Today is the 15th anniversary of the death of Boise State football player Paul Reyna. To commemorate the anniversary, I thought I’d share the story I wrote on the 10th anniversary.
Many of the people quoted in this story who were on the 1999 team are current coaches on the staff, including head coach Bryan Harsin, defensive coordinator Marcel Yates, offensive line coach Scott Huff and defensive backs coach Julius Brown.
This story appeared in the Idaho Statesman on Aug. 23, 2009.
Death still resonates
The memory of former Bronco Paul Reyna continues to have an impact on the Boise State football program
© 2009 Idaho Statesman
Carolyn Gusman was not planning to speak at her son's memorial service.
As she sat in the Jordan Ballroom at Boise State, surrounded by 650 mostly strangers, she took note of the 100 or so Broncos players in the audience. Many were crying - saddened by the football-related death of 19-year-old teammate Paul Reyna.
"My biggest fear and my biggest concern was these young men were going to be called upon now to go be something that unfortunately took my son's life," Gusman said last week. "How can you not be afraid when you're sitting here mourning the death of a young man and you have to go out and do the same?"
So she found the courage to speak at the close of the 90-minute program.
She thanked the community, she told the story of how the Table Rock cross helped convince her son to choose Boise State - and then she addressed the players.
"Be not afraid " Gusman told them. "Go out and win championships."
Reyna died 10 years ago today - on Aug. 23, 1999.
In the decade since, the Broncos have done exactly as Gusman directed. They have won eight conference championships in 10 seasons, starting with that bittersweet 1999 campaign.
Gusman, who lives in La Puente, Calif., has tracked the program from afar. Each win brings a little bit of joy - even though she hasn't watched more than a few minutes of football at a time since her son's death.
"Her courage and her support of the team, instructing the team not to be afraid É that was a tremendous message coming from her," Boise State athletic director Gene Bleymaier said.
Reyna didn't win a single game with the program. He was a true freshman who spent just 11 days on the blue turf. His memory, though, continues to make a difference.
"That was the start of the BSU program coming to be a family as a whole," said Marcel Yates, the Broncos' defensive backs coach and a senior on the 1999 team. "Before those years, it felt like we had a good core of guys who were family members and then you always had those guys who were out of the family a little bit."
Reyna was the latter - not because of who he was, but what he was. A freshman. Not many Broncos had gotten to know him yet. That's no longer acceptable at Boise State, where coach Chris Petersen requires all players to get acquainted with each other from the day they arrive.
And if the players forget, Reyna is there to remind them. A plaque with his picture and his mother's words hangs near the locker-room doors every player uses to enter Bronco Stadium. On game days, players and coaches tap that plaque on their way out - a tribute that began with the first home game after his death.
"It's just showing respect for how hard he worked and remembering the fallen," junior Matt Slater said. "Even though we didn't know him, he was a Bronco."
PASSION - AND A SMILE
Reyna was a football captain, basketball player and track and field athlete at Bishop Amat High in La Puente. He made the Los Angeles Times All-Star team in football. The 6-foot-4, 260-pound defensive tackle took a recruiting trip to Michigan and also considered New Mexico.
Reyna, though, felt at home in Boise. He was a devout Catholic and considered the cross at Table Rock a welcoming beacon.
Those who knew Reyna describe him as a gentle giant with an easy smile and friendly personality.
"He would just light up a room," said Chris Rix, a former Florida State quarterback and Reyna's high school teammate. "He made people feel good about themselves. He inspired people with the passion he played the game with."
Former Boise State running backs coach Tom Nordquist took note of those same qualities when he recruited Reyna.
"The guy could make friends with just about anybody,'' said Nordquist, who has left the coaching profession and lives in Arizona. "He was one of those kids you want to surround yourself with. He could brighten up any day, any situation."
The Broncos began newcomer practices Aug. 8, 1999, and two-a-days Aug. 12. They held their first scrimmage Aug. 18. After 10 days of struggles and self-doubts, Reyna was playing well, Gusman said. She heard the story from former Broncos offensive lineman Jason Turner, one of Reyna's closest friends from high school.
"That particular day, he said, Paul was right on," Gusman said.
Midway through the scrimmage, Reyna tripped over a teammate and hit his head on the turf - an ordinary occurrence with an extraordinary consequence.
"It looked to me like it was another random play that happened out on the turf 500 times before that day, that fall camp," said Boise State offensive line coach Scott Huff, who was a redshirt freshman center on that team.
Reyna walked off the field on his own and attempted to rejoin the defense on the field, Gusman said. Athletic trainer Gary Craner intervened and took Reyna to the bench, where Reyna began rubbing his forehead.
"No more than 10 minutes later, Paul was out," Gusman said. "... He never regained consciousness."
Paramedics took Reyna to Saint Alphonsus Regional Medical Center. Doctors performed a 90-minute surgery that night to repair a ruptured blood vessel between his brain and skull.
Reyna remained in a coma for five days and was declared brain dead Aug. 23. His organs were kept alive until Aug. 24, when they were donated. Both dates appear on his headstone.
A teary coach Dirk Koetter announced Reyna's death in a press conference that was carried live on local TV. The on-campus memorial service was the next day.
It's the only time a Boise State athlete has died of a sports-related injury.
The Broncos opened the 1999 season 12 days after Reyna died - ironically, at UCLA, about 20 miles from his hometown.
There was a pregame tribute to Reyna. His parents, Gusman and Art Reyna, served as honorary captains. Yates held Gusman's hand as they walked to midfield for the coin toss. Reyna's picture was high above the field on the videoboard.
"Her hand was just shaking and she was in tears," Yates said.
The Broncos got thumped 38-7, but they won 10 of their next 12 games - winning their first conference title as a Division I-A school and the first bowl game in school history.
The same events that devastated the players also galvanized them.
"It brought us closer together," said Julius Brown, the Broncos' director of player personnel and a member of Reyna's freshman class. "We played for each other, so I think it had a positive effect on our class. I still think about it now - all of us really got along in that class."
STILL A 'TEAM MOM'
Ten years later, Reyna still has a presence at Bishop Amat and Boise State.
Gusman is entering her 13th year as the "team mom" for Bishop Amat - helping with meals during fall camp and on game days, among other tasks.
She filled that role for the last two seasons of Reyna's career.
The coach asked her to stay with the program for at least one more year. Still uncertain, she asked her son if it would be weird since he wasn't there.
"No, mom, I want you to stay with the program," Reyna told her. "It will help you get through."
Reyna had no idea how true those words would become.
"He's right - it does help me get through," said Gusman, a mother of four who has left her son's room untouched. "When it comes to this particular time of the year - August, September - it's really melancholy for me. It's really difficult for me to get through this time."
She marks her son's death every year with trips to the cemetery and visits to the Bishop Amat grotto on Aug. 23 and 24. One of those days, she also lights a candle at the grotto - a religious shrine near the practice field that was a special place to Reyna.
The grotto is only a few yards from a painting of Reyna on the side of a building.
"It's my special quiet time with him," she said.
At Boise State, Petersen hopes Reyna's story lends credence to two of his core philosophies - developing a family atmosphere within the team and taking nothing for granted.
"It's important that we keep his memory alive," said Petersen, who joined the Broncos in 2001.
Petersen uses a wide assortment of team-building activities during fall camp to encourage that family atmosphere. The simplest, and perhaps most important, is the "name game" - quizzing players about the names, positions and hometowns of their teammates.
In 1999, current offensive coordinator Bryan Harsin said, the seniors took the attitude toward freshmen of, "Work your way in and we'll get to know you later."
"We have our guys get to know each other - they have to," said Harsin, who was a senior quarterback in 1999. "I love that now because of looking back on that situation."
Players say Reyna's plaque doesn't give them any second thoughts about the sport. It does, however, remind them how fleeting life can be.
"You've got to give everything you have because this could be your last day playing, your last day going to class," senior captain Richie Brockel said. "It reminds you how precious everything is that you have around you."
Those lessons have served the Broncos well over the past 10 years - certainly not the legacy Reyna and his family wanted, but a lasting one nonetheless.
"You have an angel on the sidelines," Gusman said. "... There was a reason why he chose to come to Boise - that was to play football and to win championships - and he got exactly what he came for.”
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