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January 10, 2017

The Unflappable LaVell Edwards

-- The quest to be chill? Fulfilled.

I didn't know LaVell Edwards. I don't boast a story of random run-in where he schooled me on the golf course or signed my sweatshirt with a sharpie and an 'oh shucks'. This makes sense given I was negative six years old when he rose to prominence. I was in first grade when he beat the number one team in the country, as unaware of BYU football as I was that farting in class quickly left you outcast. I missed almost all of it, not boarding the BYU train until the last of his great seasons in 1996. I missed the years of revolutionary QB play and conference domination and national title and so on. But I what I saw and what I learned and what I teach is his style. For long before Jay Wright reinvented cool, there was LaVell.

When I was ten and BYU won the Cotton Bowl I didn't know that LaVell had done all that he did. All I knew was he somehow stayed as calm during the game-winning interception as he had when BYU got the back-to-back shaft on two incredible pass interferences gone ignored. Watch for yourself to see how bad they were.

In response to this madness LaVell crossed his arms and stared at the refs in disgust. A thousand miles to the west I kicked a hole in my bedroom door. My dad, watching the game beside me, didn't say a thing about the door. In fact he didn't say anything. He was struck dumb, paralyzed of speech. I remember tears coming to my eyes. The only thought my brain could reach was the theys of the world had it out for BYU. "They hate us." "They don't want us to win."

Sidenote: keep in mind this wasn't a completely insane way of thinking given BYU had been cheated out of two at-large Bowl selection bids just a few weeks before. Of the four big bowls of the 1990s era, six spots were pledged to conference champs while the remaining two were reserved for the best at-large teams. Which two at-large teams were invited? Number six Nebraska and number seven Penn State. BYU, ranked ahead of both those schools at number five, was simply skipped. I can just imagine the conversation the bowl committee must have had. "Ok everyone, let's invite teams ranked 1, 2, 3, 4, 6 and 7 and skip number 5. All agreed? Great. Meeting adjourned."

But before I get too lost in the tour of BYU bowl screwjobs (hello there 2001) let's go back to the game. I'd lost my mind after the two no-calls and then lost my mind in the best of ways when BYU won the game on a last-minute interception. On TV the BYU players were doing what I was doing: jumping around, grabbing the closest available person, screaming in joy. Coaches were hugging players, raising the roof, doing that thing where they slam players helmets. It was pandemonium on the sideline.

And then for about six seconds the camera flashed to LaVell. I saw him casually walking. Not talking to anyone. Not fistbumping anyone. Just meandering about the sideline like it's the second half in a spring scrimmage. You'd never know he just set the record for the most games ever won in a college football season.

This was my first introduction to the style of LaVell: the ability to play it cool no matter the circumstance. I was a fiery youth -- kicking holes in doors when things didn't go my way for example. But the sight of LaVell put an end to that. I learned that on his best day my hero presented to the world his trademark frown and on his worst day he did the same. To match his even keel became my goal. And so whenever an Atticus Finch came along and took a tobacco spit to the face without retaliation; when Kobe merely smirked at Matt Barnes' attempted punking; when Jay Wright won the NCAA title without raising an eyebrow I thought back to LaVell.

Sometimes I did well. When I got clocked in 8th grade I nodded at my attacker and walked away. When promoted last year my face betrayed nothing even as my heart backflipped inside me. Other times I didn't do so hot. The bruises Bunna received during the Sobe bottle attack following the 2002 BYU-Utah game may never fade. And who can forget the time I called a bogus foul on Carlos Santana during the West Lake-Valley series? To be cool one must first play it cool, and playing it cool takes effort, which is the exact thing you're supposed to conceal when attempting to play it cool. See it's trickier than it sounds, and LaVell mastered it.

LaVell was able to do this thanks to a formula that was one part chill and two parts humble. He deflected praise and was fond of stating his goal at BYU was to "just stay employed." He kept a royalty check from a book deal totaling $1.87 as a reminder to keep his head down. He made Washington's 25th rule of civility his 1st: "superfluous complements and all affectation of ceremony are to be avoided."

But by now I'm just repeating things you already know. So let's finish this off.

The closest I came to meeting LaVell was my freshman year of college. The legend visited the USU institute as part of an ongoing Religion in Life series which was kind of like ESPN’s 30 for 30 series except boring. I was relegated to the back of the auditorium, pushed to the rear by a large turnout of closeted USU-attending BYU fans. I say closet fans because where the heck were these loyalists three years later when I was whitewashed with popcorn and Bryan assaulted by dinner roll for cheering BYU against Utah State in the 2008 contest? Bunch a wannabees.

As LaVell addressed, my mind wandered. By chance the night before had witnessed the first kiss of my life – yes it took til college but all things considered that probably beat the Vegas estimates by three to four years  – and a host of post-game analysis was passing through my ticker. Was the kiss long enough? Was it too long? How was my pacing? Was she reciprocating? Did I remember to brush my teeth beforehand? Should tongue have made an appearance? After an hour of consideration I graded myself a solid B+ and as I patted myself on the back for taking the first step towards heterosexual success I noticed LaVell take a seat. The speech had ended. I hadn’t heard a word. 

Walking home I felt like a loser. The person whose shrine I visited on a weekly basis, whose style I still seek, the entire reason for the existence of a BYU football team and my conversion to it had come to town and I tuned him out. I’d treated my hero like an ordinary dude, ignored him like some high councilor speaker instead of the coach with the 6th most wins in the history of college football. I kicked a rock all the way down 8th east and it wasn't til I hit the bottom of the hill that it finally clicked: for the man who made chill his calling card, that’s probably the way he’d have wanted it. 

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