One Dropped Pass

“One Dropped Pass,” New Era, Nov. 1996, 46

One Dropped Pass

This is for the state football championship. The winning pass hurtles towards you. Every player’s dream is about to become …

Okay, here’s the scene. You’re the wide receiver for your high school football team. The team’s only been in existence for two years, and thanks largely to you, your team made it to the state finals. One more win, and you’re state champions.

Problem is, the final game is against a team that has won three state championships in the last six years. Their record this season is almost perfect. They’re known as one of the best teams in the state.

The game is close, and the fourth quarter ends in a tie, 14–14. The game goes into overtime. Each team will start on the ten-yard line and have four downs to score. Ball possession will go back and forth until someone doesn’t score.

The other team gets the ball first. They score a touchdown, plus the extra point. It’s 21–14. Now it’s your team’s turn. On the fourth down, your team scores. It’s 21–20. Everyone expects a kick for the extra point and another tie. But you have a plan. You talk to the quarterback, another receiver, and the coach. Together you decide to try for a two-point conversion. That will give your team 22 points, the win, and the state championship.

The ball is hiked. The quarterback looks for an opening. You’re in the end zone. The quarterback throws the ball. It’s an easy pass. If you catch it, the state championship is yours. If you drop it, you score nothing, and the other team wins.

You drop it!

Can’t you just taste the agony? But it really happened to Jake Brian. Jake was an 18-year-old senior at Fremont High School in Weber County, Utah. His team, the Silverwolves, made it to the state championship play-offs in only their second year but wound up losing to Salt Lake City’s Skyline Eagles after Jake’s dropped pass.

Was Jake devastated? Did it ruin his life? Does he sit in his room all the time and watch video of the game over and over, beating himself up for dropping that pass? No, he does not.

Jake is an accomplished athlete. Football wasn’t his first sport. It wasn’t even his second. Basketball and baseball occupied those two spots. But in his second year of playing football, he caught 73 passes for 1,155 yards and scored 16 touchdowns, besides leading his team to the state finals. Of course, Jake doesn’t take all the credit himself. He describes Olin Hannum as “probably the best quarterback in the state, and we had a really good offensive line.”

Still, some folks think Jake was one of the most important factors in the success of the team. Moments after Jake dropped the pass and was agonizing over the play, Coach Blaine Monkres told Jake, “You didn’t cost us the state championship. You’re the one that got us to the state finals!” Teammates made similar comments.

And so did the many cards and letters he got. Members of the community wrote to console him, and they focused on the great season he had, telling him one dropped pass didn’t cancel out everything he had already done. One letter writer said he had dropped a pass in a similar situation back in 1932, so he understood. People sent cookies and pies. Jake was flattered by all the attention, but he admits, “I was surprised so many people were thinking about me.”

So when all is said and done, is winning everything? “At times it seems like it is,” Jake says. “You always want to win, but it isn’t everything.” Jake has moved on. He is attending Snow College in Ephraim, Utah, where he has a partial scholarship to play football. After football season, he’ll be serving a mission.

But wait, there’s more to the story.

Now let’s say you’re on the Skyline team, the team that always wins. You’re a free safety, and in the final play, you’re the guy who’s supposed to be covering Jake, to keep him from catching the winning pass. For some reason, you slow down, and you don’t cover him as well as you might. You see the ball coming for him. If he catches the pass, his team wins the state championship, and your team loses. If he drops the pass, it doesn’t matter how well you covered him, because your team will have won again.

He drops the pass.

What’s your first reaction? Do you breathe a sigh of relief, jump for joy, shout “Hooray,” and join your teammates in an exuberant dance of triumph, slapping each other on the back and carrying people off the field on your shoulders while singing, “We’re number one”?

Not if you’re Ryan Smith. Ryan had a different reaction. Naturally, he realized his team had just won the state championship. But then, “I turned around and saw him on the ground.”

After Jake dropped the pass, he dropped to the ground, tore off his helmet, and covered his head with his arms and hands to block out the deafening roar coming from the Skyline fans and players. Ryan Smith, whose team had just won, put off celebrating with his teammates for a few seconds. He leaned over Jake, put his hand on his back, and said, “You’ve got nothing to be ashamed of. You’re the reason your team’s here. You had a great game.”

Would you have done that?

Ryan is from Sandy, Utah, and he says what he did “was just a natural reaction.” He credits his coaches for helping make him that way. “They don’t just teach us how to play the game of football,” he says. “They teach us how to be good men, and how to be good in life.” Then, sounding a lot like Jake in his humility, Ryan adds, “Anybody on our team probably would have done the same thing I did if they had been in the same situation.”

His parents were behind Ryan too. “They said they were more proud of me for what I did than for the state championship.”

In the perfect world, a friendship would have been formed between these two. Unfortunately, they had never met until this picture was taken. For that matter, Jake didn’t even hear what Ryan was saying because of the cheering. “I knew someone was there, but I didn’t see him,” Jake says.

But the angels noticed it, and so did many of the fans, particularly after footage of the game was shown on the local news. Like Jake, Ryan received several letters. One woman told Ryan in her letter that he had been “an inspiration for so many. You were the true hero.”

Ryan, of course, is rather embarrassed by all the attention he got just for doing what came naturally. He says, “It wasn’t until the next few days that I realized it was such a big deal to people.”

Is it important? Yes, because each action defines who we are and the supreme example we choose to follow. Yes, it’s important.

Both players remain humble despite all the attention. Both plan to serve missions. Both have learned that it’s more important to show true character than it is to win.

And you thought football was just a game.

Photography by Jed Call and Maren Mecham

Ryan Smith (left), Jake Brian (right)