OC'S CORNER

Bowl Busting Utes Reunite, Continue To Thrive On And Off Field

Sep 30, 2019, 1:57 PM
The Utah team celebrates after defeating Pittsburgh 35-7 in the Tostito's Fiesta Bowl at the Sun De...
The Utah team celebrates after defeating Pittsburgh 35-7 in the Tostito's Fiesta Bowl at the Sun Devil Stadium on January 1, 2005 in Tempe, Arizona. (Photo by Jeff Gross/Getty Images).
(Photo by Jeff Gross/Getty Images)

SALT LAKE CITY, Utah – This past weekend, the undefeated 2004 Fiesta Bowl Utes were honored with their rightful place in the Utah Athletics Hall of Fame.

Undefeated, original BCS Busters, #4 in the country, and still forever underrated on a national scale, the 2004 Utes were one of the greatest football teams of our generation.

I was lucky enough to be on the roster that year, and I’ll go to my grave believing that our team would have beaten anybody in the country if given the chance. USC would have been a tough out, and Auburn had a pretty scary stable of running backs, but nobody else would have even had a chance, but don’t take my word for it, ask former BYU Cougar Brady Poppinga.

A reunion of sorts took place up at the stadium Friday night, with Urban Meyer swinging by to be honored with the team at a classy Hall Of Fame dinner. I’m told he made some nice remarks, but unfortunately, I missed the dinner.

You’ll see the pictures floating around of Meyer flanked by a few dozen players from arguably the greatest team in Utah history up on the dais. The image stirs memories of the postgame celebration in Tempe, minus the confetti and full uniforms. Everybody is fifteen years older, most fatter or thinner than we were as Utes, but forever bound by the remarkable journey we were all so privileged to be a part of.

I’ve been open about the fact that I was an absolute nobody on that team. I’ve joked for years about how Urban didn’t know my name then, and couldn’t pick me out of a lineup now. That’s actually true, I saw him at the after-party and there was not even a faint glimmer of recognition.

I don’t mind laughing about my insignificant role. The truth that I was reminded of as I rubbed shoulders with my former teammates is that I am fiercely proud to have been there. I worked incredibly hard to be part of the program and have a front-row seat to witness the year that changed Utah football forever.

Sure, a lot of us who showed up on Friday night and walked out at halftime on Saturday were just Scout-Teamers, but we were probably the best scout team in the country, because there was a level of accountability in Urban’s program at Utah that demanded you do your job perfectly – regardless of your role. From top to bottom, the standard was crystal clear. You did your best or you were left behind. If your best wasn’t good enough, you would find a new threshold for what you were capable of through torturous work under the watchful eye of Matt Balis (now the director of football performance at Notre Dame).

Complacency was not an option, even if you were the last guy on the depth chart. Even for those of us who never saw the field during that magical season, 2004 was a baptism into the reality of what it takes to be exceptional. My eyes were opened to a whole new level of preparation. The attention to detail was tedious at times. The practices went long, and the physical workload was borderline ridiculous, but at the end of the day, the results were unprecedented, so there was no choice but to buy-in.

The 2004 Utes whose names you actually know are obvious examples of what that kind of preparation can yield. Star players who bought into a new way of doing things and led the program to new levels of success included –

  • Alex Smith: The #1 NFL draft pick and perhaps the NFL’s best active example of QB resilience, an unheralded winner for three different franchises.
  • Morgan Scalley: Oversees a phenomenal Utah defense and has built a reputation as one of the best recruiters in the West.
  • Sione Pouha: A stalwart and Team Captain on the New York Jets defensive line before joining the coaching ranks and eventually coming home to groom the next generation of beastly Utah d-linemen.
  • Eric Weddle: A Sophomore starter on the 2004 Utes who has gone on to multiple All-Pro and Pro-Bowl honors in the NFL. He’s one Super Bowl away from potential Hall of Fame selection and has been named Team Captain for every franchise he’s ever played for.
  • Chris Kemoeatu:  Went from All-American Guard for the Utes to Super Bowl Champion during his career with the Steelers.

These few and many others played huge roles on the Fiesta Bowl team before carrying the same traits that made them great players into stellar careers in and around football.

Of course, some of the guys who were just there to give the starters a good look in 2004 ended up being All-Conference and even All-American performers in the following years. Guys like Steve Tate, Casey Evans, Brad Clifford and Paul Kruger were redshirts or unknowns at the time. Brian Johnson was a 17-year-old Freshman backup who cut his teeth as the understudy for Alex Smith.

The foundations laid in 2004 continued to bear fruit for Kyle Whittingham on his 2008 Sugar Bowl squad and beyond. Of course, football success translates to more football success. It only stands to reason that the best players on one of the nation’s best teams became something big and continued building football legacies.

With the growing focus on revenue and pay-for-play arguments in college football, we sometimes forget that being part of football greatness can rub off in real life too. Most of my 2004 Utah teammates are not famous. Their accomplishments are not easy to find, but the culture of effort and accountability that Meyer and his coaching staff hammered into us fifteen years ago has manifested itself in many ways.

  • Our long snapper works on nuclear-powered engines at Pearl Harbor as a civilian contractor for the Department of Defense
  • Blake Burdette was a special teams staple and tight end who moved overseas to play professional rugby and represented the USA in the Rugby World Cup.
  • Jon Peel, a redshirt wide-receiver from the 2004 Fiesta Bowl team, parlayed his time spent rehabbing injury in the notorious “Pit” to a career as a successful fitness model. He is also married to fellow Hall Of Famer and Hollywood stunt woman Kristina Baskett
  • Kicker Brian Borreson has built an enviable business portfolio in the entertainment, festival and nightlife space.
  • Tommy Hackenbruck followed up his lone year as a starting Utah linebacker in 2004 by becoming a world champion CrossFit athlete and coach. He dominated an entire season of Stone Cold Steve Austin’s Broken Skull Challenge TV show, which is random, but awesome.
  • Starting Center Jesse Boone has built a successful real-estate business that recorded over 100 transactions last year in the local market.
  • Tavo Tupola, another OL starter, is a decorated police officer – which is admirable in its own right. More impressively, he is also husband to Hawaiian gubernatorial candidate Andrea Tupola. In fact, there is a definitive theme of “marrying up” amongst members of the 2004 team, an indicator of the strong team-building skills we all fostered during our experience on that remarkable roster.

I could continue with the anecdotal stories and examples, but I think you understand my point. Top to bottom, the Fiesta Bowl team was full of men who either knew the value of seeking perfection in every practice, workout, and rep; or who learned it along the way thanks to Meyer,Whittingham, Dan Mullen, Gary Andersen, Mike Sanford, Balis, and the rest of the coaching staff that helped guide 105 young knuckleheads to an undefeated season.

It was an absolute pleasure to catch up with so many of the guys I spent my early mornings with in the weight room as members of the 6:00 a.m. “developmental” group and to see their accomplishments.

To be honest, it also felt good to hear some of the older guys and starters that I looked up to so much back then congratulate me for my own successes.

It was fun to walk out on the field at Rice Eccles with those men and to hear the fans cheer for the memory of a season that proved to be a significant milestone in Utah’s journey to Pac-12 inclusion and national football relevance.

I enjoyed revisiting that brief period of my young life where I was part of something truly remarkable, truly great and dominant. I am proud that I did my tiny, minuscule, microscopic, part in helping a group of incredible men put together a perfect season. 12-0 was, and always will be, an insanely admirable feat, but the best part about this past weekend was sharing stories and memories with the guys, and realizing that even fifteen years later, we are still what we were back then.

A team of Champions.

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