Provo • Zach Wilson stood on the field in the aftermath of BYU’s 49-23 win over Hawaii, sweating and beaming, as his teammates walked by, patting him on the head, acknowledging his first start, his first victory as a college quarterback.
Off in the distance, Tanner Mangum, the senior quarterback Wilson replaced, sighed, took it all in, accepted some salutations, and walked into the BYU locker room. He was happy for the Cougars’ win, happy for Wilson, but, personally, deep within, was hurting, at least a bit. He allowed no outward hint of that.
“There’s going to be highs and lows,” he said. “One thing I’ve learned is, you can’t define yourself by what happens on the football field.”
What happened on Saturday night is, Wilson completed 16 passes for 194 yards, running for a touchdown, throwing for three, chucking one pick. Mangum watched.
It’s remarkable the amount of effort college athletes pour into their pursuit of football, the way they immerse themselves in it. In the case of Mangum, he went through the whole cycle, and more.
Hot-shot recruit, Elite-11 co-MVP with Jameis Winston, quarterback-in-waiting at BYU, freshman star after his church mission, and then, the benching in favor of a rebuilt Taysom Hill, temporarily facing bouts of anxiety and depression, seeking clinical help, suffering through the junior year from hell, when he struggled as the starter and blew out his Achilles tendon, the temptation to give up, the pain of a lonely rehab, the battle to get himself physically back together, the fight for the starting position with a talented freshman, and then another benching.
That’s an extraordinary journey.
“I’ve experienced a little bit of everything,” he said. “And it’s taught me things I can carry with me for the rest of my life.”
You want to run through a wall of fear, try informing coaches that you are dealing with mental-health issues in a football world, an environment of what Mangum described as “hyper-masculinity,” a place where any kind of condition of the mind is seen by some as weakness.
To those neanderthals, Mangum simply said, “It’s nothing to be ashamed of or embarrassed about. It’s my story.”
He’s handled it. It’s up to others to understand it, too.
Mangum went ahead this season to direct a conservative BYU attack to wins over Arizona, Wisconsin and McNeese State, and losses to Cal, Washington and Utah State.
Now, he’ll watch and encourage the young kid, hurting for the loss of his spot, but hoping that Wilson soars even higher than he did Saturday night.
That’s the perspective of a 25-year-old QB who, as he said it, has seen and felt all things an athlete can see and feel. He won huge games as a freshman, was big man on campus, getting full of himself, and then getting knocked to the turf in a way that makes a man either bitter or wise. A couple of years back, he might have felt sorry for himself and quietly complained.
Now, he gets it. And by it, I mean life.
Wilson will go on and do what he will. He has his promising football future.
Mangum will go on with a firm grasp on his reality, on what’s most important, with a hope that BYU will win, that Wilson will succeed, and that he himself also will play well, if he’s called on again.
“I’ve been on both sides,” he said, “as a starter and as a backup. Either way, I want to be me. I want to be the best teammate I can. I want to help Zach. I know what he’s facing. But I’m a competitor. I want to play. I think I can help this team win. I won’t give up. I’ll help Zach, and I’ll use this as a growing experience.”
Upon Mangum’s demotion, a former teammate told him: “When you look back, you’ll judge yourself favorably on not giving up, not on how good you were.”
“I’ve learned,” Mangum said, “to keep a positive mindset, to look forward and keep my head up. If hard times come, they won’t last. You fight through them. There’s more to life than just football.”
Turns out, being BMOC has a whole different connotation with Tanner Mangum. He knows being a big man entails much more than throwing touchdown passes. It’s about absorbing life’s blows and powering on, and, with any luck, helping others do the same.
GORDON MONSON hosts “The Big Show” with Jake Scott weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM and 1280 AM The Zone.