As BYU prepares to celebrate the 30th anniversary of its 1984 National Championship, the Cougars devoted part of their annual media day on Monday to honor some of the greatest players in the history of the program.
For one former BYU great, winning the national championship had much more meaning than finishing first in the polls.
BYU’s historic Holiday Bowl win over Michigan in 1984 completed a perfect season (13-0), but what Leon White remembers most about the game wasn’t just the win, it was giving a dying father his last wish.
White recorded seven unassisted tackles and forced a turnover on one of his two sacks that led to a BYU score and a 24-17 win over the Wolverines. As a result he was named the Holiday Bowl Defensive Most Valuable Player.
It was the last time James White got the chance to see his son play. He died of cancer five months later.
What many people did not know was the personal adversity White went through that season that nearly cost him his career at BYU.
James White was diagnosed with cancer just before the 1984 season started. Leon White got a call from his mother with the devastating news that his father wasn’t expected to live long.
White said he was going to drop out of BYU and return home to be with his family, but his father had a better idea — stay at BYU and get to the Holiday Bowl.
“Everybody else was thinking about the national championship and playing in the Holiday Bowl, but I was thinking about getting back to the Holiday Bowl so he could watch me play one more time,” White said. “His big goal was to make it to the Holiday Bowl and watch me play one more time and my goal was to have the best year I could so I could make sure our team got back to the Holiday Bowl. That’s what I was fighting for the whole year.”
White, a San Diego native, was able to make special accommodations so his father could watch the game.
“We had a friend who was a nurse in San Diego so we were able to work it out with the Holiday Bowl Committee for him to be on the field. He was put on a gurney and was propped up so he could watch the game. It was inspirational to me. I knew that was his last game and I was going to play my heart out.”
White went on to play in the NFL with the Cincinnati Bengals, but when he recalls the greatest moments of his career, the 1984 season will always have a deeply rooted memory for him.
White was one of four former players who participated in a BYUTV special that was called, “BYU’s greatest moments, then and now,” as part of media day.
Joining him for the event were Dennis Pitta, James Dye, Ziggy Ansah and current BYU quarterback Taysom Hill.
Pitta was a walk-on at BYU (2004-2009) and became BYU’s all-time leader in receiving yards as a tight end. He was perhaps most remembered for his 2008 season when he caught the game-winning catch against Colorado State, a 17-yard pass from Max Hall with 20 seconds left to give BYU the win. He was also part of BYU’s 2009 team that upset No. 3 Oklahoma.
Dye played for BYU in 1995-96. He was best remembered as a return specialist. He returned four punts for touchdowns in 1995 and led the nation with an average (21.9).
He was also part of BYU’s Cotton Bowl win over Kansas State in 1997.
BYU fans should have little trouble remembering Ansah, who was the first-round (fifth overall) pick of the Detroit Lions in the 2013 draft.
He was a walk-on to BYU’s track team and was later convinced to play football. He was a part-time player as a junior, but as a senior in 2012 he was third on the team in tackles (48), second in sacks (4.5) and first in tackles for loss (13). He used his speed, size and strength to become one of the highest drafted players in BYU history.
Hill, now a junior, gave BYU fans a good reason to believe he will one day come back as one of the great players of the past.
His breakout game came against Texas, who was ranked No. 15 at the time. He rushed for 259 yards (and 3 TDs) and is considered a Heisman Trophy candidate this year.
“I’m going to do my best. There are a lot of expectations placed on me and the team. I’m going to do all that I can to ensure that when we go to UConn and Texas [to open the season] that we will be ready,” Hill said. “I think these guys set the foundation for football here and what’s expected. They set the bar high.”