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December 23, 2010

Catching 22

(Disclaimer - Yes, another blog about BYU football. I can't help myself. Unless you love the Cougs as much as I do, you might want to consider skipping this one)

By any account, it was an insane thing to do. Turn down a scholarship from Boise State and Cal in order to pay to walk on at BYU? The Boise State rejection I can kind of understand, because, well, not many people want to live in Idaho. But who would turn down a chance to play for free in sunny California, an hour away from Newport Beach? Who would dump that opportunity so they could pay their own way to walk on in Provo?

The man in question is named Andrew Rich, but you might know him better as the best safety to play for BYU in some 20 years. He doesn't graduate with the full compliment of records or awards to prove it, but if his coach's words mean anything, Rich goes down as one of the all-time great Cougar defenders.

"Until Andrew Rich, the best other safeties I ever coached were Brian Urlacher (6 time NFL pro-bowler) and Aaron Francisco (current Indianapolis Colt). Andrew Rich is in that same trio now. Each have unique characteristics, but no one is tougher than Andrew, there's no one that is more committed. He just is an amazing leader and he cares so much. He's exactly what we want from a BYU football player. How he plays, how he conducts himself, who he is; I'll use him as an example from this point forward as long as I'm here at BYU. I'll ask my coaches, ‘does he play like Andrew Rich?'"

For those who may not know...

Playing like Andrew Rich means making a game-winning interception against UNLV in your defensive debut. It includes causing a game-changing fumble against Oklahoma in BYU's biggest win in some 19 years. It requires playing in every game of your career, despite injuries requiring ankle and shoulder surgery, not to mention an ailment your trainer describes as a "full body contusion". It means leading the team in tackles, interceptions and highlight hits not only as a senior but as a junior as well. It means you will cry in your final home game, the emotion of ending your career will be so heavy.

The list of big plays contributed by Rich could continue of course: a decapitation of Ute receiver Brandon Godfrey in 2008; a blocked field goal against New Mexico in 2009; a giant interception return against Utah in 2009; two picks against the Lobos in his final home game as a Cougar; two more intercepts against UTEP in his career finale.

Strangely, Rich's most impressive feat may have occurred this last year during BYU's worst season in which Rich played. Five games into the season BYU's defense ranked 120th in run defense. In case you were wondering, yes 120th is last in the entire nation - the absolute worst. That's what makes the ensuing turn around so very unbelievable. Bronco Mendenhall took over the defensive coaching duties, and Andrew Rich took over the defensive dominating duties. As defensive captain he inspired the team to a new level of play, erasing the losses of fellow stars Jordan Pendleton and Romney Fuga who were out for the season to injury. The result? Over the last seven games BYU's run defense has been among the top three in the nation. From worst to first in seven games. Sounds like a book title, but it's just another example of the contributions of one Andrew Rich.

“He has a passion for Brigham Young and how we are running the program, and that makes him a step or two faster, makes him hit a little bit harder, makes him be more consistent,” Mendenhall said. 

Why was Andrew Rich such a hard hitter? Because he liked ice cream of course.

Which is why it's so surprising that when Rich graduated high school, none of the BYU recruiters were able to see it.

"To show you how smart I am, I rejected him twice — once out of high school and once out of junior college because I didn't think he was fast enough or big enough," the coach said. "And sure enough, he ends up coming to BYU as a walk-on player, earns a scholarship, becomes an all-conference performer and is a team leader.” 

It's alright coach, we all make mistakes; I ate grass once. At least things worked themselves out in the end, for both of us. And things worked out well for Rich too, of course. 

"This experience has been everything to me," Rich said. "It's a dream come true to be out there. I couldn't be more happy to be a BYU Cougar. And I will continue to be until I die."


In his final game in Provo Rich intercepted a New Mexico pass and returned it to within one yard of the endzone, where he was finally caught and brought down by a Lobo player. 

It was an ironic end to his last home game. You see, from here on out every BYU defensive player will be trying to match Rich and what he did in his three years as a Cougar. But it's unlikely that any of them will ever catch number twenty-two.

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