Boise State football coach Bryan Harsin gathered his team atop Table Rock on Sunday morning and explained the dual meaning behind the hike that has become the traditional end of fall camp.
Symbolically, the 800-foot climb over about 1.5 miles represents what the Broncos hope to accomplish in the Mountain West Conference — “climbing the mountain.”
But this year, there was another, more powerful meaning. This Friday marks the 20th anniversary of the death of Paul Reyna, who died during his freshman fall camp with the Broncos in 1999. The Table Rock cross was influential in convincing the California recruit to choose Boise State.
Harsin and Jeff Pitman, the director of sports performance, told the players the Reyna story — the one they’re reminded of every time they leave the locker room because of a plaque placed in his honor.
Reyna’s mother, Carolyn Gusman, will attend the home opener Sept. 6 against Marshall, Harsin told the team. Gusman’s message to the 1999 team after her son’s death has been an inspiration for the program ever since.
“Be not afraid,“ Gusman said at her son’s memorial service. “Go out and win championships.”
The program has won 13 conference championships and been invited to 19 bowl games in the 20 seasons since Reyna’s passing — a moment his former teammates have said brought the program closer together.
Harsin, who was a senior quarterback in 1999, reminded the team Sunday of one of the most important lessons the program learned that August: Get to know your teammates, even if you’re a senior and he’s a freshman.
“It has to hit you somewhere,” Boise State senior defensive tackle David Moa said of hearing the Reyna story, pieces of which he’d heard before. “A fellow Bronco ... gave his life to be a Bronco and to fight as a Bronco. It was amazing to hear.”
Reyna, a defensive tackle, tripped over a teammate and hit his head on the turf during the first scrimmage of camp. He walked off the field on his own and attempted to rejoin the defense on the field, Gusman told the Idaho Statesman for a story published on the 10th anniversary. 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 in 2009. “... He never regained consciousness.”
Paramedics took Reyna to Saint Alphonsus. 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.
Gusman’s visit as an honorary captain will be an emotional experience for the Broncos, Moa said. Gusman previously served as an honorary captain for the 1999 game at UCLA, not far from Reyna’s hometown.
“It won’t just be 11 people on that field,” Moa said. “Paul Reyna’s going to be behind us the whole time, pushing us. That game is dedicated to him.”
The summer hike to Table Rock became a part of the Broncos’ preparation for the season in 2014, Harsin’s first year as head coach. This year, the program invited fans to join in — and that led to some hearty “Go Broncos!” and other good wishes as the team climbed the steep trail.
Standing at the top, surveying all of the Treasure Valley — including, prominently, Albertsons Stadium — serves as a reminder of where the team stands, Moa said. The season begins Aug. 31 against Florida State in Jacksonville, Florida. Game-plan practices start Tuesday.
“We knew it was a long road, and for the season to come ... when you get to the top and look around, it’s, ‘Dang,’ ” Moa said. “It’s time for everything that we worked hard together for.”
Some players made the hike shirtless, wearing just shorts and shoes. Others were a little more prepared. Senior offensive lineman John Molchon sported a hydration backpack.
“Each year I add something,” he said. “Last year, I think it was the (bucket) hat. Now I finally broke out this (backpack).”
The team was in an especially good mood Sunday morning, senior tight end Garrett Collingham said, knowing the grind of camp is over. The veterans teased the freshmen that the 30-minute hike takes up to 2 hours.
“The locker room was pretty crazy this morning,” Collingham said.