There isn’t a blueprint for being the first Black QB to start at BYU, so Jaren Hall is making his own

While his university has been the center of a national debate about racism, Hall has been breaking down a barrier his own way.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) BYU quarterback Jaren Hall (3) sets up to throw, in game action between the Brigham Young Cougars and the Baylor Bears, at LaVell Edwards Stadium, on Saturday, Sept. 10, 2022.

Provo • Jaren Hall eases back into a folding chair — Sharpie in hand, music blasting behind him — searching for his family.

In front of him stands a line of hundreds of fans, each one with rapt attention, each with a different expectation in mind of what a person like Hall should be or should do.

But Hall doesn’t see any of that right now. All that concerns him is the whereabouts of his 1-year-old daughter, Jayda, and wife Breanna. When he finally spots them, he smiles and waves. Breanna takes Jayda’s hand and helps her wave back.

This is Hall’s comfort zone. The one place where there are no expectations heaped onto him as BYU’s first Black starting quarterback. No pressure about who the person walking around in his boundary-scuffing shoes has to be or how he has to act, especially at this moment in time, with the university at the center of a national discussion about race and inclusion.

“Who you are is ultimately the people around you, your family,” Hall said when asked about expectations others have of him. “No title, no color of your skin, no one can tell you who you are [or what to be]. No one can make a story about who you are.”

But being the first Black man in the most celebrated and scrutinized position at the school undeniably comes with expectations. Fair or not, people project what they want to see out of a quarterback at a school that is 81% white and operated by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Some people want to see Hall become an activist, speaking out on the decades of well-documented racism that have existed at BYU and in Utah. Some people want to see the exact opposite. Some people just want Hall to be himself.

Hall’s father, Kalin, falls into that last category.

“There are so many crazy things happening in the world,” he said. “But at the end of the day, if Jaren can stay true to who he is [with family and faith], that trueness speaks volumes. Authenticity, there is power in that.”

So that is what Hall does. And on this day, knowing his family is settled, Hall sits back up in his chair and embarks on what will be several hours of signing, smiling and making small talk. He weaves in and out of conversations as the mostly white receiving line continues. He talks to a young Black girl, who looks up at Hall with a smile and awe.

It is moments like these where Hall knows his status means something. He takes it seriously, even if he doesn’t always talk about it.

“There is no blueprint or model for [how to handle this],” David-James Gonzales, a professor of history at BYU, said. “... At BYU in particular, this is so significant. The most prominent position is being filled by a student of color. It is wonderful.”

And while Hall may not yearn for the spotlight, he is coming to terms with its importance. And how there is power in doing it his own way.

No blueprint for this

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) BYU quarterback Jaren Hall, talks to the media after day 1 of BYU football Fall Camp, on Thursday, Aug. 4, 2022.

If there was anybody who could handle a role with no blueprint or manual, Brad Burtenshaw believes it would be Hall.

He always had the spotlight, even as a 14-year-old.

“He just knew eyes were on him,” Hall’s high school coach said. “At that level, some dads are like, ‘Come watch my son.’ Jaren’s dad knew that people would come to him.”

Burtenshaw saw Hall grow into a household name, getting an offer from BYU in his sophomore season. But, according to Burtenshaw, Hall mostly stuck with his family and a tight circle of friends as his fame grew.

“Now with what he is doing, and what he is representing, I’m not surprised,” Burtenshaw said of how Hall has gone about his platform. “Being the face of BYU now, he fits perfectly. A great athlete, a return missionary, a family man. And how he is the first African American quarterback, all together the full package.”

A lot of how Hall handles this situation has come from watching his father. Kalin played running back at BYU in the 1990s and realized fairly early in Hall’s life that he could one day do the same. He knew that if Hall was to become the quarterback at BYU, the honor could come with the extra weight of history.

So Kalin, intentional or not, showed a young Hall how to handle himself when the spotlight glared the brightest. He demonstrated how to keep family the touchstone of life, even as people gradually came to want more. Hall internalized it.

“He has his fundamental principles, his family is one of them,” Kalin said. “He has always been that way... Now being one of the most important sports figures at the institution, being that he is African American, I think that it eliminates a lot of the perceptions that maybe existed at our institution.

“And with that being said, he is doing that by being nothing outside of himself. For us it is always about being who you are, and standing out not because of your ethnicity but because of the value and substance of the man that you are. A person who just happens to be an African American, and happens to be the first ever that starts at the institution.”

The mantle of history

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) Brigham Young Cougars quarterback Jaren Hall (3) tries to evade Utah Utes safety Vonte Davis (9) during a football game Saturday, Sept. 11, 2021 in Provo.

Regardless of preparation, it is hard to truly be ready for something that’s never been done.

On the field, Hall has lived up to the pressure. He threw for 20 touchdowns and accounted for 33 total scores in his first season starting in 2021. This year, he is already projected by some to be an NFL draft pick after potentially leading BYU a third straight 10-win season.

But playing his position off the field has been more complicated. Hall became BYU’s first Black starting quarterback right after the Black Lives Matter movement began sweeping the nation. One of his first pivotal off-field moments as the quarterback came after BYU football posted a Black Lives Matter video, and some fans at the university pushed back against their team for speaking out.

“We feel very passionately that we can have a strong voice and share the differences in our lives and share the stories of where we came from, but also let everybody know that we have the same goal,” Hall said at the time. “I was blessed to be a part of it and I’m glad I was asked to be a part of it. It was a powerful deal.”

It was an early, and stark, reminder that he was becoming the face of a university that’s had its troubles with race in the past.

After all, it wasn’t until 1978 that African Americans were allowed into the priesthood by the church. In the 1960s, BYU athletics famously drew protests at the University of Texas at El Paso, Stanford and Wyoming for the university’s stance on race. BYU football didn’t add its first Black player until 1970. And that stigma has bled into the present. Just last month a Duke volleyball player accused a BYU fan of calling her a racist slur during a match at Smith Fieldhouse. The university’s investigation has since found no evidence of slurs being used at the match, but the incident quickly became a national news story that put BYU in the spotlight.

Rebecca de Schweinitz, an associate professor of history who teaches African American studies at BYU, said the moment of nationwide racial reckoning makes Hall’s presence more remarkable.

“It is really significant to me,” she said, “that we’re at this moment where we’re grappling, trying to expand the conversations that we’re having about race at BYU.”

With Hall in his second season as BYU’s starter, pressure from both sides has increased. Some students on campus, where less than 1% of the student body is Black, want him to have a larger voice on issues that affect them. There is also the ever-present pressure from college football fans who have repeatedly said players should, “stick to football,” according to Gonzalez.

Rachel Weaver, a Black student leader on campus, counts among those wishing Hall would amplify his voice.

“I understand there is a lot of pressure on athletes,” Weaver said. “I personally would speak out on what I believe.”

“It is also important not just speaking out, but how you align yourself with the Black community privately. It is hard for Black people to think you are representing them when you don’t feel like them.”

Another student, Grace Soelberg, who wrote a thesis about the Black experience at BYU through history, issued a slightly different take.

“If he were to go out and start having very public discussions about his experiences, then maybe that could spark a lot of change,” she said. “[But if not] I don’t know how much power the quarterback has to effect change because this is a Christian school and people look to church leadership.”

But Ignacio Garcia, a professor of Western culture at BYU, said there is also a power in presence. A voice can come, but first a leader of any kind has to have people’s attention, and, even better, their respect.

“Every person of color that is a pioneer, in one form or another, is expected to speak for his community,” he said. “So of course people are going to expect Hall to stand up and say something. It is a tremendous pressure, particularly in this time and age when diversity and inclusion are a huge issue.

“But it’s also a great opportunity, if he takes it in his own way. And I think that is the one thing that he will learn, is it to be successful is you do it your own way... His presence changes conversations. It connects you to a community.”

Doing it his own way

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) BYU quarterback Jaren Hall, talks to the media after day 1 of BYU football Fall Camp, on Thursday, Aug. 4, 2022.

On a recent summer day, Hall went golfing with wide receivers coach Fesi Sitake. The two were ribbing each other as they rounded the final hole, talking about football sporadically.

This is where Hall is in his element. One-on-one, behind the scenes.

But Hall has also made more of a conscious effort to go out into the community and be seen outside of football. He went to basketball games with his wife. He routinely held signing events and let people get to know him.

“It absolutely does mean a lot to me [to be a role model],” Hall said. “In the world we live in today, there is a lot we can improve on and get better on. I hope we go in the right direction. I just hope that a person with different life experiences [like me] will let people know that BYU is a place for everyone.”

In many ways, though, Hall is naturally a classic BYU quarterback as well, his father pointed out. He is a return missionary and a father. He just happens to be Black.

“He is a perfect example of what it means to be a BYU football player,” head coach Kalani Sitake said. “The quarterback position at BYU always gets a lot of public attention, and Jaren does a tremendous job handling both that spotlight on him from outside the program and the important role he plays within our program as a leader on our team. But he really settled into his role.”

Hall has been thinking about his legacy as he enters his second year as the starting quarterback — potentially his last before the NFL. He doesn’t think about the spotlight on him much. He focuses more on his team.

But sometimes his thoughts land on his daughter.

In 20 years he will be proud to tell her that he was the first Black quarterback at BYU. That he paved the way

“Hopefully, we’re to a point in the country where everything is normal [then],” Hall said. “My kids, I would definitely talk about explaining the history.”

He said maybe he will be more vocal in 20 years about different issues at BYU and beyond.

But regardless, he knows just being himself is powerful.