of mine, always someone I looked up to. But even before he came here, [I was always] a huge BYU fan. [I’ve been] watching games since I was seven. I dreamed of playing quarterback here. Him playing here, it only made me want to come here more. His experience with the program, the team, the environment, it made me want to follow in his footsteps.
CR: You’ve always wanted to play here, but no one ever wants to get his chance because someone else gets hurt. After Hill went down with a foot injury at Nebraska, did he say anything to you?
TM: He’s been great. It hurts, we’re obviously heartbroken with his injury, just because he’s such a good guy and such a good teammate. We hated to see him go down. But he’s been, and still is, our leader. Before [we played Boise State on Sept. 12] he texted me and said, “No matter what happens, even if things don't go your way, it’s all about how you respond in those situations that will set you apart as a leader.” I really took that to heart.… I think a lot of our guys have done that, kept fighting till the very end, and it’s making a difference for us.
CR: Lots of people talk about you being a true freshman, but at 22 you aren't the age most true freshmen are. Do you feel like a rookie?
TM: Not necessarily. I feel confident, I don’t feel too new. I’m not sure why. I guess it’s a confidence that comes from preparing, working hard and practicing. Coaches, and the strength and conditioning staff who helped me get back in shape, the guys around me who have helped me get my arm strength back, it’s been a huge team effort.
CR: You were on a two-year LDS mission in the Antofagasta region of Chile from 2013 until the summer of ’15. How much did you train for football while you were there?
TM: Every day we had an allotted time to work out, a half hour each morning to do exercises. Where I was, there weren’t any weight sets. So, more than anything, I went on runs. I lost a lot of muscle mass, a lot of strength. But to be honest, football wasn’t my priority. I was down there to serve the people of Chile and help people learn about the gospel and help them with their homes after earthquakes and floods. I wasn’t concerned with football. I knew if I worked hard during my mission I’d be able to come back and devote myself to football. My time would come, to come back.
CR: Did you experience any earthquakes while you were there?
Mangum: I did. Chile is a country that has a lot of shakes, a lot of smaller earthquakes. There were a couple big ones that affected other cities more than ours. So we helped, sending supplies to make sure everyone was O.K. There were a couple floods as well. It doesn’t rain much there, so when it does it can cause some damage because the cities aren’t prepared for it. There were some natural disasters that gave us opportunities to serve people. It wasn’t a common thing, it happened only two or three times while I was there. Overall it was an amazing experience. It helped me appreciate what’s important in life and really changed my perspective.
CR: You were away from home, with very limited communication with your family, and you dealt with natural disasters. What was the toughest part of being there?
TM: The hardest part was having to overcome the challenges of daily life. You’re walking on dusty streets on a hot summer day, sometimes people aren’t too receptive to your message, but you have to keep going. Sometimes that can be discouraging; you’re alone except for your companion, you’re thousands of miles away from home and you might get a little lonely. What I found was that if I kept working hard, I stayed positive. I ended up learning and growing from those experiences. I had a great time. Honestly, it was hard to come back. I had grown so close to the people there, made so many friends, and when the time came to return home, it was tough. I knew I was going to miss those people. The mission was a life-changing experience—best decision I ever made.
CR: What was the most unexpected lesson you learned in Chile?
TM: Probably that your material wealth, the actual things we have, doesn’t have to be what determines our happiness. The people there, they might not have a whole lot, not as much as we have, but they’re just as happy. Money isn’t the most important thing in the world. I came back, first with an appreciation of what we have here in the United States and how blessed we are to live in this country—and how special it is to have a family and people who care about you and have a home, even if it’s small. That’s something I came away with that I wasn’t necessarily expecting.
CR: There are some assumptions made about BYU as a campus and culture. Many people think of it as a place with lots of rules and regulations. What’s something people don't know about the school?
TM: It does [have] that reputation. More than anything, I think what’s great about it is, we’re still normal guys. We’re regular 21-, 22-year-old kids, we like having fun and having a good time. But we try to do it in the right way. It’s awesome being here and being surrounded by great people who have good values. I’m so grateful to be here, because it's taught me so much about being a better individual. It’s a unique place that offers a lot of unique opportunities to grow—obviously with football, but [there are opportunities for] other good character building as well.
Oh, and we can drink caffeine. That’s a myth about the LDS religion, that we can’t drink it. We do. When I was in South America, I drank a lot of soda.
CR: My understanding is that caffeine isn’t against the rules, but it’s discouraged. I wonder: What’s your drug of choice for an energy boost?
TM: Oh gosh, I love candy bars. Snickers, Twix, Milky Way. I have a sweet tooth, and I give in.
CR: So you’ve been to Chile, you were an Eagle Scout and you’ve now completed two Hail Marys. What is left on your bucket list?
TM: One is to win the national championship. That’s a goal we have as a program, that’s something we’ve always dreamed of. That’s our top priority.
Another is to be a father. I’m excited to get married and have kids one day. My dad is one of my heroes. He’s always been one of my role models. Seeing him, and the way he interacts with our family, it definitely makes me want to be like him.
CR: Plus, then you can teach your kid to throw Hail Marys! Did your dad teach you?
TM: Yes! We’ll go in the backyard and practice. But we’ve gotta have some good receivers, remember?
CR: Just have more kids, until you get one with great hands.
TM: Great idea. It’s always good to have brothers, and teammates.