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Bronco's Brother: The mystery of BYU's Mat Mendenhall

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Mat Mendenhall had just won the Super Bowl as a starter in his second NFL season. It would be his last football game.

The Washington Redskins selected Mat Mendenhall in the second round of the 1980 draft.
The Washington Redskins selected Mat Mendenhall in the second round of the 1980 draft.
photo courtesy Washington Redskins

In the legendary Rose Bowl Stadium, with a crowd of 103,667 -- and an additional 81.7 million people watching on television -- the Washington Redskins won Super Bowl XVII over the Miami Dolphins, 27-10. The Redskins' victory was punctuated by a terrific defensive effort in the second half that stifled the Dolphins to gaining only two first downs with zero pass completions.

The starting left defensive end for the Redskins was a second-year player from Brigham Young University: Mat Mendenhall.

As the victory confetti was falling, one can only imagine the range of thoughts and emotions Mat Mendenhall was experiencing. He must have been overjoyed at his boyhood dreams coming true. Gratitude for his family. Fulfillment for the pay-off for the hard work and determination it took just to be on that field.

One thing is for certain: There is no way Mendenhall thought he just played his final professional football game.

But he had.

★ ★ ★

Standing at 6-foot-6, 237 pounds, Mendenhall devastated offensive linemen and terrorized quarterbacks. In 1978 as a junior at BYU, Mendenhall recorded 11 sacks, 24 QB hurries, 16 tackles for loss, and 4 forced fumbles. He was 1st Team All-WAC and an honorable mention All-American. Even more exciting, he had NFL scouts salivating. He was tabbed to be a 1st-round draft pick.

Months later, Mendenhall's stomach didn't feel right. In fact, it was in a lot of pain.

"I thought it was maybe an ulcer." Mendenhall said.

After two months of pain and suffering, Mendenhall decided he better have it looked into. It wasn't an ulcer. He actually had ruptured his appendix, and it had been ruptured for weeks. Ouch.

He immediately went under the knife, but one week later had to have a second operation as he had complications. An obstruction led doctors to remove part of his intestines -- an invasive procedure that caused Mendenhall to start wearing a flexible plastic shield in his abdomen.

"Things were really touch and go for a week after that. I was conscious most of the time, and my parents kept me posted as to just how serious things were." Mendenhall stated.

After his second operation, he remained in the hospital for three weeks until he was released just 3-4 weeks before his senior season would start.

Once he was able, Mat vigorously worked to get back onto the playing field. His weight had dropped down to 215 pounds. Through strenuous weight training and exercise programs, Mendenhall worked his way back to his playing weight. He would miss the first three games of the BYU season, but he debuted his senior season in week four on October 5 against Hawaii, seeing the field for only a few plays.

Each week he would gradually get more playing time. A few plays turned into whole drives, then a half, and finally he play the entirety of the final three games of the regular season.

★ ★ ★

The Washington Redskins had a problem heading into the 1980 NFL Draft.

"We didn't have a third- or fourth- (round pick) that year," recalled then-Washington Redskin General Manager Bobby Beathard, "and we need to get a defensive lineman."

Beathard used his first round draft choice on a wide receiver from Syracuse University, Art Monk. Monk would win three Super Bowls with the Redskins during his Hall of Fame career.

In the second round with the 55th pick in the draft, Beathard selected Mat Mendenhall.

"We were hoping this year that we'd see what we saw in Mat's junior year in college," Beathard continued. "He was a real highly rated player then, who did things that excited you. We took somewhat of a gamble that he'd come back to his junior year form."

During a press conference the day after he was drafted, Mendenhall said, "If it hadn't been for the operations, I would have been a number 1 pick. But the Redskins saw something in me and I'm happy for that."

As a rookie, Mendenhall played in all 14 games, starting 11 of them. He started every game in the strike-shortened 1982 season on their way to a Super Bowl victory.

"We probably reached a little," Beathart quipped, "but we satisfied a need when he started for us for two years."

★ ★ ★

Fresh off a Super Bowl victory, Mendenhall headed into Redskins training camp. It was slated to be six weeks long. About four weeks into the camp, something strange happened.

Mendenhall disappeared. Without telling anyone in the Redskins organization.

"I don't know what happened, maybe it was one of those personal things," said head coach Joe Gibbs.

"All I know is that I came back into my room this evening and everything was cleared out but my stuff," said tight end Clint Didier, Mendenhall's training camp roommate. "No, Mat never told me anything about it."

Mendenhall had packed his bags and gone back home to Alpine, Utah. Unaware of what was going on, the baffled football team announced that Mendenhall had one week to return to training camp.

One week passed. Mendenhall never showed up. Nor did he communicate with the Redskins organization.

In response, the Redskins placed him on the non-football-related injured reserve list for 1983. And he never played again.

Mendenhall's disappearance has long baffled Redskins fans.

Some people feel that he left because the Redskins were going to name Todd Liebenstein as the starting left end. The theory was that Mendenhall could tell his time on the field was going to end because of the incredible depth the team had on the defensive line, with Dexter Manley and the freshly drafted Charles Mann now in the fold. Unable to cope with the competition for playing time, it was thought, Mendenhall bolted.

Maybe it was because he was frustrated at being used until it was a passing down, when he would be substituted for Tony McGee.

Other have just assumed he quit.

The prevalent theory, which is featured in a blog post on the official Washington Redskins website, is that he was a changed man by the operations back in college and that caused him to stop playing in the NFL.

None of these explanations, however, are correct.

Gary Pomerantz of The Washington Post reported on August 1, 1984 that, "According to sources close to the situation, Mendenhall entered an alcohol rehabilitation center during his time away."

"I had some personal problems that needed to get taken care of," said Mendenhall.

It is also a common belief amongst Redskins fans and writers that Mendenhall simply never bothered to contact the organization after he abruptly walked out on them.

This, too, is incorrect.

In fact, Mendenhall rejoined the team in 1983 in week eight. He was never removed from the non-football-related IR list, so he never played. He did practice with the team, and his coaches said his performances in practice ranked among his best ever.

This led to the Redskins signing Mendenhall to another contract for one year in 1984 at $125,000.

During his practices, Mendenhall suffered a setback with his elbow. At the beginning of the offseason, Mendenhall was encouraged to get his elbow operated on by the Redskins team doctors. "I think he's free to go get advice from anybody he chooses," then-Head Coach Joe Gibbs said. "Of course, we think we have the best doctors available. In fact, I know we do."

Mendenhall elected to have his elbow surgery performed by his private doctor. The operation, according to Redskins trainer Bubba Tyer, corrected only part of the elbow problem.

"The doctor removed the part that was giving me trouble at the time," Mendenhall said.

Like his surgery to his appendix, there were further complications shortly thereafter. Mendenhall attended the 1984 Redskins training camp with the rookies, nine days before the veterans were due to report. After several practices, his elbow began to swell up.

"I guess during practice something else happened," Mendenhall stated. "The major problem is that the elbow is locking on me. There is no way I could play now."

Reports at the time indicated that Mendenhall was going to be traded to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for a middle- to late-round draft pick, but when he needed to get his elbow operated on again it meant he was going to be out for another season -- and the Buccaneers withdrew their interest.

Coach Joe Gibbs said of the elbow setback, "I would say that is it for him with the Redskins. He's missed so much time the last couple of years. Our defensive line, we feel, is very competitive and so once he made that decision (to have surgery), I talked to him and I felt like — and I think he feels the same way — that he would have a better chance somewhere else."

Gibbs further added, "It's been one thing after another. I think it reaches a point where, after a while you go, 'There are so many bad memories here and so many bad things that have happened to him.'"

Mendenhall was hopeful to get a fresh start, "It's disappointing, It seems like every time I bust my butt, something knocks me down again. I'll try to get my elbow in shape and try to get with another team next year. I don't think it would be good for me to get back with the Redskins at all. I need to go someplace and have a fresh start. I would like to play in the West somewhere, so my family could see me play."

This conclusion was reached on August 1, 1984. He was done with the Redskins.

Two weeks later, Saturday morning, August 18, near his home in Northern Virginia, Mat Mendenhall drove his van into a curb and highway marker. Uninjured in the crash, he was arrested for drunken driving and refusal to take the breathalyzer test. He would spend the night in a Loudoun County Jail. On September 8, he pleaded guilty to the charges. He was fined $100 and ordered to attend an Alcohol Safety Action Program.

The 18-month negative momentum following his athletic peak was too strong: an odd absence, a combination of bad luck and poor judgment on his initial elbow surgery, and an inability to handle his demons.

Mat Mendenhall's NFL career was over.

★ ★ ★

As I was doing research for the Best BYU Players by Jersey Number series, it was clear Mat Mendenhall is BYU's #83. As I tried to learn more about him, I was puzzled and startled by the Washington Redskins blog post that is the top result when you Google his name.

Did he really just disappear and never come back or explain himself?

This was strange. If something like this happened today, can you imagine how much it would dominate ESPN? The starting Super Bowl Champion defensive end just... left?

Outside of being the current BYU head coach's brother, had any former BYU player I researched had a narrative published by their former employer about their vanishing, I would have wanted to investigate it. While I was able to find out more about the scenario, I don't know if the record being made straight is preferable in Mat Mendenhall's eyes. Maybe he'd rather have just disappeared.

But in some ways, he still has.

Decades have passed since this saga occurred. Not much can be found about what has happened since then. Mat Mendenhall continues to keep a low, if not absent profile. He did turn up once after his brother became BYU's head coach.

We learned that Mat was the inspiration for his younger brother Bronco's love of motorcycling. Mat had noticed how tense Bronco had become since becoming the Cougars' head coach, so Mat suggested Bronco go for a ride. It has since been an important part of Bronco's life.

From left: Brothers Bronco, Mat and Marty Mendenhall (Deseret News)

Mat's story is about health misfortune and fear. His ability to find his way back from his life-threatening appendix episode to play weeks later, get drafted in the second round and win a Super Bowl indicates he has the bravery and willpower to overcome both of those things.

Here's to hoping Mat's path has led him to conquer both to find peace and happiness.

Quotes were obtained through researching microfilm and online archives of newspapers. Information with links that lead to a login page require a LexisNexis account to access.