Sweated up after a recent practice session, still standing in the buzzard-hot sun, Utah running back Kelvin York had a cryptic story to tell and a clear proclamation to make about the body art he wears on his arm, a tattoo that pays tribute to his sister, Valerie, and inspires him every day of his life. That’s what he said. But, from there, York hesitated to dispense many specifics, clouding over the story’s finer points. Those details, apparently, are personal and purposefully vague. The inspiration, though, along with the proclamation, is personal and certain.
More than once, York has needed that added lift.
The 5-foot-11, 213-pound senior, who is battling not just for the featured role out of the Ute backfield this season, but for the fulfilled potential of a player who was once considered a uniquely promising athlete and offered a scholarship by USC, said Valerie died in March 2009. She first got sick in 2001, something having to do with feeling ill after a meal. She subsequently lost her eyesight, and then, passed away from the effects of pneumonia eight years later.
“That was tough,” he said. “She was 31. I was 18. I loved her to death. But she was very religious, and if God was ready to take her, she was ready to go home.”
Gently pushed to fill in the blanks about the nature of the illness and the circumstances surrounding it, York double-clutched and declined.
“It’s a long story to go into detail about,” he said. “A very long story. It’s hard to talk about it. I don’t know what happened or what went on. … It was devastating.”
York grew up in Prairieville, La., and played his prep football at Dutchtown High School in Geismar. Since Valerie was blind, after games, he reviewed his performances with her, recounting the yards he gained and how he had gained them, carefully describing for her what he had done. And almost every game, he had done a lot.
His senior year, he rushed for more than 1,400 yards, despite sharing the ball with another prominent running back — Eddie Lacy, who went on to Alabama and the Green Bay Packers.
After Valerie’s death, York went a different direction — to Fullerton College, a JC in Southern California, where he continued to roll up huge yardage. In 2010, he rushed for 1,435 yards and 17 touchdowns. Thereafter, USC offered him a delayed scholarship, which he accepted, intending to enroll there after the 2011 season. When York blew an ACL and tore the meniscus in his knee, had surgery and missed most of the season, the Trojans bailed on the kid, leaving him to look elsewhere.
That was just one of the times he thought about his sister, looking for a boost. After he initially committed to Southern Cal, he told a reporter: “USC has always been my dream school and I committed on the spot. I told my sister, who passed away back in 2009, that if I had a chance, I was going to go to USC. I’ve always liked USC.”
With limited scholarships available because of NCAA sanctions against USC and York’s suddenly injured knee, that last feeling was no longer mutual. He looked around at Washington, but ultimately settled in at Utah.
The Utes were thrilled to get him. Kyle Whittingham pointed at the powerful runner as the poster boy for the new kind of athlete his program could draw as a member of the Pac-12.
But York’s first year at Utah was a struggle. With John White dominating the carries, York gained 273 yards on 60 rushes over eight games. He missed three games due to an ankle injury, and then was sidelined through spring ball by a nagging turf toe.
Frustration burdened him, but, when it did, York said he glanced at the familiar tat and snapped back: “I think about my sister a lot. I play this game of football for her. I play in her honor. That’s what really motivates me. If I’m feeling down, I look at my arm and it gets me through.”
York now has one final year of college ball to become whatever it is he was meant to be. He’s fighting in camp with a group of other talented, but unproven backs, and Whittingham said the job is there for him to take:
“I think he could be a 1,000-yard back for us … but he’s got to stay healthy. That’s been his issue — staying on the field. He’s got a chance to be an excellent back in the Pac-12.”
In York’s mind, he’s finally crushing the opportunity as he moves forward. He said he wants 30 carries a game — and the responsibility that comes with them.
“My role is to be a leader this year, carrying the team when I need to, taking over the game, just making plays,” he said. “I’m looking forward to being the team’s workhorse. That’s what I’m going to do this year. I’m ready.”
He looked down at his arm when he said it.
Gordon Monson hosts “The Big Show” with Spence Checketts weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM/1280 and 960 AM The Zone. Twitter: @GordonMonson.