Jernaro Gilford returns an interception against Utah on November 17, 2001 to preserve BYU's perfect record in the 24-21 victory. Gilford says this play has been the highlight of his career. (Photo by Mark Philbrick/BYU Photo)
It was the best of games and it was the worst of games.
For Jernaro Gilford, the Cougars' victory over Utah on November 17, 2001 was exactly that.
The 6-2, 181, senior from Hawthorne, Calif., experienced his biggest high in a BYU jersey when he intercepted a pass near the end of regulation to seal the win, but he also suffered an injury during the game that would derail his junior season.
BYU entered the game against Utah with a 10-0 record, but early in the game it didn't look like the BYU would leave LaVell Edwards Stadium with its perfect record intact.
Trailing 21-10, the Cougars mounted a comeback to take the lead 24-21 after two Luke Staley touchdowns.
But BYU wasn't in the clear yet. Utah was mounting a comeback of its own.
After Utah converted a fourth and 10 on a tackle eligible play to Jordan Gross. It appeared fate was on the Utes' side.
But on the next play the tables would turn.
"My man, I think he did a 15-yard comeback," Gilford said. "I broke on it and I saw the quarterback throw the ball. And it was like it was in slow motion the whole time the ball was coming, and I just caught it."
Gilford would return the interception 50 yards to seal the victory.
"That whole game was probably my best moment in a Cougar uniform," Gilford said. "From being down to scoring two touchdowns in the last two minutes and then me getting an interception to seal the game. It was just fun."
But it was a miracle Gilford made it back to grab that interception.
Earlier in the game, he tore his meniscus -- an injury that would haunt him for the next year. He would play in the Cougars' final three games of the 2001 campaign, including the Liberty Bowl, but he would only see limited action during the 2002 season.
After Gilford's success in 2001 -- he was 15th nationally with seven interceptions and was named first-team All-Mountain West Conference -- there were high expectations entering his junior season. He even received an honorable mention preseason All-America nod from one publication.
But because of his knee injury Gilford would see limited action in only seven games.
This time off of the field caused Gilford to experience a lot of frustration and do a lot of soul searching.
He said he felt like he let his teammates down because he didn't rehabilitate his injury right in the beginning.
"It was just frustrating sitting out," he said. "It was my first time being hurt, so I really didn't know what to do. That's probably why I didn't rehab the way I should."
Perhaps more frustrating was watching his teammates struggle through BYU's first losing season in 29 years and not being able to do anything to help.
"I felt like I could have been out there maybe helping them or something, making the team a little better," Gilford said.
The team also missed Gilford's game-changing abilities. The team was lacking experienced backups, which may have led to the defense struggling at times.
"When you lose a guy like Jernaro, you lose a guy who has the ability to make plays," Brian Mitchell, BYU defensive backs coach, said.
"Jernaro, with seven picks and a number of bat downs, you could comfortably say you could lock him up on one guy and we could possibly eliminate that guy if Jernaro is on his game that night."
But something the team missed most was the intangible quality of Gilford's leadership, Mitchell said.
He said Gilford was the type of player that can bring the team together because of his ability to get along with all of his teammates.
"He gets along with everyone," Mitchell said. "Wide receivers, lineman, linebackers, it doesn't matter, it's a team effort first in his eyes and that's how it's always going to be."
But he wouldn't just sit on the sidelines and feel sorry for himself. Gilford spent the majority of last season working to try to make his knee stronger.
"It seemed I was with coach (Jay) Omer (BYU's strength and conditioning coach) all day and every day," Gilford said. "They had me doing everything, from pulling sleds with weights to lunges to squats to stairs in the stadium -- just a little bit of everything trying to get me better. I'm 100 percent now, ready to go."
Omer said Gilford put in a lot of hard work this past off-season to help strengthen Gilford's knee.
"The year before, he (Gilford) hadn't worked hard enough on it, and he lost a lot of muscle mass," Omer said. "The goal was to get the muscle mass back in the quad, and that will take a lot of the pressure off of that knee."
Omer put Gilford through a variety of workouts that would concentrate on strengthening Gilford's knee. Omer said once he regained the muscle mass in his quadriceps the pain in his knee went away.
Gilford's hard work paid off. He was able to play in some games late in the season. His lone interception of the season came against San Diego State and helped ensure a Cougar victory.
During that game BYU held San Diego State's potent offense 180 yards below its season average, and Gilford's presence played a large part in the strong defensive effort.
The injury didn't affect him during spring drills either. He didn't miss a down during spring practices because of his injury and is projected to reclaim his starting spot at left corner back this season.
Gilford is excited to get back on the field in front of 65,000 screaming fans at LaVell Edwards Stadium.
He said he loves hearing the Cougar faithful as the team runs onto the field, but at first it was a little overwhelming.
"It was crazy because the most people I played in front of in high school was maybe 3,000," Gilford said of the first time he ran out onto the field before a game. "I came out and it was like, '65,000 people, whoa.' "
But Gilford says now he doesn't even hear the crowd. He's just focused on the game and what he has to do to help BYU.
What he does best is cover the other team's top receiver. He does this by using physical play to disrupt his opponent.
He said his biggest strength is his bump-and-run defense, but what he says sets him apart is his knowledge of the game.
"I'm just a smart player," Gilford said. "I know when to give up plays and when not to break on balls. It takes experience to know that."
"There are a lot of players that are good but aren't football smart."
Mitchell, his position coach, said there are three things he sees as strengths in Gilford. First is his size. Mitchell said Gilford is 6-2, but plays a lot longer than that because his wingspan, which stretches about 6-6 or 6-7, gives him the ability to get to balls other corners couldn't.
Second is his mental toughness.
"He challenges himself every week to be the best on the football field," Mitchell said. "He wants to be the guy making the plays. He wants to be the guy who has the ability to change the course of the game."
Last, Mitchell mentioned his knowledge of the game. He said Gilford has an uncanny ability to take all the information given to him during practice and apply it in game situations.
Gilford is a member of a defense that returned 11 starters and many key contributors from last season and is using a new defensive scheme brought from the University of New Mexico by new defensive coordinator Bronco Mendenhall.
The old 4-3 defense is being replaced with an attacking 3-3-5 scheme, but Gilford says the scheme isn't the only thing changing with the defense. The team's attitude also has been overhauled.
"You might see more celebration from the defense," Gilford said. "In the past couple of years the defense just makes plays and no one's really been celebrating."
He also said he likes the addition of Mendenhall and the new energy he brings to the program.
"I love him," Gilford said. "He puts us in the right situations at the right times and in the right positions. It's just a matter of us, as players, making plays."
He said if the team can do that they should be real successful.
Gilford also said he feels like the offense will be much improved over last year's team. He said the experience they have at quarterback and running back and the speed at wide receiver should help the team improve on its record from 2002.
Gilford has aspirations to play football professionally after his career at BYU is complete, but Gilford is realistic about his chances of making it as a pro.
Mitchell said Gilford's chances in the NFL depend largely on the success of his senior campaign.
"You just never know," Mitchell said about Gilford's pro prospects. "You go back to Derwin Gray who had a great career here at BYU and didn't get invited to the NFL combine. Yet he got drafted in the fifth round and played six or seven years."
Even with Gilford's uncertain future, Mitchell said he believes Gilford will be invited to the combine and some senior bowls if he plays the way he knows he can.
If the NFL doesn't come calling, Gilford, a sociology major, said he would like most to work with children in some capacity.
Despite the many ups and downs during his career at BYU, Gilford is grateful for the time he has spent in Provo.
"I've learned a lot of things," he said. "I've been through a lot here. It's turned me into a better person and a bigger man."
Gilford and Company Rehabing with Coach Omer
Most college students spend their summers at home, lounging at the beach or working to earn money for school -- not members of BYU's football team.
For the past three years, they have spent their summers sweating under the watchful eye of BYU strength and conditioning coach Jay Omer.
Omer helps prepare the team for the long, grinding football season by conditioning the player's muscles to deal with the stress they will endure during a 12-game season.
"I think it acclimatizes them to hard work," Omer said of his workout program.
"Football's a push and a pull sport. You're grabbing, you're pushing and you're pulling. You've got to get ready to do that type of thing. The joints just aren't used to doing that type of work."
Omer's workouts vary from winter to summer, but during the summer players lift four days a week and run four days a week.
These workouts helped senior Kip Nielson move from a walk-on struggling to stay on the team to the starting Katback entering fall camp.
Nielson credits Omer's workouts and his support for his move up the depth chart.
The workouts also help injured player's rehabilitate. Jernaro Gilford injured his meniscus two years ago causing him to lose muscle mass in his quadriceps, an injury that would limit his ability to play during the 2002 season.
Through the help of Omer, Gilford was able to regain the lost muscle mass, which helped eliminate the pain in his knee. Omer said the reason why Gilford's injury took so long to heal is he didn't rehab it correctly in the beginning.
Gilford worked with Omer everyday during the off-season, doing workouts specifically designed to strengthen Gilford's quad.
In the end, the workout is just about hard work and dedication, Omer said.
"The goal is to develop work ethic, to develop toughness and to develop unity," Omer said.
And nothing brings a team together better than sweating side-by-side, in sweltering 100 degree weather, running sprints with Omer.