It was only fitting that Utah Utes linebacker Trevor Reilly made the game-winning play against Colorado in the Utes 24-17 victory on Saturday, November 30. After all, there aren’t many players who have to endure the pain of watching their infant daughter battle kidney cancer and still have to strap on their crimson red helmet and chinstrap and play a football game.
But that’s not all Reilly did for the Utes, playing the linebacker position better than just about anyone in college football this year — and talent alone isn’t why he should win the Butkus Award given to the best player at his position.
It’s even more than that; it’s really and truly the right thing to do if you’re a human being who understands why the award is given. It’s more about the player who takes responsibility upon himself to “serve others” and Reilly has done that in spades.
“Trevor made plays for us for four years. Happy for him, he is a heck of a kid and has been through a lot off the field this season as we all know,” said Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham.
Reilly put his own personal pain and suffering aside to put his daughter through bout after bout of chemotherapy and play in a violent position that literally, not figuratively, separates a player from the ball — if you do it right.
He did it the right way all season long, collecting 100 tackles, 8.5 sacks and had three fumble recoveries — among other notable achievements — and avoided another ACL injury that he played on last season because even then, he cared too much to stop playing.
The Rev. Martin Luther King once said, “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”
When the Utes had lost the football game at Washington State last week, all but ending their season more premature than most expected, Reilly encouraged his teammates as a captain to continue battling, even when there was no bowl game to look forward to.
That’s a tough pill for anyone to have to swallow, let alone an entire team that had its hopes and dreams crushed in the unforgiving Palouse, a place where only the heartiest survive — but they did.
And Reilly is no stranger to watching anyone swallow pills; his daughter has to take her medicine often. She doesn’t give up — nor should he. And, she may be cancer-free by Christmas after having a tumor the size of her fist removed from her kidney.
He didn’t quit years ago when he joined the team as a walk-on, nor when he had to wait his turn to wear the jersey number he wanted. He just waited for his turn to make his presence felt.
And now, in his fifth year in the program he’s being mentioned as a top NFL prospect, the same guy who couldn’t even get a scholarship. And he sees the big picture, especially now, after everything his family has been through.
Imagine then, if you’re him and Colorado quarterback Cefo Liufau is getting ready to loft a pass over his offensive lineman and into the space where you’re lurking.
You’re only human if you held your breath, you know. After all, the Buffs were driving with just over two minutes left in the game, and Utah was clinging to a 7-point advantage.
If you didn’t get chills yet at the mere thought of this modern-day “Rudy” story taking place in your own city, you should be checked yourself. After all, how many players do you know who have been through the absolute hair-pulling, agonizing bull crap that Reilly has? That his own team has dealt with this season?
Utah had two interceptions leading up to this moment. Two. In a season like this one, Utah had bungled numerous opportunities to get to a bowl game to honor its 22 seniors.
Maybe Liufau didn’t know what Reilly and his team went through; maybe he did. He was just the opposing quarterback who is looking for an open man on a short slant route to keep the drive alive, you know.
But Liufau threw it, knowing he needed to make a play. All year long, it always seemed like the Utes were never able to make plays this year when they needed; the plays were instead made on them, time and again, causing agonizing loss after hair-pulling, heart-ripping loss.
As for Liufau, a freshman, he knew his team was losing. He had no choice but to throw the ball, for the clock was ticking on his season too. And so he threw it, this pointed leather ball tossed into the air between the hash marks of Colorado’s 15 and 20-yard line.
This time would be different for one team, by God.
Reilly would snatch this prayer of a ball in mid-air and cradle it gently — perhaps similarly to how he’d hold his sick little girl — as he fell to the turf.
It was his first interception of the season, the Utes third. Most important was that the Utes got a win for the first time since they upset Stanford. What a release.
“To get the interception was personally nice, but it sealed the game which felt better. This week I played middle linebacker. We decided to mix it up and it worked for me. Credit to Kalani Sitake for that. I know the defense inside and out after playing in it for five years. The defense played great in the first half and gave up 17 in the second half, but we are very happy we won,” said Reilly after the game.
Then, in a primal scream after making that game-winning interception he leapt to his re-constructed feet and reared back with all of his might, hurling the ball into the north stands of Rice-Eccles Stadium.
It was the most beautiful unsportsmanlike conduct penalty I’ve ever seen.