Rose Bowl: Saying goodbye to Britain Covey, Utah football’s most-beloved personality

Since bursting onto the scene as a freshman in 2015, the wide receiver and electric kick returner has been one of the Utes’ most important weapons on and off the field

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Utes wide receiver Britain Covey (18) joins in the University of Utah's senior day festivities in November. Covey has said the Rose Bowl will be the final game of his storied collegiate career.

Los Angeles • New Year’s Day was a big deal in Britain Covey’s home growing up.

He remembers it as the only day of the year when his mother, Jeri, let his father, Stephen, watch football completely guilt-free. Jeri would bring Stephen snacks, and Britain would kick back with his dad and watch the Rose Bowl, forever and always a 3 p.m. MT kickoff in Pasadena.

Aside from hanging out with his dad, what sticks out to Covey about those Rose Bowls when he was a kid is that they always included, as he put it, “the main announcers.” The announcers you might have heard on the old NCAA Football video game series were announcing Rose Bowls when Covey was a kid, which gave off a feeling that the game was important. Those announcers made Covey feel that the Rose Bowl was The Game.

When Utah plays Ohio State in the Rose Bowl, complete with ABC/ESPN’s A-team of Chris Fowler and Kirk Herbstreit on the call, New Year’s Day will take on a new significance. He will of course play in his first Rose Bowl, the first for the Utah football program, but New Year’s Day will also signal a goodbye as Covey plays his final collegiate game.

Covey announced on Dec. 10 that he would forego his final season of eligibility in favor of taking his shot at the NFL. He will leave college as an all-time Ute, not just as a multiple-time All-American, not just as one of the best, most-electric return specialists in program history, not just as one of the program’s career leaders in all-purpose yards, but as one of the more affable, gregarious, lighthearted figures to put on a Utah uniform. If anyone has a bad word to say about the Provo native, it would likely happen for the very first time.

Talking ill of Covey isn’t a thing, but making fun of his age? Yes, that is a longstanding tradition, which Covey, to his credit, has leaned into, with the media, with his teammates, and on social media. Covey will turn 25 on March 18.

“He’s done so much for us as a slot receiver, as a punt returner, as a kickoff returner,” Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham said Friday morning during a joint press conference with Buckeyes head coach Ryan Day. “He’s just meant so much to our program for the last 12 years or however long he’s been here.”

“I think off the field, the thing I’m going to remember from him is just his personality,” All-Pac-12 offensive lineman Nick Ford said. “He looks like a 50-year-old with a mortgage and kids and insurance, but he acts like a 15-year-old. So just his personality, just dancing around the locker room. Stuff like that.”

Added linebacker Nephi Sewell: “Old man, my dad. He’s really funny for someone who’s that short and small.”

Covey may be just 5-foot-8, 170 pounds, but he had Sewell’s attention when they were both high school players. Sewell remembers Covey as an undersized kid who he thought was really good when he starred for Timpview. Sewell was two years behind Covey in high school while playing for Desert Hills in St. George. When Sewell would watch highlight shows on television, Covey’s latest exploits would invariably pop up.

“I was actually kind of [a] fanboy of his before I came here [in 2019]” Sewell said.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Britain Covey during a Rose Bowl media session in Los Angeles on Tuesday, Dec. 28, 2021.

Sewell was not alone in his Covey fandom after the latter burst onto the scene in 2015 as a Freshman All-American punt returner and receiver. He led Utah that season with 43 catches for 519 yards and a team co-leading four touchdowns as the Utes claimed a share of the Pac-12 South title for the first time.

That season, the entirety of what will be a 47-game college career after the Rose Bowl, even aspects of his life have come under a microscope. The grandson of the great Stephen Covey, best known as the author of the best-selling book, “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People,” Britain served a two-year LDS mission in Chile following his freshman season, returning in 2018.

Off the mission, Covey played 2018 at a high level, hauling in 60 passes for 637 yards, amassing 809 yards from scrimmage, plus another 365 between kickoff and punt returns. In that season’s Pac-12 championship game, a 10-3 Utah loss to Washington, he tore the ACL and meniscus in his right knee, for which he later had surgery.

That night in Santa Clara became a pivotal moment as part of a career that has spanned seven years and five seasons thanks to the mission and the COVID-19 pandemic offering an extra year of eligibility.

“They’re such a part of the game, everyone has gone through some kind of injury at some point,” Covey said. “If it weren’t for those injuries, I wouldn’t prepare the way I do now. I spent this whole offseason on injury prevention, and, man, I wish I would have done that three years ago because that’s all guys do. I talk to all my ‘U’ boys in the league, that’s all they do.”

Covey rehabbed himself, willed himself back to health for the 2019 season to be part of what was billed as a dynamic, veteran-heavy offense. Covey, though, was not healthy. He wound up playing in four games before taking a redshirt, He later said that, in hindsight, he played those games at probably 70-75% health.

In 2020, the pandemic and a hamstring injury limited Covey.

Those struggles have made this season all the more memorable.

Covey has had his share of moments, many of which fans can rattle off, on command, without even taking a breath. The newly-crowned champion in that department is his 78-yard punt return for a touchdown to close the first half vs. Oregon on Nov. 20.

“I think probably that Oregon punt return is probably going to be the biggest memory,” Ford said. “Got up to that sideline and almost stepped out, but he knew where his body was and where the sideline was. It just shows how good of an athlete he is.”

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah wide receiver Britain Covey (18) returns an Oregon punt for a Ute touchdown as time runs out in the first half, 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.

Covey, too, admits a new fondness for that stadium-shaking moment against the Ducks, but if you ask him about moments from his career that stand out, he will point to a different punt return that isn’t likely to get brought up by the average fan.

In 2020, after missing the USC game and being limited at Washington with a hamstring injury, Covey was healthy for a December game versus Oregon State at a COVID-impacted, empty Rice-Eccles Stadium. In the opening seconds of the fourth quarter, Covey fielded a punt cleanly at the Utah 34-yard line. He immediately shifted to his right to avoid an ankle tackle, moved upfield, avoided one more would-be defender, cut back to his left and was gone, untouched, 66 yards to the end zone.

Covey concedes now that there was doubt that after the knee injury that he could be the player he was. He got hurt, rehabbed, played too soon, sat out, sat out some more thanks to COVID in 2020, then had the hamstring problem.

That all offered a lot of time for Covey to consider where his career was, and where it might go, if anywhere at all.

“Yeah, there was doubt. That was something I had to fight every day, and I think anyone who says there isn’t doubt is pushing it out of their mind because they’re afraid they’ll start focusing on it,” Covey said. “There was doubt, and I had to fight it, so I’m glad they stuck with me and gave me more opportunities.”

“... I started wondering if I would ever be back,” Covey said. “That was the confidence booster that I could still do it. That’s one that not many people think about, but that was one of my most-impactful plays of the last two years.”

Covey’s impact goes beyond that, though. When Covey speaks in a public setting, he is comfortable with cameras and microphones in his face. He is open, honest, and generally transparent, but he’ll give you a little snark and a little sarcasm, too. He is comfortable with who he is, which has made him a leader in the Utes’ locker room.

“His attitude, his personality is just infectious amongst his teammates,” Whittingham said. “One of the best leaders that has ever come through the University of Utah. Tremendous player, obviously, on the field as well.”

Covey will take the field one more time for Utah. If the Utes win the toss at the Rose Bowl, they are likely to take the ball, at which point Covey will line up at the goal line, to begin the biggest game of his life, in front of a worldwide audience.

That moment will belong to him, a new Rose Bowl memory for the Covey family.