This is how you end up on a 16-hour flight.
Someone tells someone else about a dude so off-the-charts athletic he’s worth making the 16-hour flight to see this random dude in a rugby training session. Then suddenly, you’re at Los Angeles International Airport, boarding pass in hand, walking down the jetway to fly over the Pacific Ocean, to fly into the future. You land in Sydney, Australia, where you have no time to get your bearings before getting to the field to see this dude you’ve only heard about.
There, you try and convince him that American football might work, that his 6-foot-5, 248-pound frame — when at peak speed running a 10.9-second 100-yard dash — would look great in pads and a crimson red helmet. You’re Lewis Powell, international recruiter, frequent flier extraordinaire, a man in search of gems where most aren’t looking.
“Lewis gets the SkyMiles,” Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said. “In one month, he’s diamond medallion status at Delta.”
Sounds fun, and most of the time it is, but it’s a haul.
When you’re the assistant coach in charge of recruiting the islands, you might as well just keep going, because you’re closer than anyone else will be. Powell is in his fourth year as an assistant coach at his alma mater. He coaches the defensive line, now alongside his mentor and former coach Gary Andersen. Before returning to Utah, Powell spent three years as the defensive line coach at Hawaii, so naturally, his connections in the Pacific have helped in Salt Lake.
That, too, means flights. The long ones.
Powell has made recruiting trips to Hawaii, Samoa, Tonga and Australia. He went to Guam once, because that’s where Bradlee Anae’s parents were working at the time. Anae, who came to Utah from famed Kahuku High School on Oahu, has since become a mainstay on the defensive line. In order to keep Utah in the running, Powell flew to Guam of all places for a home visit. He’s Utah’s Mr. International. For good reason, too.
Football’s reach is growing. Each year, more programs around the country are finding ways to unearth athleticism in places like Germany, Austria, Sweden and more. Utah tapped into the Aussie punter pipeline in the last decade and has created a foothold for itself there. Ray Guy Award winners like Tom Hackett and Mitch Wishnowsky are big names in a growing trend in college football: find guys who can punt it like, well, an Aussie.
“Coach Whitt’s got good connections out there in Australia,” Powell said. “I go out there just to make sure that things are still solid.”
Those connections led to Powell boarding one of his flights to Sydney to go scout Thomas Yassmin, who played rugby at The Scots College in New South Wales. Yassmin, all 6-foot-5 and 248 pounds of him, was named to the Australian Schools Barbarians All-Star team at the Tri Nations Series in 2017. Sound rugby enough? He’s now a freshman tight end at Utah. He’s No. 87, and he has five years of college eligibility to play four years with the Utes.
“We were like, ‘Yeah we’ve got to figure out a way to get this guy on the team and figure out what position will be best for him,’” Powell said.
Eventually, other schools like UCLA and Cal heard about Yassmin, and gave their own pitches, but he stuck with Utah.
“That’s a guy that you see and say, ‘Holy cow, he is special in this sport,’” Andersen said. “Athletically, the things he can do as a young person is amazing, but you also have a school that’ll support you to go take those trips, and not a lot of schools in the country are going to allow you to do that. And again, that goes back to why this place is so special to me, because it’s about the student-athletes first, no matter where we find them.”
Andersen’s had stops at Utah State, Wisconsin and Oregon State as a head coach. He knows how much of a financial responsibility and undertaking it is to take what some might deem risky recruiting trips to non-traditional football hotbeds.
“I think that is within your recruiting blueprint,” he said. “Some schools it is, some schools it isn’t. You have to have an understanding of being in a developmental program, and we are definitely that. We love to develop talent.”
It used to be a big deal to take the six-hour flight to Hawaii back in the day, Whittingham said. Now it’s commonplace for all major college programs. College football is slowly becoming an international game.
“The tentacles have stretched further,” Whittingham said.
Which means more flights, more connections, more time zones and so much less sleep for Lewis Powell. There’s no getting used to the time change. No sense. Powell’s never in one place on his international treks much longer than 24 hours. He’ll find a practice, set up a home visit if he’s lucky, and catch the next flight out the following day.
Defensive end Caleb Repp jokes: “I don’t really know too much about his vacation schedule, but I know he goes all the way to Australia.”
And for the time being, everywhere else. It’s certainly no vacation, but there can be a sizable pay off.
“Every since I’ve been recruiting internationally,” he said, “you notice there’s football everywhere.”
It doesn’t leave much time for readjusting, either. Powell has three kids to come home to when the wheels touch down in Salt Lake. And when he gets home, he has to get to work doing that other job. Then, of course, comes the season.