July 2, 2016
The accomplishments the 1996 BYU football team are well documented: A 14-1 record, a Western Athletic Conference championship, a Cotton Bowl victory against Kansas State and No. 5 final ranking.
A football team is made up of individuals, and the way that 1996 season affected their lives makes for good stories, too.
BYU honored that 1996 team on Thursday in connection with football media day with a television special that turned into a great big reunion. Former head coach LaVell Edwards was there, slowed and bent with age but sporting a huge smile (for him) on his face. Long-time trainer George Curtis was there, as well as former assistant coaches such as Lance Reynolds.
They looked on as if proud parents as their former players greeted each other and fell into comfortable conversations picked up after 20 years without missing a beat.
“Most of these guys look like they could get back on the field and play again,” said running back Brian McKenzie. He was a junior college transfer from Sarasota, Fla., who took a chance on BYU. He now lives in St. George and works with troubled youth at Liahona Academy in Hurricane.
“It’s overwhelming, the vibe, the love, the feeling we have right now for each other,” McKenzie said. “You can never replace that. That season will always be recorded. We’ll always have it to cherish for the rest of our lives.”
McKenzie led the team in rushing in 1996 with 950 yards, providing the thunder to speedy freshman Ronny Jenkins’ lightning.
“We should have played for a national championship that year,” McKenzie said. “Coulda, shoulda, woulda, it is what it is. That opportunity to get a scholarship and play college football, that changed my whole life. I’ve been married for 16 years, I have four kids, I’m LDS. Who would have thought?”
Linebacker Shay Muirbrook was the star of the Cotton Bowl, producing an amazing stat line: 11 tackles, six sacks and a safety. In 2012, he was inducted into the Cotton Bowl Hall of Fame.
“My cheeks hurt from smiling so much today,” Muirbrook said. “It’s hard to put into words what I see and feel in this room. There’s a lot of love and this is a validation for what we accomplished. It’s nice to be recognized.”
Muirbrook is now a customer service manager for a family business in California’s Central Valley after playing for a short time in the NFL. But he’s proud of something else he accomplished long after his playing career ended.
“The last time I was back here was in 2012 when I graduated with a degree in sociology,” Muirbrook said. “It was challenging, but obviously validating. It was something I know LaVell Edwards brought me here to do. I always told him I would leave this place with my degree so it meant a lot to me to fulfill that promise.”
Kaipo McGuire teamed with K.O. Kealaluhi to form a potent receiver tandem in 1996, catching 42 passes for 658 yards and five touchdowns. He also took a huge hit in the Cotton Bowl that put him out of the game due to a concussion.
“I remember everything up to the play before the hit and then I remember taking a shower,” McGuire said. “There’s about a half hour I don’t remember anything. But my priorities were straight because I kept asking everyone if I caught the ball.”
McGuire went on to a five-year career in the NFL but the time spent in Provo still means a lot to him and he believes new BYU coach Kalani Sitake is doing things the right way to add to the legacy of the football program.
“I’m a Poly guy from Hawaii so I understand,” McGuire said. “The kind of culture he’s establishing now is just the beginning of something. You always hear that cliché, ‘The older I get, the better I was.’ I don’t want us to be like that. I want our legacy to be that we figured something out, we had a formula and we went 14-1. Hopefully these guys here now can take this and learn from it. Hopefully we can pass something on to them.”
After his pro career ended, McGuire was commissioned as an officer and has been in the Air Force for 14 years. Right now, he’s living in Tucson, Arizona, and moves about every three years.
But he says he’ll always be a Cougar.
“I’m not LDS but when I put on that BYU jersey, I know what I was representing,” he said. “I was representing the school, the faith, my teammates, my family, just everybody. It’s serious and you have to take it seriously. It’s a big responsibility. It’s an honor and when you’re 18 or 19 years old, you don’t always realize that.”
The current BYU players didn’t have a lot of interaction with the 1996 team this week, but receivers coach Ben Cahoon – himself a member of that team – thinks that success still has the power to influence this and future generations.
“Watching the highlights on TV from that season, I think it can be inspiring,” Cahoon said. “But our coaching staff, a lot of these guys represent the history of BYU, too. It’s generations and decades of great players and great teams.”