On the other end of the phone, Brooke Williams kept repeating the same reassuring message to her son.
“Stay prayerful, stay mindful,” she said, fearing her son was struggling.
On the receiving end of that message was Kody Epps, holed up in his dorm room on a Saturday night. It was moments after BYU wrapped up a game that Epps spent yet again on the sideline in a boot. When he got back to the room, he flipped on ESPN and saw his best friend from high school, quarterback Bryce Young, leading Alabama to the top ranking in college football.
That is when the wide receiver needed to call his mom. The thoughts started to creep in again. In his second year at BYU, he was the one supposed to be making a big impact on college football. Maybe he wouldn’t win a Heisman Trophy, like Young did, but he certainly didn’t want to be sitting in a small dorm with a foot that wouldn’t heal.
“Stay prayerful, stay mindful,” Williams repeated to Epps.
That refrain eventually became the soundtrack to Epps last year away from football. It was a fitting one, too. Because as the BYU receiver dealt with a foot injury that kept him out all of 2021, faith was largely all he had. For a long time, he didn’t know when football would be back in his life or when his physical and mental state would improve enough to play.
Nearly a year later, as spring practice arrives, Epps is back and an early favorite to earn a starting position. But his return to football is the easy part. The last 12 months were the hard part.
“There were some very, very low moments,” Epps said. “I was completely out of it and I’m just sitting in my room thinking, ‘Am I ever going to get a shot? Is God ever going to allow me to play again? Am I ever going to get the chance to bloom? I definitely hit rock bottom.”
For Epps, a former All-American high school player, there was no big play or break that caused his year-long injury. It was more of a gradual wear and tear problem, which made it harder to comprehend.
It started during a Wednesday practice before BYU played Coastal Carolina in 2020. At that point, Epps was a freshman forcing himself into the rotation on a 9-0 team. The week before, he played significant snaps and had a catch.
But in that practice, pain shot through his foot. At first, he didn’t think much of it. Then it got to the point where he was ruled out for Saturday. He went to different doctors to see what it was. After a couple of consults, he went to Palo Alto, Calif., to see a specialist.
The conclusion was a small bone in the ball of his foot had split in half. It is called a sesamoid bone. Each foot has two small weight-bearing bones to help support the tendons, but if one breaks it usually requires surgery. It is most common in dancers and athletes, who use their weight-bearing bones in the most demanding way.
Epps had the surgery to remove the broken bone in his foot.
“He stepped on campus, kind of a big name and kind of a big-time recruit,” BYU receiver Gunner Romney said, who has a locker next to Epps. “We are pretty close and talk a lot. We were just talking about [staying] confident in yourself.”
Because of the location of the injury, Epps sat out for 36 weeks. The bottom of the foot is one of the more sensitive areas of the body, and the only remedy is rest.
Prior to the injury, Epps had never been away from football for a long period of time. He missed a playoff game his junior year of high school, but nothing like this. For the most part, his football career had come easy.
He played for the high school powerhouse Mater Dei, the only school in the country to produce three Heisman Trophy winners (Matt Leinart, John Huarte and eventually Young). He and Young re-wrote the record book in his senior season. Epps had 1,735 yards, 93 receptions and 28 touchdowns. He was named one of the four best receivers in the country by USA Today.
And when he got to BYU, he figured it would continue. But the last year showed him football could go on without him.
Young set Alabama’s record for passing yards (4,872) and touchdowns (47) in his first year and went to the national championship game. His other Mater Dei teammates also went on to play college football. USC linebacker Raesjon Davis, a starter on Mater Dei’s 2019 team, played against BYU when Epps was out last season.
“His best friend [won a Heisman Trophy],” BYU head coach Kalani Sitake said. “I know the low point for him was just knowing he wanted to be doing some of those things. I think he has grown so much as a person. That’s what I have been impressed by.”
Epps and Young scheduled monthly calls. They would talk more about faith than football. Epps was happy for his friend, but he also knew if he was going to get through the year he would have to revert back to his mother’s refrain. Stay prayerful, stay mindful.
He started talking more to his coaches about off-the-field things. And he spent time alone away from the spotlight, something he wasn’t accustomed to after being a high-profile high school player and immediately transitioning to a ranked BYU team.
“I saw it as a moment of real reflection for him,” Williams said.
Last month, Epps was cleared to play in spring practice, ending his hiatus from football.
The day before camp began, Epps was called on during a walkthrough to play receiver. When the snap went off, he nearly forgot to run a route post-snap. It had been so long since he played, he was more used to watching than playing.
But after a couple of mistakes, he took a deep breath.
“Stay prayerful, stay mindful.”
And now he is off and running. A more reflective person, but still a potential starter on a team that lost two receivers from a year ago.
“I want to be present [now],” Epps said. “I’m [happy] to have gone through the last year, having to stay in my own head and just gather a lot of information about myself that I was blocking out for a couple of years. So it was tough, but it was needed. I’m going to be ready when the time is right.”