The Utes and Cougars don’t play each other in football this season. But in futbol, it’s game on. The Utah and BYU women’s soccer teams continue their annual rivalry Friday at Ute Field in Salt Lake City.
There was a time, not long ago, when my loyalty to one of the two schools on the pitch was clear and absolute. Then things got complicated.
First, some family background info:
Fifteen years ago, I tagged along with my 4-year-old daughter to the Build-A-Bear Workshop in Murray. Carla spent almost an hour waffling on which Teddy Bear to adopt. She finally opted for the puppy dog version.
But she needed only a few seconds to pick an outfit for her stuffed mutt. The choice was easy once Carla spotted the tiny University of Utah T-shirt emblazoned with the drum and feather logo. She pulled the crimson shirt over her new toy, gave me a satisfied nod and hurried to the cash register. Our work was done.
I walked a bit taller that day.
My firstborn may have been a year away from kindergarten and was just starting to figure out shoelaces — but she was already a Ute.
No big surprise, really. Being a U. of U. fan had been weaved through her DNA. Her father is a lifelong Ute. So are her three uncles, her grandfather, her grandmother and her great-grandfather.
For generations, the Swensens have marked life’s passages by Ute wins and losses. My dad, Gary, was a little boy when he sat at his dad’s side in the living room of their Taylorsville house listening to the radio broadcast of the 1944 NCAA basketball championship between Utah and Dartmouth. The Utes won and the names of star players Arnie Ferrin and Wat Misaka are, to this day, uttered with reverence in his home.
Then there’s a black-and-white photo of me when I was a little boy that speaks to my own lifelong Ute devotion. In the picture I’m standing at half court at the Huntsman Center with a basketball in my hands. On my right is former Utah coach Jerry Pimm. Smiling at my left is then-Ute forward Jeff Judkins, my first sports hero. I don’t remember Juddy ever missing a jump shot.
Our autumns were framed by Utah football. The Utes in the ’80s weren’t very good, but I didn’t care. Hope is fanaticism’s naïve cousin. Each season I read everything I could find about the team. When I learned that Utah running back Del Rogers was nicknamed “Popcorn” because he loved the movie theater snack, I began telling people that popcorn was my favorite food. Still do.
Growing up a Utah fan made life simpler. I naturally accepted that if the Utes were good, then their adversaries were evil. So I approached every Utah-BYU game (football or basketball) with equal measures of excitement and dread. A Ute win assured me all was right in the world. A Cougar victory brought doubt, a bit of shame and jabs from the blue-clad kids at school and a bunch of the grown-ups at church.
Now back to my daughter.
A few years after Carla adopted that stuffed puppy in Ute gear she began playing soccer. Each season she got a little better and soon she was competing year-round.
By the time she reached high school, I realized she might have the talent to play at the so-called “next level.” Folks who knew the game told me the same thing. My thoughts drifted to the University of Utah. I imagined her competing in a crimson uniform.
When Carla finished her sophomore year of high school, she had scholarship offers from several Division 1 programs (although, for the record, not from the U.).
Then an unexpected recruiting call from Utah County staggered generations of Ute Swensen family allegiance. Long story short — Carla’s now a Cougar. She’s a freshman forward, wears No. 3.
My daughter says when she was invited to play for BYU she knew immediately that was where she belonged. Her Build-A-Bear Ute puppy now rests in a storage box somewhere in the basement.
Meanwhile, Carla’s relatives have made the Ute-to-Cougar transition at varying degrees. Grandma Irene owns more Cougar swag than Cosmo — scarves, several T-shirts, hoodies, even eyeglass frames. Grandpa Gary owns a single “BYU Soccer” cap that he pulls out on game days.
And little brother Christian? Yes, he roots for his sister — but you won’t find him wearing anything you can buy at the BYU Bookstore.
As for me, I’ll be at Friday’s Utah-BYU game dressed in blue and rooting for the Cougars. But if they play “Utah Man,” I’ll likely hum along.
Old habits are hard to break.
Jason Swensen is a staff writer for the Church News.