C O L L E G E _ F O O T B A L L

Itula Mili
"I heard it pop and then ...
felt this awful pain in my leg."

Knee injury
jeopardizes Mili’s
pro career

The BYU tight end blew out the ligaments
in his right knee in the WAC title game

By Paul Arnett

LAS VEGAS - Itula Mili went from probable first-round pick in the upcoming National Football League draft to just another citizen on one fateful play.

Early in Saturday's heart-stopping Western Athletic Conference championship game, the Brigham Young University tight end pulled down a 4-yard pass from quarterback Steve Sarkisian.

It was his last at the collegiate level and might be for his career.

As the former Kahuku High standout prepared to turn up field, Wyoming strong safety Brian Lee hit Mili at knee level. Mili's right foot was planted on the rock-hard Sam Boyd Stadium Astroturf as his knee bent inward, blowing out all the ligaments.

''This is the first time anything like this has happened to me,'' a subdued Mili said in the otherwise jubilant BYU locker room minutes after the Cougars secured a stunning 28-25 overtime victory to advance to the Cotton Bowl to play Kansas State.

''But I knew it was bad. I heard it pop and then suddenly I felt this awful pain in my leg. I looked up and saw all my teammates looking down at me. I felt terrible because I knew this was my last play in college.''

Mili will undergo surgery in 10 days to repair the knee. He could be available by the summer, but only on a limited basis. Obviously, he will not only miss BYU's bowl game, but the Hula Bowl as well.

When asked what this did to his NFL dream, Mili could only shake his head.

''That's kind of blurry right now because you don't know how bad it is and how long it will take to rehabilitate it,'' Mili said. ''I'll just have to wait and see. This could definitely be the final game of my career.''

BYU teammates Mark Atuaia, K.O. Kealaluhi and Kaipo McGuire were stunned to see their fallen teammate carried off the field. BYU held a slim, 3-0 lead midway through the first quarter when Mili went down.

''We decided to dedicate the game to him,'' Atuaia said. ''I was so upset to see him that way, I could barely stand it. Itula is like a brother tome. At first, I didn't know what to do.''

Kealaluhi was equally distraught.

''I just broke down and started crying,'' Kealaluhi said. ''It's the kind of injury every football player dreads, but can't help thinking about. He is one of our leaders. Our whole team was so down after that.''

Not until the fourth quarter did Sarkisian complete another pass to a tight end. It was a 30-yarder early in the quarter to Chad Lewis that set up his touchdown catch of 13 yards later in the drive that gave BYU a short-lived 20-17 advantage.

''It hurt us badly not having Itula in there,'' BYU offensive coordinator Norm Chow said. ''It changed the whole complexion of the game. With him out of the lineup, Wyoming was able to double more on the outside. You don't lose a player of Itula's caliber and not notice it.''

Mili was still able to smile after BYU rallied to win the game in overtime. The Cougars will play Kansas State in the Cotton Bowl, something the BYU players with Hawaii ties have dreamed about.

''We wanted to win it for Itula so we could go to a major bowl game,'' McGuire said. ''We knew it was bad just looking at the pain on his face. He had his hands across his face mask.

''All of the Polynesian players got together and said we had to win it for Itula. You have to understand, we are close. We are like family. Seeing him that way just tore us up inside.''

Mili, whose leg was already in a walking cast, didn't exit the locker room right away. He ate some Kentucky Fried Chicken with Chow and his family, while reflecting back on the day's events.

''I'm very happy for my teammates that we won the game,'' Mili said. ''It felt good down inside knowing they were trying to win it for me. I could have stayed in the locker room during the game.

''But I felt my place was out on the field. So, I put my leg in the cast, got on my street clothes and went back to the sidelines to be with my teammates. It was a great moment when we won. I won't forget it.''

With Mili sidelined, it made it doubly difficult for McGuire and Kealaluhi to break free in the secondary. McGuire had only one catch early for 5 yards. Kealaluhi was a little more successful with five catches for 54 yards.

Atuaia had only one carry for 2 yards, but he pulled down six Sarkisian passes for 52 yards, including two receptions on the final drive that set up the tying field goal of 20 yards by walk-on Ethan Pochman to send the game into overtime.

The former BYU soccer player also hit the game-winner of 32 yards to give the Cougars a dramatic 28-25 victory.

''This was our goal to win the WAC championship outright,'' McGuire said. ''And we did it. I don't care where we play because I know it will be on New Years Day.

''The one sad thing is that Itula won't be able to play with us. I know he wishes he could be on the field. We all feel badly for him. I can't believe the big man fell, but it's up to us to win one more game for him.''

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