(Photo by Mark Philbrick/BYU Photo)
Driving into the town of Tetonia, Idaho, there is a sign on Highway 32 that reads, "Welcome to Tetonia -- Population: 138."
Although the town may be small in size and population, one of the community's residents has made a big name for himself.
BYU's tight end Spencer Nead, who grew up in the Teton Valley of eastern Idaho, has come a long way since his boyhood days in Tetonia. But the path for the 6-4, 255-pound "Teton Terror" has definitely not been paved with gold.
The political science major's tough road began at an early age. When he was just two years old, his parents divorced, leaving his mother to raise four children by herself. As difficult as this was for him and his family, Nead considers his mom's example to be what has helped him the most in life.
"Everything she had to go through, the things she had to give up to raise her four kids is definitely the most inspiring thing in my life," Nead said. "I was so young when my parents divorced but my mom did a very good job of making life seem normal."
One thing that Nancy Nead did to create a life of normalcy for her kids was to get them involved in sports.
"Because we were a single-parent family, we really couldn't afford to do anything but go to the park and play ball," Nancy said. "Sports were a form of entertainment for us. I have always had access to gyms and playing fields, so Spencer and his brother Kelly were always able to play with one another."
Her plan has definitely paid off. All four of her children had successful sports careers at Teton High School and all four were given the Athlete of the Year award in their senior years. All the competition between Spencer and Kelly has resulted in both of them playing college football, with Kelly (6-4, 240) playing defensive end for the University of Idaho.
While at Teton High School, Nead had an illustrious four-year career in three sports. In football, he led his team to a 16-4 record in his final two seasons and a third-place finish in the state tournament as a senior. He also earned all-state honors as a junior and senior at both wide receiver and linebacker.
In basketball, he played three years on the varsity team, earning all-state honors as a senior and leading Teton High Redskins to the state championship.
He also played baseball for four years on the varsity squad, playing both third base and pitcher.
Although he excelled in high school, Nead soon became very familiar with some of the disadvantages of playing for a small school.
"Coming from a small town, I was one of the kids that always thought he was a decent athlete but never got a look from anybody because he was from a small town," Nead said. "Everybody assumed that you couldn't play. You don't get any credit. You can't get anyone to look at you. You can't get anyone to recruit you because they say you don't play against good competition, so you can't possibly be good."
But Nead used this as a way of motivating himself on the field.
"That has inspired me the most in football, just beating the odds," he said. "I never had anything just handed to me."
Nead also found that when you are a star athlete in a small town (see story at bottom of this article), everybody is always watching you.
"Spencer was a very high profile kid," Nead's mom said. "Everyone knew who he was. The kids idolized him. They were always watching him. All these little kids wanted to be Spencer Nead."
According to Nead, living in the limelight is not all it's cracked up to be.
"The hardest thing I have had to deal with in my life is constantly being looked at and watched," Nead said. "If you are living the way you should be and you're doing what you should be doing, it is something that is very easy. But each of us has times in our lives when we struggle with different things."
He said it wasn't necessarily the parents or adults he worried about but the kids that were always watching him.
"The kids that watched you play football and, in turn, watched you do other things off the field would in some way justify themselves in doing those things," he said.
Nead's mom recalls one day when he came home frustrated and told her that sometimes he wished he was just a nobody.
"He said he couldn't wait to go somewhere and just sit on the bench," Nancy said. "But I knew that he really didn't mean it. Spencer is not a bench sitter. He always wants to be where the action is."
However, after high school, the only action Nead could find was at Ricks College in Rexburg, Idaho. But getting to Ricks, where Nead played for two seasons, was no easy task.
According to Nead's mother, the football coaches at Ricks were not really looking at kids from Idaho.
"No one hardly knows Tetonia," Nancy said. "We are just a tiny town located at the base of the Teton Mountains. When you are from a small town, you don't get the looks most others do."
But the athletics director at Ricks College (former BYU football assistant coach Garth Hall) and the football coach, Ron Haun, heard through the grapevine that there was a kid from Tetonia that should be contacted.
"The football coach was told 'You need to be taking a look at that Nead kid from Teton High School'," Nancy said. "When they finally did see him play, they came to realize that they had found a gold mine."
Nead was offered a scholarship at Ricks but he was put on the bottom of the list and had to work his way up.
"In high school, Spencer was the hero," Nead's mom said. "He was the superstar from Teton High School. But when he went to Ricks, he was a superstar among a bunch of other superstars. This only made him work even harder."
While at Ricks, Nead said he felt like he needed to prove himself. He would often stay after practice and do extra work.
All the hard work paid off.
After playing one year at Ricks, he took a year off before serving a mission for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Nebraska from July 1997-99.
After his mission, Nead came back with something to prove. And he did so in a big way. In his second year with the Ricks football team, he earned Junior College All-American honors and was a first-team All-Western State Football League selection while leading the Vikings to an 8-3 record.
"I loved the Ricks experience," Nead said. "When I look back on it now, I wouldn't change it. I am glad I had to go to a junior college because my experience at Ricks made me what I am today."
After playing at Ricks, Nead was recruited by Kansas State, Arizona State, Arizona, Oregon State, Colorado, Temple (who actually signed his brother) and last year's national champions the Miami Hurricanes, where he was offered a full-ride scholarship.
"It was tough not to go to Miami, but I was getting married and I think the environment here is what drew me, not particularly the football," Nead said. "I could find good football wherever I went, I knew that. But I think what put BYU above and beyond everyone else was the environment. This is where I wanted to bring my wife and this is where I wanted to start my family."
After a successful junior year in 2001, in which he gained 266 yards on 22 receptions and scored five touchdowns, Nead is glad he chose BYU. He considers himself very lucky to be able to play where he does.
"I am most definitely honored to play tight end at BYU," he said. "There have been some greats. I always hear about Todd Christensen, Chris Smith, Itula Mili, Chad Lewis, Byron Rex and Doug Jolley. They have always been solid. I don't feel a lot of pressure but I'm very humbled and appreciative of the path that they've created."
As for 2002, Nead feels this year's team is something special.
"I have a strong relationship with almost everyone on the team," Nead said. "Our team chemistry is unlike any other team I have been on. From the offensive line, which is often thought of as the bullies of the team, to the incoming freshmen, the team chemistry is excellent."
Nead accredits this team chemistry to a number of things, primarily the amount of time the team spends together conditioning in the off-season.
"Anytime you spend three hours a day with a group of guys doing something that you don't particularly enjoy, but you know it's going to benefit the group as a whole, you grow together," he said.
One thing Nead particularly likes about the BYU football program is the attitude the players and coaching staff have towards football.
"All the guys at BYU seem to have a similar goal," Nead said. "You go to other places, other teams, and you have guys going every which way -- guys caring if they're going to make it to the pros, guys caring if they are going to get playing time and all these other things. Here at BYU, I think we have a greater focus on what's important. We play football, we enjoy football, we want to have great success, but in the long run, all of us have goals greater than football."
Nead's future goals do include football. He said he would love to have the opportunity to play in the NFL, but that is not his top priority.
"I want to be a good father, that is my number one goal in life," he said. "I want to be a friend to my kids and a good husband and provide for my family. Whatever means is brought to me to do that, I will do it - whether it be football, whether it be working construction. I just want to be a good dad and spend time with my wife and kids."
Nead is well on his way to achieving his number one goal. He and his wife, the former Summer Theobald, had their first son ,Max, last July.
Spencer Nead has taken many different paths in his life, but all seem to lead back to his early days in Tetonia. Nead's mom understands that although the road has been tough for her son, it has made him who he is today.
"Spencer still has a lot of unknown paths that he will have to take in this life," Nancy said. "But I know he will choose the right ones and reach his full potential."
Nead Joins BYU's Small-town Saga
Growing up in a small town is definitely a different experience. Just ask any of the 16 players on BYU's football team that come from small towns.
That's right. Of the current 110 players on the BYU football roster, only 16 of them come from towns smaller than 6,000 people. That is only 14 percent of the team that has experienced what it is like to know most of the people in their hometown.
Spencer Nead, who is the BYU player from the smallest town, is very familiar with the small town kind of life.
Nead, who was born in Tacoma, Wash., moved with his family to Pocatello, Idaho, before settling close to Grand Teton National Park in Tetonia, Idaho -- Population: 138.
But many BYU football greats over the years have been from smaller communities.
The most memorable small-town football hero at BYU is the 1986 Outland Trophy winner Jason Buck. Buck spent his childhood moving with his family from small town to small town all across the northern part of the U.S., before finally settling in St. Anthony, Idaho -- Population: 3,010. Buck, a prep quarterback like Nead, grew up helping his dad raise potatoes, cucumbers and a few cattle before going off to star on the gridiron for both Ricks College and BYU.
Kelly Smith, the starting halfback for BYU's 1984 National Champion team, was from Beaver, Utah -- Population: 2,676, near Cedar City. As a senior at Beaver High School, Smith scored 36 touchdowns and kicked 51 extra points and seven field goals, yet recruiters couldn't have cared less. Smith's flaw: He was from tiny Beaver, one of a graduating class of 54. Luckily, Smith was not discouraged. He walked on at BYU and later became a key player on the nation's best team in 1984.
Wayne Baker, the starting defensive tackle on the first BYU team to go to a bowl (1974 Fiesta Bowl), came from the small town of Plains, Mont. -- Population: 992. Baker, who played eight-man football in high school, was recruited and signed by LaVell Edwards without coach Edwards seeing any film, scouting reports or receiving a personal visit from Baker. Baker's hometown of Plains, near Missoula, was so small that Edwards had to call Baker's neighbor to extend a scholarship offer to him because the Bakers didn't have a phone.
Many Cougar fans will recall the famous Hans Olsen from Weiser, Idaho -- population: 5,343. Although his play on the field was impressive, Olsen will always be remembered for his personal version of Stupid Human Tricks.
"When I was a kid growing up on a farm in Weiser, I use to kill the boredom by balancing things on my chin," Olsen said. "It started with rakes and hoes, and progressed to the point where one day, I balanced two 150-pound railroad ties."
Olsen can thank the small-town way of life for helping him develop his unusual talent near Boise.
The Mormon community of Laie, Hawai`i on the north shore of Oahu is by far the small town that has sent the most football players to BYU. With a population of only 4,585 people, there have been at least 21 Cougars that have called Laie their hometown, including current players Aaron Francisco and Bristol Olomua. So many football stars from Laie chose BYU because of the predominant Mormon influence that is there.
Small towns have, and will continue to generate great football players. The BYU football team and its fans have been on the receiving end of many of those greats. They hope the tradition of small-town heroes continues for a long time to come.
Current Small Town BYU Gridders
Player City, State Population
Spencer Nead Tetonia, Idaho 138
Ben Archibald Gearhart, Ore. 995
Jake Kuresa Millville, Utah 1,507
Forrest Hansen Wayne, Pa. 1,558
Alex Farris Glenns Ferry, Idaho 1,611
Nick Anderson Royal City, Wash. 1,823
Mike Sumko Perry, Utah 2,383
Jared Mack Thatcher, Ariz. 4,022
Aaron Francisco Laie, Hawai`i 4,585
Bristol Olomua Laie, Hawai`i 4,585
Colby Bockwoldt Sunset, Utah 5,204
David Johnson Weiser, Idaho 5,343
Levi Madarieta Weiser, Idaho 5,343
Jared McLaughlin Wetumpka, Ala. 5,726
Isaac Herring Mapleton, Utah 5,809
Ryan Keele Othello, Wash. 5,847
*Population numbers based on 2000 U.S. Census information