The first of a two-part series on Jeff Call’s all-interview team.
Those of us who cover BYU football are always looking for players who make our jobs easier.
You know, the ones who basically write our stories for us. They’re our go-to guys.
We’re looking for players with the “Q” factor. They’re quotable.
But they can’t just talk the talk, they have to walk the walk. Such players are not always easy to find.
As reporters, we’re trying to convey what’s going on with the team, put context and texture to the games and issues involving the program. In order to do that, we try to find players who are witty, candid and colorful. I’m not just talking about guys who offer a pithy little sound-byte for the 10 o’clock news. I’m talking about athletes who are great communicators, who are introspective, intelligent and can express, and assess, in relatively simple terms, what is going on both on the field and in the locker room.
I respect these athletes who grant us interviews and are generous with their time. I admire athletes who will face the media after a difficult loss and answer tough questions.
With that in mind, I’ve decided to compile my BYU Football All-Time Interview Team. I started covering the team in 1993, so you won’t see any names from before that time period.
Here are some of the best interviews I’ve encountered, in no particular order:
Chad Lewis, tight end
No All-Interview list would be complete without Lewis.
In 1993, he was a freshman walk-on the same year I was a rookie reporter with BYU’s Daily Universe. Back in those days, reporters were allowed to roam the locker room after a game to talk to players and coaches.
One guy who always made himself available was Chad Lewis. He was always humble, positive and praising his teammates.
Toward the end of that ’93 season, when Utah defeated BYU on its home field for the first time in 22 years, Utah fans and players rushed toward the north end zone to pull down the goal posts.
Most of BYU’s players sullenly trudged back to the locker room in defeat.
Not Lewis. Looking like a Clint Eastwood character, he sprinted toward the goal posts to protect them. Lewis — a freshman walk-on — chased the crimson-clad enemies away from the goal posts.
“I buckled up my helmet and dove in there,” he explained. “That’s just pride. That’s my field. I figured it was my duty, so I did it.”
Four years later, BYU finally beat Utah for the first time in Lewis’ career in his final game against the Utes as a senior, 37–17, in 1996.
“It was something you can’t explain. I finally got to beat them,” he said. “You make that game so important. You lose one game and it lasts a year. You go 0–4 and it lasts a life time.”
Once, when asked about the complexity of the BYU offense, he compared it to “multivariable calculus.”
While he was at BYU, Lewis told a story about running into NFL coach Art Shell at the airport.
“We were talking about football and BYU and he asked me if I can block. I said, ‘All you dudes think we’re sissies at BYU, that we can’t block. I’m going to change that.’ I’d love to play pro. I’d love to be good enough. I know how much work that is. It’s not just Everest, it’s the Himalayas, but I’ve got my hiking boots on.”
As it turned out, Lewis enjoyed a nine-year NFL career and was three-time Pro Bowl selection. Oh, and a couple of years ago, he climbed Mount Kilimanjaro with the Wounded Warriors.
If you want more wit and wisdom from Lewis, read his book, “Surround Yourself With Greatness.”
Brady Poppinga, defensive lineman
Whenever I prepared to interview Poppinga, it was always with a sense of trepidation. He was a nice guy, a returned missionary. But he was also intense — and big. I also knew this tough guy from Wyoming could crush me with his index finger if he wanted to.
When I would ask him even difficult questions, I tried not to flinch for fear of incurring his wrath. Instead, he would grit his teeth and answer my questions in animated fashion, waving his massive biceps in my general direction.
My favorite Poppinga story involves Air Force. In 2001, BYU scored first against the Falcons, then successfully executed an on-side kick and recovered, and scored again. The Cougars scored 63 points against a proud Air Force team, and this did not sit well with the Falcons, or their coach, Fisher DeBerry.
In 2002, when a struggling BYU team visited Colorado Springs, Air Force was ready for revenge.
The Falcons executed an on-side kick against BYU, just as the Cougars had done against them. Even with a big lead, DeBerry kept his first-stringers in the game and Air Force continued piling on the points. DeBerry said afterwards he had spent the previous 365 days plotting to avenge that 2001 loss.
During the 2002 contest, Poppinga mixed it up with trash-talking Air Force quarterback Chance Harridge, who not only ran the option to perfection against the Cougars, but also provided a running commentary on his team’s performance.
“I didn’t like the way he was talking. The guy flat-out kicked our butts. We couldn’t stop him at all,” Poppinga said. “I felt that was the reason why he was talking. I was curious to see how he’d react if we were giving him a butt-kicking. I told him, ‘I don’t appreciate the way you’re talking. I’m going to hit you and I’m going to find a time to hit you.’ When I saw his number flash in front of me, I thought, ‘Here it is.’ Boom! And I hit him.”
But Poppinga hit him after the whistle and was flagged for an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty.
“After that, (Harridge) actually calmed down,” Poppinga said. “He tried to get me back. He tried cheap-shotting me. We were near a pile and he tried to put a shoulder in me and knock me down. I told him, ‘Don’t you dare.’ He started being nice after that. He’s just immature.”
Hans Olsen, defensive lineman
The native of Weiser, Idaho, always knew how to say things in a succinct, honest and humorous way.
For example, in the week leading up to the BYU-Utah game in 2000, both teams had losing records, a combined 9–12.
How did Olsen assess that matchup?
“Both teams could be 0–11 coming into that game, and it would still be big,” he said. “The fact we’ve both had dumpy seasons, that’s going to make it more of a battle, to see which team had the dumpier season. Hopefully we can end up and say they had the dumpier season.”
After the game, which was legendary coach LaVell Edwards’ final one at BYU, Olsen said, “It’s a great send-off. A great ending to a crappy season.”
Kyle Van Noy, linebacker
The current Cougar is not only an outstanding player, but he has a dynamic personality, too.
Sometimes, his honesty has caught me off-guard. He’s not afraid of talking about some of his shortcomings and the difficult path he traveled to enroll at BYU.
He once told me that he had worn No. 3 his entire football career, ever since Pop Warner ball. “That’s my number,” Van Noy said.
But that all changed when he arrived in Provo. If there’s one thing that coach Bronco Mendenhall despises, it’s a sense of entitlement. So instead of No. 3, Van Noy donned No. 45 as a freshman.
“I guess I worked hard for this number 3,” said the Reno, Nev., native. “That’s a good thing we have here. You work hard for the number you have. I had to earn it. It’s kind of an accomplishment for me because coach Mendenhall said, ‘If you work hard and do the right things on and off the field, then it works out for you.’ It means more than just a number to me. It means how I got here and what I’ve gone through. It’s more than the number 3 to me.”
Van Noy’s description of Ziggy Ansah’s early days playing football was memorable.
“I kind of watched and laughed,” Van Noy said about the first time Ziggy tried to put on his football equipment. He laughed even more when Ziggy tried to get into a three-point stance. “The first time he lined up, he looked like a crouching frog. He was just raw. He still is raw. But the potential he has is more than anyone I’ve ever seen play a sport. … I’m just glad I could be on the ride with him. No matter what success I have that comes to me, having someone succeed more than you is so much better than your own. That’s probably why I’m so happy for him.”
Vic So’oto, defensive lineman
The first player to commit to Bronco Mendenhall after he became the head coach, So’oto gradually became a better interview as time went on. So’oto matured, having gone through plenty of adversity, including Honor Code violations, injuries and position changes during his time in Provo.
In 2010, BYU held its weekly interviews on Monday mornings. Almost every week, So’oto showed up to be interviewed. It was a rough season for the Cougars, and not many players wanted to talk publicly. He didn’t have to do interviews, but he did. Maybe he just wanted the free breakfast.
Anyway, one week, after watching teammate Romney Fuga suffer a season-ending knee injury in the first half of a 27–13 loss to Nevada, So’oto decided to pay tribute to his fallen teammate.
At halftime, So’oto removed his No. 37 jersey and donned Fuga’s No. 98.
When asked about that tribute, So’oto gave one of his best, heart-felt responses.
“It was a symbol for my buddy. He’s probably the best player on the defense. And seeing somebody like that go down on a play like that kind of hurts the morale of the team. You’ve got to play on. I talked to him and I decided to put his jersey on.”
Check back next Wednesday on utahvalley360.com to see part 2 of Jeff Call’s BYU Football All-Time Interview Team.