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November 19, 2012

Seniors leave void

Senior day at any program is always an emotional, bittersweet event for players, coaches and fans alike. For most, it's a complex blend of being sorry to see players leave and glad for their achievements and the bright future that awaits them.

Sending players off with appropriate respect and appreciation before embarking on the next chapter of their lives has become almost as important to fans as it has to the players themselves.

A personal and public form of closure, the inevitable, final home game is perhaps the singular memory burned into the minds of players as they transition into life after the game.

"That's the one you remember the most.To this day, I remember the last home game of my senior year," Kyle Whittingham recollected. "It's something that will stick with you forever.

Utah honored 25 seniors Saturday prior to a heartbreaking loss to Arizona, made all the more painful as the loss snapped the decade-long bowl streak the program had amassed spanning three different senior classes and three separate head coaches.

To have such a dubious distinction assigned to this particular class of seniors is as unjust as a conviction without a trial.

"My heart is crushed tonight, thinking about [the seniors] having to go out like this. It's been a decade past that we haven't been bowl eligible," said sophomore V.J. Fehoko. "To think of all those guys who took me under their wing, like Tevita Stevens and Star Lotulelei and what that's meant to me, to all of us. They, as a group, embraced us all and welcomed us as family. I don't know if I can measure what I've learned from them."

Other Ute under-classmen stepped forward to relay their thoughts on this senior class.

"John White, Sam Brenner, Star [Lotulelei], you can name them all, but those guys, that group did not deserve to go out that way," Lucky Radley observed about teammates that he called brothers. "They deserved better than that, and it didn't work out. I'm not sure why it didn't happen, but they did not deserve to go out that way."

The outgoing class of 2012-13 held a record of 32-17, three bowl appearances with two wins, which belies the intangible value and undeniable impact it will have left on the program once they are gone.

Ten of Utah's graduating seniors are fifth-year players in the program and represent the last of the players with BCS experience on the roster, by virtue of having taken a red-shirt year in 2008-09, the Utes' historic Sugar Bowl season.

"Every class was mentored by a group of seniors when they came in, and then they mentor a group of freshmen once they become seniors, so it's a way to have a connection to some of those great players who had so much success," remarked a thoughtful Fehoko. "Those are the times we want to get back to here, so to lose that kind of connection with that group hurts."

Losing a crop of players with that experience is a blow, even if it didn't translate directly to results on the field. The experience of winning at such a high level, and more specifically, the preparation it took to achieve it may be the legacy left by this minority portion of the graduating class.

"Most of these guys were Mountain West guys when they came in, so they had that heart, and that mentality to get into the BCS as an underdog. It taught us guys who came in as the Pac-12 what it meant to start from the bottom, and stay humble," said sophomore linebacker V.J. Fehoko. "I think some guys need to look down real deep and evaluate themselves, we all do, so that this never happens again. I think we need to get back to some of those things, and their values."

Sophomore tight end Jake Murphy made similar observations about the senior class in general.

"Despite their record, these seniors brought great leadership. They taught us to always work hard and keep fighting. If it's any one thing, it's their work ethic. Win or lose, and it's harder when you're losing, you still get in here at 6:30 in the morning for that lift, and don't ever let up at practices," Murphy complimented. "Those are things they've done from the time I got here all the way through practices this week. I've never seen one of them let down for a minute. So I'd say it's their work ethic that will stick with us."

With so many phrases like 'despite their record' and so many 'buts' associated with this senior class, undoubtedly many will be quick to dispatch of this group, and under-rate their value to the program.

However, even in defeat through the latter part of their senior seasons, this group has tried to imprint the lessons learned through adversity on the younger players in the program.

"Earlier in the year when we went through that stretch, they were trying to teach us to leave it all out on the field. Or that's I think what they were trying to teach," observed junior safety Brian Blechen. "I don't know if we've done that yet, but even tonight, they're trying to tell us that you can do so many good things, but it's just the few bad things that can turn the whole game."

Because the leadership of these seniors didn't translate into on-field success, the remaining Utes now have a striking perspective: that just knowing simply isn't enough. Applying the lessons learned, and executing them into every day life is the next necessary step. That fact, now that this group of seniors is essentially gone, has suddenly crystallized for players to whom the torch will pass.

"Next year as a senior, I'll try to implement the mind-set that we have to do more. After this [season] and everything that we've been through,what the seniors were saying all along means more, it makes more sense," said Blechen. "We know now what it takes, and how much more it takes. I think we thought we knew, but we've just got to get everybody to realize that and come back harder next year."

In discussing the senior class, it would be beyond remiss not to remark on the character, values and off-field character of this Utah senior class, which to many remaining Utes, is as important as the on-field contributions each made.

In the classroom, the 2012-13 senior class accomplished significant feats.

The group boasts one Academic All-American in center Tevita Stevens and half of the class has garnered academic acknowledgments in the form of Academic All-Conference honors, mentions or Honor Roll assignees at some point in their career.

The best evidence of the class' collective achievement is revealed in the number of seniors graduating with a degree, something which, above all, is the focus of the Utah football program.

"Eighteen of the the twenty one scholarship seniors will have their degrees next month, which at mid-year is unheard of," beamed head coach Kyle Whittingham. "To have a senior class, eighteen graduates out of twenty one before their senior year is even over with is phenomenal. So we're very proud of how they've taken care of their business off the field, and in the classroom."

Good football players, great students and even better human beings, the Seniors have impacted the younger Utes in ways more significant than their on-field feats. The players who had the privilege of learning and growing under Utah's senior class made public some of their sentiments about individual players by whom they were most affected.

"They have all meant so much to this team, but I have to single out John White, who has been like a brother to me," said sophomore running back Lucky Radley. "He means so much to me personally, and we've grown to be brothers through our competition. I've learned so much from him, and it's not enough, but all I can say to him is 'thank you'. Thank you."

For Brian Blechen, it was defensive tackle Star Lotulelei who had the biggest impact on him.

"The one I look up to, and respect the most is Star, because of the way he plays and the leader he is on the field, but even more for the man he is off of it," said an emotional Blechen. "Jon Hays was my roommate for a while, and is a close friend. John White and the senior corners, [Ryan] Lacy, Moe [Lee] and Reggie [Topps]."

As Blechen begins to rattle off names of seniors he'll miss as friends, and teammates, it becomes more and more apparent that the hole left by this outgoing group is more prominent than may have been imagined.

"The locker room dynamics will definitely change once everyone's gone," said Blechen with a barely perceptible waver in his voice as the marked realization dawned on him.

A simple statement, uttered with genuine emotion, suddenly took on far-reaching meaning.


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