Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Harvey Unga: BYU RB back on track

Great story about a young athlete taking responsibility and turning around his life.

UPDATE: The link no longer works. Here's the story:

Cougar RB able to rebuild life in shambles

Gordon Monson - Salt Lake Tribune Columnist

The following words wouldn't mean as much to Harvey Unga now if he hadn't been through what he's been through: "I'm the happiest man in the world." His state of euphoria goes beyond rushing for 539 yards, catching 25 passes for another 332, scoring five touchdowns, and positioning himself as BYU's most significant offensive weapon this season. It stems from a profound climb out of a brief-but-difficult behavioral, emotional, and spiritual nadir in his recent past.

Just two years ago, the redshirt freshman running back was on the dark side of an unhappy world. He - along with some friends - was breaking into places of business, taking bolt-cutters to padlocked doors, prying open cash registers, stealing money, selling prescription drugs for cash, having relations with a girl outside the bounds of his family's religious beliefs, working himself into an illicit speed weave from which he could not easily escape.

"I lost it doing dumb thing after dumb thing," Unga says. "It all added up to a big thing."

Exactly how a talented teenager from an honorable family, with loving parents and terrific siblings, living in Provo, fell into such a pit is a tale as old as time.

"It started with hanging out with some friends, doing the wrong stuff," he says. "I was in the wrong place at the wrong time. We wanted to get some money. A friend suggested we get some . . . and it went from there."

The initial breakthrough into criminality came via break-ins at local snow-cone shacks. The money was easy, and so the malfeasance went on.

"We needed more money," Unga says.

He and his friends obtained and sold prescription painkillers, among other unlawful deeds.

"Things went downhill from there," he says.

Still, Unga was never caught. Not by anyone else.

He was ratted out, though, by the central figure in the whole episode: himself.

All as opportunity approached him fast on the football field.

Before his senior year at Timpview High School, Unga had pretty much been an undistinguished kid thrashing about, trying to make a name in football. Basketball was actually his first love. As a ninth-grader, on the school's freshmen squad, he was used as a linebacker and a safety, but was a second-string running back.

The freshmen coach had a talk with some of the lesser players, telling them that not everybody was cut out to play high school football. Unga suspects he was considered one of the lesser.

"It got me discouraged," he says. "But I'm the kind of person who likes to prove people wrong. And running back was what I wanted to play."

He did exactly that, to varying degrees of success over the following two seasons. His junior year revealed promise, showing some of Unga's emerging talents, and, at last, garnering attention from a number of college coaches.

His senior season, in which he ran for some 1,800 yards for Timpview's state championship team, popped the top for recruiters who started writing and calling. The spectrum ran from coaches at Pac-10 schools to coaches at the most meager of JCs.

In the early days of 2005, Unga slimmed his choices to Utah and BYU, and orally committed to the Utes in January. "Things there looked good from the outside," he says. "It was during Coach [Urban] Meyer's era, the Fiesta Bowl, and all the glamour."

But, a week or so before the national signing day, Unga called new Utah coach Kyle Whittingham and told him he had decided instead to go to BYU.

"He was pretty upset," Unga says. "Whittingham said, 'Those guys are going to switch you to linebacker.' He was like, 'You're going to wish you never went there. You're going to call back and want to go to Utah.' It turned me off. He flipped on me."

That same night, Unga called longtime BYU assistant coach Lance Reynolds to tell him that he would not be going to BYU, that he was going to stick with his original decision to attend Utah, just to see what Reynolds' reaction would be.

"He told me," Unga says, "'You're going to do great things up there. . . . It's going to be tough when we play you guys. . . . We know you're going to be a great player.'

"I thought, 'These are the kind of guys I want to play for.' "

While the whole process unfolded, Unga's father, Jackson, was on the verge of a nervous breakdown, wondering: What in the holy name of LaVell Edwards was Junior doing? He was testing the coaches' concern for him, outside their concerns for their programs.

"It was sly," Unga says.

When he called Reynolds back to tell him he would, in fact, be a Cougar, Unga says the coach responded: "Oh, man, you don't know how much this means to me."

"It was like Christmas Day for Coach Reynolds," he says.

A few months later, though, Christmas evolved into Devil's Night.

Unga commenced his descent into turpitude, and spiraled aimlessly for a number of months, right up until a few weeks before his first fall camp at BYU opened. In truth, he's vague about the exact timing and duration of his bad behavior, but he remembers with exactness the day it hit him that he had gone astray, and that he had to change. He was at an LDS Church meeting, a missionary farewell for one of his close friends, when the epiphany slammed into his consciousness.

"It hit me," he says. "I was like, 'This is my friend, doing what he should be doing. Now, you probably won't be able to do this.' I knew I had to change. It killed me. I needed to focus on the important things in life."

Unga told his parents the sordid details. He talked to his LDS bishop. He went to Bronco Mendenhall and informed him he had to handle some issues. "I felt his love and concern for me as a person, not just as a player," Unga says. "'This is what our school is about,' he told me. 'What our program is about.' "

In Unga's case, it worked, transforming him into both the better man and the improved player he is today.

"All I tried to do was act in a manner that Harvey's parents would have acted," says Mendenhall. "He was humble and willing to accept that counsel. He's sincere and genuine."

Unga grayshirted in 2005, and, last season, played a few downs before suffering a hip injury against Boston College. After that, he was left to heal, this time physically, and, then, get back into shape for 2007.

Granted a redshirt year, Unga returned in August to strong reviews in fall camp, and through this juncture has solidified himself as one of the Cougars preeminent contributors. In a season of BYU turnovers, he has never fumbled while rushing the football, a major symbol of steadiness and security, in Mendenhall's mind.

"He's reliable and consistent," the coach says. "Day in, and day out."

Unga says he will not go on an LDS Church mission, but that leading a decent, gracious, benevolent existence and playing for the Cougars combine to make up his personal hub now. "It's a different mission for me," he says.

So, Unga's account is a feel-good story, after all.

"School's going well," he says. "Football is going well. Life is good."

After tight end Vic So'oto's touchdown catch at UNLV on Saturday night, a win in which Unga ran for 177 yards, caught five passes, and scored a touchdown, he was so pleased for his teammate, his team, and himself, he says, "I felt sick to my stomach."

Now, that's real joy.

"It brightens my day," he says.

And his world.

"I have a great feeling with me," says Unga. "I'm blessed and fortunate that I'm able to play like I'm playing. It's all blessings. I'm so grateful for what I have now. It makes me happy. It makes me the . . . "

Well, you know the rest.

UPDATE: 16 April 2010 - Harvey Unga, BYU's all-time leading rusher, and his girlfriend, Keilani Moeaki, have withdrawn from school for an honor code violation. Press release here. So the feel-good story has taken a turn and will add another chapter. And hopefully a happy ending. I wish them both well.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Such a sad story. Hope he gets back on track, again.

10:39 PM  

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