The Long Road Towards a Record

From experiencing internal conflict to breaking Curtis Brown's rushing record, Harvey Unga's long road as a Cougar has been filled with many twists and turns. Total Blue Sports takes a look at the road he has walked to become BYU's all-time leading rusher.

It was during the summer of 2002. A high school sophomore by the name of Harvey Unga laced up his black cleats while sitting in the shade under the trees that line the east side of BYU's practice field. Unga sat among many football prospects preparing to put their skills on display in hopes a scholarship offer would be coming their way. No one knew much about this young 6-foot-1-inch, 210-pound Tongan kid, but that would soon change as he would become a highly contested instate recruit.

"I never thought [Harvey] would ever be a football player because he was just so skinny," said Teresa Unga. "We would try and feed him and feed him. No matter what we did, he just stayed skinny. Jackson [Harvey's father] just would say, ‘No, I know he's going to play football.' What could I do? I would just say, ‘Okay,' and keep feeding him and feeding him."

Fast-forward to 2004 when Harvey was a senior running back and rushed for 1,300 yards on 201 carries, had 300 receiving yards and scored 22 touchdowns to help Timpview head coach Chad Van Orden secure a 4-A state championship.

Harvey, then a highly contested instate football recruit, was being courted by defensive coordinator Kyle Whittingham under Utah head coach and Woody Hayes Trophy winner Urban Meyer, whose No. 5 Utes busted the BCS to beat Pittsburgh 35-7. Meanwhile, Harvey was also recruited by BYU, which had just finished third in the Mountain West Conference behind Utah and New Mexico and finished the season with a record of 5-6.

Being pulled in two different directions, it was now time for a commitment decision. The Utah football program was steaming along like grandma's old teakettle while BYU was dripping along like a leaky faucet.

"I just really don't know right now," said Harvey back in December of 2004. "My thoughts are still up in the air and I don't even know what I'm going to do. I'm still looking around at the opportunities there are for me, so I'm going through that and I don't really know what I'm going to do."

Unga would eventually give Coach Whittingham a soft commit to become a Ute, but his tentative word would waiver even more after hearing the heartfelt words of a former Cougar, his uncle Vai Sikahema.

"Uncle Vai told me not to make any hasty decision right now because it's a hectic time for me," Harvey told Total Blue Sports on December 17 of 2004. "He talked to me about education and the different education I'll get at different places, and he talked about the interactions you'll have at the different places. He told me that you'll most likely marry the girl from the college you go to, and BYU is an awesome place to find your wife."

At the time, marriage wasn't the more pressing issue on the mind of this high school senior. However, Sikahema's words only stirred what was lying at the core of Harvey's college decision dilemma.

"One day Harvey told me, ‘Dad, why did grandpa bring you here to Provo, Utah? Grandpa could have brought you guys to Salt Lake City but he didn't, he brought you here and bought a house in Provo,'" said Jackson Unga. "'You told me that he bought a house in Provo because he wanted you guys to go to school here at BYU and hopefully play football.' He then said, ‘Then why do you want me to go to Utah?'"

Harvey's father sat back in reflection and said, "Son, it's not about that. BYU is losing and Utah is winning. I just want the best for you."

According to Jackson, Harvey replied, "But if me [and fellow Timpview teammates] Matt [Reynolds], Luke [Ashworth] and Stephen Covey go to BYU, I know BYU is going to win. BYU won't win if we keep going away. It's up to us to stay home and help BYU to win."

Harvey's concerned father stated boldly, "Harvey, you are just one kid. What can you do? Tell me, what can you do to help BYU to win?"

Harvey then replied with conviction.

"Dad, I'm going to play my heart out. I love BYU and that's where my heart is. If I go there I'm going to play my heart out and with all that I have for BYU."

To solidify a decision, Harvey devised a plan. He would call Coach Whittingham and tell him that he has decommitted to Utah by committing to instate rival BYU. In like manner he would call up BYU assistant coach Lance Reynolds – father of Harvey's Timpview teammate Matt Reynolds – and do the same thing to get a comparative response.

After putting Coach Whittingham on speakerphone while the Unga family listened and stating that he was going to BYU, Harvey was shocked by the negative response he received.

"Harvey was crying and in tears," Jackson recalled. "I put myself in Coach Whittingham's shoes too. I can understand how he felt because he was relying on Harvey and now he feels that Harvey is changing his mind. I don't think Harvey was changing his mind. I think his mind was always at BYU. I told Harvey that Coach Whittingham was a good man.'"

After regaining his composure, Harvey then called Coach Reynolds and continued with his plan.

"I told him to call Coach Reynolds," recalled Jackson. "So he called him up and we left the phone on speaker so we could all hear what he was going to say. Harvey said, ‘Coach, how do you feel about me running for Utah?' Coach Reynolds than said, ‘Harvey, you've been at my house and with my boys and I've had the chance to get to know you. I feel like you are one of my sons.' He then said, ‘I would not feel any different about you and will always love you. I know you're going to do well wherever you go because that's the kind of athlete you are. That is why I came after you and I know what you can do. It was always my hope that you would stay with me, but I congratulate you and won't love you any less.'

"Coach Reynolds then said, ‘You have to promise me one thing: you have to always come across the field and give me a hug.'"

Harvey then looked up at his father, who gave him some advice.

"You need to make up your mind now," Jackson told his son.

And so he did. Harvey quickly replied over the speakerphone, "Coach, how would you feel if I stay here at BYU and run for you?"

"I could tell on the phone that Coach Reynolds was very happy when he said, ‘Oh my gosh Harvey!'" said Jackson. "Harvey then told Coach Reynolds, ‘I'm staying here coach. You just helped me to make up my mind in staying here.' Coach Reynolds told him that he would do all that he could to help him attain his goals while at BYU."

At this time, Coach Mendenhall had recently been named the new head coach at BYU. Local radio personalities and media pundits soon began questioning BYU Athletic Director Tom Holmoe's decision to hire the young defensive coordinator as head coach.

"We were all pulling for Coach Reynolds to become the new coach, but this is the Lord's school and there is inspiration involved on who was going to be the new head coach," said Jackson. "Then Bronco Mendenhall became the new head coach. I told Harvey to ‘not listen to all the negative things being said about him and you give it all you got.' He said, ‘Dad, now I know I can give it all I've got because now I know you are backing me up.'"

Harvey would go on to fulfill the words he gave to his father about helping BYU win. He earned Freshman All-American honors in 2007, and became the MWC freshman rushing record holder with 1,227 yards. He would follow up his 1,000-yard freshman season with 1,132 yards his sophomore year.

"It's definitely an honor to think of all the running backs that I've grown up watching," said Unga. "It's kind of surreal to think that I have as many yards as those running backs that came before me. It's definitely a great honor for me and I'm grateful for those guys that set those goals out there for me to work towards and try and achieve those goals I've set."

Former BYU running back Curtis Brown is one of those running backs that came before Harvey. The two were teammates in 2006, the year Brown set a new BYU career rushing record.

"I remember talking to Curtis after he broke the all-time BYU rushing record and said, ‘What do you think about if I break that record?' He started laughing and said, ‘If you break my record, hey, my hat's off to you. I just hope you don't break it in three years so I can at least hold on to it for a few years.' So I said, ‘Okay yeah, I'll see what I can do.'"

As it turns out, Brown held the record for three years until Harvey broke it this past Saturday in the game against Air Force.

"One of the more humbling experiences I've had was [Brown] had actually texted me one time," said Unga. "He said ‘If there was anyone that I want to break my record it's you, and I'm happy and honored to say that it was a guy like you that broke this record.' For me that was a humbling experience because this was a guy that I had watched, and then before that the record sat for, what, 10 years or so? To hear Curtis say those things to me was tremendous and I appreciated that from him. It's one of those things that you have to be a running back to really understand the bond that we have for each other, whether you're a past running back or a current running back."


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