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‘No matter what I lose’: The Sewell family isn’t choosing sides when the Utes play Oregon in the Pac-12 Championship

Nephi Sewell plays linebacker for Utah, while his youngest brother, Noah Sewell, plays the same position for the Ducks

(Gabe Sewell) Gabe and Arlene Sewell had custom football jerseys and shoes made for the Pac-12 game between Utah and Oregon on Nov. 20, 2021, when two of their sons would be playing against each other. Nephi Sewell, their third oldest of five children, plays linebacker for the Utes. Noah Sewell, the youngest, plays linebacker for the Ducks.

Gabe Sewell leapt from his seat in the Utah football fan section two weeks ago as an Oregon linebacker chased down Utes quarterback Cam Rising and hauled him to the ground.

“YES!” Sewell yelled. Then he looked around. The other fans, mostly family of Utah players, were none too pleased about his outburst.

“I’m looking,” he said, “at all the other family members of players around me like, ‘Oh, OK. Awkward.’”

Two years prior, Sewell had found himself in a similarly uncomfortable situation. Only this time he was sitting among the families of Ducks players at the 2019 Pac-12 Championship and cheering wildly while a Utes linebacker closed in upon an Oregon running back who was sprinting down the sideline. Awkward.

But both times the Orem High school counselor shrugged off the glares.

“Sorry,” he said. “I was cheering for my son.”

Make that sons, plural. In both instances, he’s had one playing for each team. In fact, by the time the 2021 Pac-12 champion is crowned Friday in Las Vegas — a matchup that pits Nephi Sewell and the Utes against Noah Sewell and Oregon — Gabe and Arlene Sewell will have been in that situation four times. Half of them have been title tilts.

(Gabe Sewell) Gabe and Arlene Sewell had custom football jerseys and shoes made for the Pac-12 game between Utah and Oregon on Nov. 20, 2021, when two of their sons would be playing against each other. Nephi Sewell, their third oldest of five children, plays linebacker for the Utes. Noah Sewell, the youngest, plays linebacker for the Ducks.

“It was a proud moment for both of us to watch two sons,” Sewell said of the first conference championship confrontation. “I don’t know how often that happens over the course of history. But to have it done twice now? It’s amazing.”

Amazing, and agonizing.

“Definitely not the ideal thing for my parents,” said Nephi Sewell, a starting linebacker for the Utes. Noah Sewell plays the same position for the Ducks. “I know last game [against Oregon] they were definitely emotional. According to my fiancèe, my mom wasn’t really watching the game, she was about to cry every time she saw us both on the field.”

Just as the Sewells can’t pick a favorite among their five children, they can’t pick a side among their teams, either. It was that way the first time they had split allegiances, in early 2019, when their eldest son, Gabe Jr., played for Nevada against Penei and Oregon. Later that year, the Sewells experienced the estrangement for a second time when Nephi, who transferred from Nevada, became eligible for the Utes just before they played Penei’s Ducks in the 2019 Pac-12 championship.

It was that way on Nov. 20, when Nephi and Utah upset the Ducks and the youngest Sewell, Noah, at Rice-Eccles Stadium. And it will be that way again Friday when Nephi and Noah’s teams rematch for the conference crown.

Talk about divided, even the Sewell parents’ jerseys and shoes are split in half. One side is Oregon green and yellow, the other is Utah red and black. At least, Gabe Sewell said, Nephi and Noah made it easy on him by picking the same jersey number: No. 1.

It also helps that both sons play defense, so they aren’t on the field at the same time.

“I’m just a defensive cheerleader,” Sewell said. “Both defenses.”

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Utes running back Tavion Thomas (9) is chases by Oregon Ducks linebacker Noah Sewell (1) as he runs for a touchdown, in PAC-12 action between the Utah Utes and the Oregon Ducks, at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City, on Saturday, Nov. 20, 2021.

Noah is the baby of the family, though he stands 6-foot-3 and weighs 250 pounds. The 2020 Orem High graduate was the first five-star recruit to come out of Utah in nearly 20 years. He opted to play for Oregon after watching the success there of his brother Penei, the second-youngest Sewell who was taken No. 7 overall in the 2021 NFL Draft by the Detroit Lions. Last year, Noah was named the Pac-12 Freshman Defensive Player of the Year.

Nephi, the third in the Sewell line behind sister Gabriella and Gabe Jr., had less of a shine to him when he graduated from Desert Hills High in St. George in 2017.

“His journey, in particular, has been probably the roughest, if there’s such a thing,” Sewell said, “because of all the extra things he’s had to overcome and persevere through.”

Not only is Nephi smaller at 6-0, 238 pounds, but he had to have his neck fused after breaking it during the opening game of his junior season. So, while Noah had something like 25 scholarship offers as a senior and Penei had around 17, Nephi had two. He opted to join Gabe Jr. in Nevada. When the chance to play for Utah came around in 2019, though, he jumped at it.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Colorado Buffaloes quarterback Brendon Lewis (12) is taken down by Utah Utes linebacker Nephi Sewell (1) as the University of Utah hosts the Colorado Buffaloes in Pac-12 football, Friday, Nov. 26, 2021 at Rice-Eccles Stadium.

Nephi sat out most of that season due to transfer rules, but he was cleared just in time to meet Penei, an offensive tackle, in the conference championship. Since then, Nephi has developed into one of the most underrated linebackers in the Pac-12 and an all-conference honorable mention. He is expected to make the jump to the NFL, where he may play many more games against his brothers.

Gabe Sewell never faced off against his siblings and said he “can’t imagine” what it must be like in as competitive of an environment as Nephi and Noah will be in Friday.

“I mean, I’ve got a front-row seat to it,” he said. “But how they feel inside? That sometimes they don’t even grasp.”

What he does know is that he and Arlene have always taught their sons that football is now but family is forever. And after the Ducks defeated the Utes in 2019, Penei immediately sought out his brother to console him rather than celebrate with his team. Two weeks ago, Nephi did the same with Noah after Utah’s victory. Sewell found his sons talking in a quiet corner while the RES erupted around them.

As a parent, he felt a jumble of excitement and heartache and pure relief that neither of his boys had gotten hurt. He simultaneously wanted to huddle into his chair and jump up and shout. On Friday, he expects to feel just as awkward.

“You know, everyone has the idea: ‘Hey, no matter what, you win,’” Sewell said. “And I go, ‘Yeah. But no matter what, I also lose.’”

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