Starting a new job for a reporter is an exercise in putting names to faces, which has never been the greatest strength of mine.
Luckily for me, the Utah football team already has a few familiar faces.
It was the first Utes practice when I squinted across the practice field at a hulking, broad-shouldered 6-foot-6 defensive tackle, and mentioned to my colleague Matthew Piper that he looked an awful lot like Daniel Nielson, an offensive lineman I covered on one of Hurricane’s great football teams. It was, I just hadn’t realized he had switched sides.
I related this story to Nielson after the Utes’ spring game Saturday afternoon, recalling our last meeting on the Rice-Eccles Stadium turf, when he brashly predicted that the Tigers would roll over Juan Diego (they didn’t). And I mentioned, though I had not thought it possible, he seemed … bigger.
"Yeah, I’m not getting taller, I’ll tell you that," he said, laughing.
One of the biggest perks of having been a high school reporter is having those relationships with athletes, and knowing them from back in the day. But there’s something of a personal fulfillment — having nothing to do with my job at all — that comes from seeing kids grow up.
As a high school reporter, rarely are you in the presence of total and complete brilliance. LeBron James is not walking through that door.
What you do see is flashes, signs, encouraging plays and moments that lead you to believe the athlete you’re watching is going to get there someday. You file away those observations to your memory, waiting for that promise to be fulfilled.
And it is.
The Utes are just one of the football teams in this state stocked with familiar faces for me. I remember Nate Orchard as the unstoppable Highland wideout who torched almost every corner who covered him as a senior. At Alta, Harrison Handley was tall, but the frame wasn’t filled out as it is now as a tight end. Speaking of filling out, it’s hard to imagine Filipo Mokofisi as a 200-pound linebacker and end now that he has grown into a 280-pound tackle who can still run pretty well for his size.
One thing that hasn’t changed about Timpview’s Pita Taumoepenu is his rapid-fire first step, like a missile shooting off into the backfield. His English, however, is definitely coming along.
I felt similar pangs of recognition at Utah State, but I’ve been living here long enough that the kids who once dominated Utah high school fields have started taking up the main stage in college football. At Utah, it’s one of the first times I’ve experienced such a volume of this sensation.
And perhaps the most promising thing you see is what happens when you talk to them. Athletes who once didn’t know what to say with a recorder in their face now speak to a gaggle of reporters with ease. They have thoughts not just on girls or school, but can genuinely reflect on their path, where they’re going, their goals. They’re funny. They’re poignant.
Truly, all of us are ever changing, but that difference between 17 and 21 is such a gap. You see the growth, both on and off the field, and you feel a sense of pride, even, that boy or girl saw so long ago has morphed into a true person, more complex, yet more self-assured.
You think to yourself: "Well, this kid’s going to be OK."
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