Monson: Utah’s Matt Gay has conquered more than football, he’s won at life

Utah's Matt Gay winner of the Lou Groza Collegiate Place-Kicker Award for most outstanding kicker stands with the trophy during the College Football Awards show at the College Football Hall of Fame, Thursday, Dec. 7, 2017, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/John Amis)

Before Utah kicker Matt Gay sets up to hit a field goal, something he does better than any other collegian in the country, he calms and clears his mind, something that is extraordinary, nowhere near as easy to do as one might presume.

There’s a whole lot to quiet down, even more to sweep aside, including the remaining edges of the harrowing darkness that once debilitated him, that once led him to thoughts of suicide, thoughts of, as he puts it, “hurting myself.”

“I’m the only one out there,” Gay says. “Me, my holder, my snapper. And that’s it.”

Everything else, every other concern that crowds him, is in that moment shown the door. And then … whoosh, there’s peace. And 27 out of 31 times this season, three points. And after that … helmet-slaps and the cheers of the crowd.

When Gay walked up to accept the Lou Groza Award, an annual honor that goes to the strongest, most accurate foot in all of college football, in a ceremony televised by ESPN last week from Atlanta, there were no signs of the journey he had traveled, the battles he had won, the scars that remained. There was just a suit, a tie and a grin the size and shape of the goalposts.

His story runs much deeper than the soccer-player-turned-footballer-rejected-by-BYU-who-then-walked-on-at-Utah-to-see-great-success narrative that you’ve already heard.

Let’s back up to his days growing up in Orem, in an LDS Church-going family of Mom and Dad and eight children, of which he was the caboose. On account of the fact that his siblings played soccer, Gay followed the pattern. He darn-near worshipped his older brother Jimmy, who showed him the way around a pitch. Properly tutored, he became a junior star, playing on traveling state and regional teams and earning a three-month stay at the U.S. Under-17 camp in Florida.

“I wanted to play soccer in Europe,” he says.

But that path hit some sharp curves, turns that taught him that life was considerably more complex than mindlessly bending a ball into a goal and ascending straight to the English Premier League.

They started in his school-boy years when one of his brothers got hooked on heavy drugs, twice overdosing on heroin, but both times, somehow, some way, surviving. That brother now has been clean for six years. But that glorious result was far from certain back then. Another brother came out as gay, which can be an adjustment for many families, especially one living smack dab in the middle of mainstream Mormondom.

Gay went on scoring goals, crushing soccer balls. One junior coach told him, “I’ve never seen any kid hit a ball like you.” Says Gay: “I was known for having a strong shot.”

He wanted to give football a try, but his soccer coaches were territorial about that, not wanting their best striker to miss practices for that other, infidel sport. By his senior year at Orem High School, Tigers football coach Tyler Anderson told Gay he would take him whenever he could show up. That was the only season he kicked a spheroid-shaped ball before this past one at Utah.

Dixie State wanted him to play soccer, which Gay planned on doing — he signed with the school — until he took a helmet to the knee during football practice, partially tearing his ACL, MCL and damaging his meniscus. Utah State heard about this unproven kid who had a hammer for a foot, wanting him to give Aggies football a try. But the Dixie State coach refused to release him.

Gay instead carved meat at Tucanos Brazilian Grill for a year before playing soccer for a season at Utah Valley. Thereafter, he went on an LDS Church mission in Houston, which he initially loved until … that aforementioned darkness crowded in. Depression had run in Gay’s family, and under the duress of mission life, it nailed him to his bed.

“All you want to do is sleep,” he says. “But you can’t sleep. You’re tired all the time. … You have no motivation. Your mind controls your body. It took over mine.”

Morose, cheerless thoughts washed over him in black waves. He could find no tranquility, no air to breathe.

Gay returned home after six months looking for treatment, looking for relief. It was slow coming. He remained listless and, he thought, useless. He didn’t even want to play the game that had been his passion from the time he was a toddler.

“I gained weight,” he says. “It was … frustrating.”

Medications and counseling eventually took effect, allowing him to climb forward and upward this past summer.

That’s when he seriously considered the prospects of kicking a football.

He got a look from BYU, but a graduate assistant was less than encouraging. He “tried out” at Snow College, and impressed coaches there. But ultimately after kicking at a summer camp at Utah and shining, the Utes offered to let him walk on. He did exactly that.

By the start of the 2017 season, Gay looked pretty darn good, but not as polished as Chayden Johnston, who had been an accomplished high school kicker. Johnston won the starter’s spot. But when he missed his first attempt in the season opener, Gay got his chance. He made his PATs and three field goals, and then …

And then.

“It all changed so quickly,” he says.

Gay became the best kicker in the land, and he was hauling away the Lou Groza Award on national television.

Truth is, he didn’t even know who Lou Groza was or what the award named after him was all about. He’s fully aware now.

He’s subsequently been named to every all-American team that matters.

“It’s surreal,” Gay says. “I wanted to be the best at what I do, but I never thought it was going to be this much, this fast.”

There’s one other aspect to Gay’s remarkable tale — a best friend from high school named Parker Overly, a kid who encouraged Gay more than anyone else to drop soccer and kick a freaking football. “Dude, you can kick in the NFL,” he told his buddy Matt. Overly was killed in an auto accident in April.

And his friend might have been, Gay suspects, guiding some of his kicks through the uprights. All season long, the junior wore tape on his wrist with Overly’s initials written on it.

“Parker’s one of the reasons why I do this,” he says.

Gay still has highs and bright days, lows and dark ones, but the former are becoming more prevalent, the latter less intrusive. And the hammer in his foot has helped him make a few more positive turns.

Life for him is like one of his kicks.

“It’s good,” he says. “As good as it could be.”

GORDON MONSON hosts “The Big Show” with Spence Checketts weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM and 1280 AM The Zone.