(Photo by Mark Philbrick/BYU Photo)
You can tell Dustin Rykert relishes who he is and what he does.
He's big and likes throwing his weight around. He's been called dirty; he doesn't care. In pads, Rykert will beat you up and knock you around, talking smack all the while. His mammoth size and style of play earned him the nickname "Big Nasty" from a St. Louis Rams scout.
"Hey, I come to play," Rykert says while reclining in one of the football office chairs in the Smith Fieldhouse. "We're not out here playing nice guys."
Offensive line coach Lance Reynolds, who has eyed since Rykert first walking into the office, passes and shakes his head when Rykert mentions his tendency to let a club move slip above the shoulder pads of opposing players.
Rykert spots Reynolds disapproving gesture from across the room and lets out a booming laugh.
"Coach Reynolds doesn't like it when I do that," he says.
Sitting nearby, offensive lineman Ryan Keele can't resist adding his two cents. "[Coach Reynolds] does like it, he just doesn't like hearing about it," Keele says.
Welcome to the world of senior left tackle Dustin Rykert. Quarterbacks love him. Defensive linemen hate him. Most everybody else is dwarfed by him.
Little Big Man
Before Rykert was known in the football world as big and nasty, he was just plain big.
Rykert has always been the biggest kid around. He was the largest baby in the hospital nursery (11 lbs., 13 oz.; 22-inches long) and usually the second tallest person in class photos--most of Rykert's elementary school teachers were taller than him.
Being exceptionally big can have its perks. Most kids will stop to think twice before messing with a kid a foot taller than them. But there was also a downside: Growing up in Roseville, Calif., Rykert surpassed the weight regulation to play Pop Warner football with kids his own age. He was just too big. Instead, he hung out with the team, acting as the team water boy at practices and games until he could play football in high school.
In the sports leagues he was allowed to participate in, like youth soccer for instance, his mother made a habit of bringing his birth certificate to games in order to squelch frequent accusations from opposing coaches that Rykert was too old to play (think Danny Almonte of Little League baseball). Of course, it wasn't every six-year-old that could kick the ball from midfield to the goal.
"And if anybody on his team would fall down, he would just pick them up and carry them off the field to his coach," added Michele Stephens, Rykert's mother.
Because Rykert was bigger than kids his age, people also tended to mistaken him to be older than he actually was. As a result, he tried to live up to lofty expectations athletically, socially and emotionally.
"I was always put on a different level," he says. "I've always had higher expectations because of my size."
Now that Rykert is older (and bigger), he tends to stick out in a crowd more than ever. In public areas, he's gawked at. People brave enough to ask him just how big he really is--standing 6-7 and weighing 317 pounds--generally receive a smile and a response.
His brothers have achieved some football notoriety, too. Older brother Derric, who played at Ricks College, was the quarterback for the local pro team, the Wasatch Wildcats. Derric helped lead the Wildcats to a 12-1 record in a season which ended earlier this Fall with a 30-27 loss to the Springfield Rifles in a game played at Orem. Younger brother Drew, who was a linebacker locally for Lone Peak High in American Fork, signed a football letter of intent last February with Southern Utah University, but is first serving a Church mission to New York.
Being big didn't necessarily make Rykert a football superstar. On the contrary, his enormous size made coordination difficult during his childhood. But, Rykert's ineligibility to play Pop Warner Football may have been a blessing in disguise. He learned to develop his footwork and motor skills in junior sports leagues, like soccer and flag football, that allowed him to compete. By the time he reached high school, he was ready and anxious to play organized football--in high school and beyond.
"I didn't get burnt out like a lot of the other kids," Rykert said. "By the time they finished playing in high school, they really didn't want to pursue [football] in college."
Something else that could have been a deterrent from playing college football was the discovery at age 17 that Rykert was diabetic. But rather than let diabetes hinder his playing career, Rykert used his condition as a motivational tool to constantly monitor and enhance his physical condition (see related story below). His mom, a medical nurse, helped him learn how to gauge and correct his blood-sugar level.
"She educated me well," says Rykert. "She trusted me to make sure my blood-sugar was OK, so that I would never be taken out of the game."
After graduating from Oakmont High School in 1998 where he had lettered in both basketball and football, Rykert came to BYU. He redshirted in the fall then made the rotation the following year. In 2000, he made his first string of starts and faced off against the likes of Syracuse's Dwight Freeney. The All-American defensive end pounded away on Rykert all game long, giving the young starter game experience he would not soon forget ... or could not forget, thanks to teammates.
Senior offensive lineman Isaac Herring and teammates occasionally rib Rykert about giving up four sacks to Freeney, though he adds, "it's really not funny if you think about it."
Despite early season struggles as a new starter, Rykert finished the season with Honorable Mention All-Mountain West Conference accolades. In 2001, Rykert earned conference honors again while he and the rest of the offensive line provided the superb pass protection and run blocking that propelled the BYU offense to become the most prolific offense in the country.
228 Tackle Eligible
BYU finished the 2001 regular season with a Doak Walker Award winner (Luke Staley) for the nation's best running back, an astonishing 12-1 record and an invitation to the Liberty Bowl to face Louisville.
In the weeks of preparation to face a bowl-game opponent, head coach Gary Crowton decided to add a new wrinkle to the already complex BYU offense: 228 Tackle Eligible.
The play allows one member of the offensive line unit to be eligible for a reception. The play is considered to be a trick play because offensive linemen are seldom if ever used to rush or catch a football.
Although Rykert and the team had practiced the play a number of times, he sensed most of the offensive line players were skeptical of running the play during the game. Rykert himself did not know the play would be used.
Speculation as to whether the play would be used disappeared moments before the Liberty Bowl. On the sidelines before the game, Coach Crowton let Rykert know his number would be called when the offense was able to move the ball within the Cardinal 20-yard line.
Midway through the second quarter, the offense that previously sputtered moved the ball into the red zone. Once the Cougars reached the 10-yard line, quarterback Brandon Doman rolled right before turning and throwing left to hit Rykert from across the field. Rykert rumbled past the remains of a surprised Louisville defense to score his first ever touchdown at any playing level. The play provided one of the lone bright spots in the game for BYU.
Rykert keeps a snapshot of his moment in the spotlight.
"It's my claim to fame, I guess," Rykert said. "I still have the Sports Center highlight to play for anyone who happened to miss it. I don't know if it will happen again, but I'm going to ride the wave for as long as I can."
"I'm sure he milks it for all it's worth," says Herring.
'A Normal Dude'
Aside from his role on a nationally prominent college football team and ability to stick out like the proverbial sore thumb, Rykert is a regular college student with a jokester's demeanor and post-graduate dreams.
He's comfortable with who he is--so much so that he doesn't mind the apparent oddity of riding around campus on a motor scooter like some of his other teammates. The motor scooter, by the way, is strictly a "convenience thing." The secret is--not a secret anymore--parking for scooters and motorcycles are normally located nearer to campus than parking for other vehicles. Yes, it only gets up to about 45 mph with some time and a little gusto, but the gas mileage is phenomenal.
Herring, who has spent considerable time with Rykert in position meetings and in the training room, says Rykert is a "normal dude."
"He's just laid back, really easy to talk to and he can be a lot of fun," says Herring.
The recreation management major has his eyes set on the NFL, but following a stint in the pros, Rykert would like to mix a little hair cutting and entrepreneurial spirit to open a barbershop grill. He might even consider hiring some of his former Cougar teammates.
"There are a couple of guys with cutting skills, but I don't know that many of them cook to the standards of my liking," Rykert said.
Fortunately for Rykert and others, the only cooking any of the Cougars have to do during the 2002 season involves a tried and true winning recipe on the football field that will keep them on top of the conference standings with another bowl berth at season's end.
No Amount of Blood or Sugar Keeps Him Off the Field
When Dustin Rykert's mom watches him play football, she doesn't become over anxious because of his diabetic condition (see related story above). She's more concerned--just like any other mom--that he might get injured.
"I've been watching BYU football for the last five years, and I couldn't tell you half the time how the team does because I've got my eyeballs on him," said Michele Stephens, Rykert's mother.
When Rykert came to Provo on his recruiting trip in 1998, BYU officials became better aware of his diabetic condition. Often football players are taken snowmobiling while on the Cougars' recruiting trips. After snowmobiling, Rykert descended in a Suburban from the roads near Sundance, but got stuck in a snowbank near actor Robert Redford's property, according to Mick Hill, BYU equipment manager. Rykert was unaware his jacket, which contained his insulin, was still in the stuck vehicle. When Rykert returned to Provo, he remembered needing his insulin, but couldn't find his coat. Doctors scrambled and found some insulin for Rykert in time and later his coat was located.
Diabetes is a condition caused by a combination of hereditary and environmental factors that withholds the regulation and production on insulin to carry sugars that are utilized by the body's muscles. Constant and extreme exercise without monitoring and controlling insulin will have drastic, immediate and hazardous long-term effects.
Low sugar levels result in a player who becomes physically shaky and confused. Excessively high sugar levels induce irritability, cotton mouth and frequent urination. For further questions about diabetes, call 1-888-diabete (342-2383).
To insure that his diabetes is under control during game situations, Rykert keeps track of his blood-sugar level before and after the game and also during halftime. He says eating plenty of carbohydrates before kickoff also helps.
"If I let it get out of hand, then I limit myself and my ability to play," he said.
Rykert is one of two Cougar football players to have spent their collegiate career at BYU as a known diabetic. Nathan Hall (1992-93), a two-year contributor at the linebacker position, also has diabetes. Hall spent the first year of his BYU football career playing with what he called flu-like symptoms before finding insulin-regulation system that worked to improve his condition on the field.