Carolyn Gusman inspired the Boise State football program 20 years ago with her emotional strength.
She told the 2019 Broncos she planned to do the same for them on Friday night.
Gusman served as an honorary captain for Friday’s home opener against Marshall at Albertsons Stadium — 20 years after her son, Paul Reyna, died during his freshman fall camp with the Broncos.
She told the team Thursday that she originally didn’t plan to go on the field for the coin toss and would leave that to her three children. But, she told the players, she changed her mind.
Just as she changed her mind about speaking at Reyna’s on-campus memorial service in 1999, where her inspirational words comforted a team and became a rallying cry for a program.
“I just kind of want to show you, even though you might be a little afraid to do things, go out there and try,” Gusman told the team Thursday.
The room, Gusman and coach Bryan Harsin said, was silent as she spoke. Gusman shook hands with each player at the end of the meeting, asking them their names and positions.
“That was pretty special,” senior captain Kekoa Nawahine said. “You hear about the story because we have the plaque up in the hallway and we hit it on our way out to practice, to games. You’re able to connect a lot more emotionally to that picture and to that story, and to that person, and to that family as a whole. ... It kind of just speaks to the whole family vibe that’s been our identity as a team this season.”
Gusman hasn’t watched a football game since Reyna’s death, in person or on TV. She still helps with her son’s high school program, Bishop Amat in La Puente, California, but works the pass gate on game days where she can hear the crowd but not see the action. She also was an honorary captain at the Broncos’ 1999 game at UCLA — not far from Reyna’s hometown — but she didn’t watch that game, either.
Friday night, she planned to retreat to one of the Boise State athletic department buildings near the stadium when the game began. Just stepping onto the empty field Thursday was “very gut-wrenching” for her, she said.
“You wouldn’t want to be around me if a player got hurt,” Gusman said Friday morning. “... You’re going to have two patients — put it that way.”
During her meeting with the team, she said, she told the players about Reyna — the defensive tackle the current team only knows through the memorial plaque they touch on their way to the field and the stories they’re told by the coaches who were there when he was injured, including Harsin and strength and conditioning coach Jeff Pitman.
She also sought to explain to them that while her son died from an injury suffered on the blue turf, there’s risk everywhere in life.
“What I wanted to do is reassure them,” she said.
She certainly did that for the 1999 team, at a memorial service that began not long after doctors took Reyna away from her to harvest his organs. Gusman had no plans to speak and would have turned down an offer, she said.
She spontaneously stood up to grab a Boise State helmet and hug it. She thought that was Reyna’s helmet (she later learned it wasn’t; that one was set aside for testing).
Behind her, she heard weeping. That’s where the players were.
“I didn’t want to turn around and look, but I knew,” she said. “I knew who was crying.”
Then she spoke the words that are on the Reyna plaque. She figures she meant to say “Don’t be afraid” but what came out instead probably was a reference to a song her church sings, “Be Not Afraid.”
“Be not afraid “ Gusman told the team. “Go out and win championships.”
The Broncos won their first Big West Conference and bowl championships that season. By 2002, which would have been Reyna’s redshirt junior season, the program had reached the Top 25.
The Broncos have been in the Top 25 for at least one week every year since.
Gusman echoed her own words with her closing remarks in Thursday’s meeting.
“Do the hard work that you have to, listen to your coaches, give it your all, and go out and win another championship, and one after that, and one after that, and one after that,” she said. “Continue the legacy here at Boise State.”
She has listened to TV broadcasts of games as the Broncos have won 13 conference titles since Reyna’s death. Her son, she said, is just one piece of that legacy.
“I’m totally elated,” she said of the program’s success. “... And it’s not about Paul. Paul’s a part of that story. He’s not the story, but he’s a part of that story.”
Reyna was injured Aug. 18, 1999, when he tripped over a teammate and hit his head on the turf. He walked off the field on his own and wanted to return but athletic trainer Gary Craner stopped him. Reyna was unconscious within 10 minutes with a ruptured blood vessel between his brain and skull, and he was declared brain dead five days later. His organs were harvested the next day, so his tombstone includes Aug. 23 and Aug. 24.
He had chosen Boise State after seeing the Table Rock cross lit up at night during his recruiting visit — a beacon he considered a sign from God that this was where he should be. He called his sleeping mother that night to tell her of his discovery.
“When he walked off the plane, I knew it was a done deal,” Gusman said.
She visited Boise with Reyna that summer and quickly understood why he felt so at home. She returned to help her son get settled at Boise State, again when he was injured and a couple years later for a team banquet.
She had decided to return for the 20th anniversary of Reyna’s death last month but Jason Turner — a former Boise State player and high school teammate of Reyna’s — helped coordinate the visit for the home opener instead. The family held a luncheon on the anniversary in California to raise money for a memorial scholarship fund at Bishop Amat (Boise State has one, too, Gusman said).
Gusman, surrounded by children Steven Gusman, Sandra Cole and Ryann Reyna, flipped the coin during the pregame captains meeting at midfield before the Marshall game. Harsin hugged each member of the family moments before kickoff.
“It was emotional in here (at the Thursday meeting),” Harsin said. “I was excited (Friday night) to see her out there.”
Even though she shies away from games, football remains a key part of Gusman’s life. In addition to her work on game nights, she’s the parent coordinator for the Bishop Amat team meals. It’s a role she played when Reyna was in high school and intended to relinquish when he left.
Instead, her son insisted that she stay active in the program.
“Don’t do it for the coaches,” Reyna told her. “Don’t do it for yourself. Do it for me. ... It’ll get you through.”
“I’m still with the program 24 years later,” Gusman said. “And it’s still getting me through.”
This is the most difficult time of year for her, when the changing weather forebodes a “melancholy” feeling around the anniversary of Reyna’s death and the start of the school year.
Football season motivates her to perk up.
“Snap out of it,” she thinks. “It’s time to get ready for football.”