By Kurt Johnson
Photos courtesy DeseretNews.com
Fred Fernandes is used to rebuilding projects. The Roy High head football coach arrived on campus in 2011 and inherited a Royals’ team that had won just one game in the prior two seasons.
The situation the Roy High alum faced was very similar to those he took on when he started his first two head coaching assignments, at Northridge and Woods Cross. This one was a bit different, as it came at his alma mater, where he was a sophomore receiver in the late 70s when Jim McMahon was the Royals’ senior quarterback.
“I kind of just followed the blueprint that I’ve followed forever, really, a lot of those things that I learned in college,” Fernandes said. “The basic blueprint is you’ve got to get your guys working in the weight room and get them ready to compete at the varsity level. You’ve got to coach just like you would if you had a championship team, even if you don’t. Once the kids are in your program for a while, it all starts to make sense to them and pretty soon, when they’re physically ready to play varsity football, you’ve got a shot to be successful.”
That first year on the sidelines at Roy ended in a 4-5 record, but there were signs that the team was turning the corner. Year 2 brought a winning mark at 5-4, and then came six wins and a postseason berth in 2013, but this year, the Royals ran the table, finishing 9-0 and winning the Region 5 title after a thrilling come-from-behind win over Sky View to close out the regular season.
“Last year, I felt we made a lot of strides,” Fernandes said. “We ended up winning six games and making the playoffs, but then we got matched up with East in the first round and that was a true mismatch. Some of the guys that played in that game came back and said ‘that’s never going to happen to me again.’ They got completely manhandled at the line of scrimmage and some of the junior linemen that started for us…they committed themselves and they had a great offseason.”
Fernandes is quick to credit the players for the program’s turnaround, but the players have noticed their coach’s commitment to getting the team on track.
“To be honest, I think the coaches – Coach Fernandes, Coach Jones and Coach Franks – all of them (are the difference),” said senior quarterback Tyler Skidmore. “They’ve been working non-stop. I think Coach Fernandes lives in his office during the season. He has a couch in there and I’m pretty sure he sleeps there the whole week.”
The Royals were blown out by East in that opening round game in the 2013 playoffs, and that wasn’t fun, but the lessons learned may have been a catalyst for the 2014 campaign.
“Members of our offensive line have learned that ‘Wow, that’s what it’s going to take to play with the big boys,'” Fernandes said. “We were getting just wracked all around the whole game and that was just a total mismatch. They’ve learned that ‘if I’m going to compete with these elite teams and play offensive line, I’d better live in the weight room,’ and they did.
“Our quarterback last year ended up with 12 interceptions for the season, but he threw six in the East game alone. He learned the importance of taking care of the football because a game can get out of hand real quick with six turnovers. I think everybody just picked something out of that game. Obviously, they had some great talent on that team. I think they had the best talent in the state by far. Our kids just had to look at that, and that was their first taste of the playoffs and it just opened their eyes that we’d better get ourselves together if we want to be that type of team.”
Skidmore believes that East game also serves as a motivator for Roy as it prepares for this season’s playoff games.
“East had a really good team, and I noticed when we played them that even at coin flip they were ready and they were determined in their head that they were going to win,” Skidmore said. “I think our team has tried to emulate that.”
Why has Roy reached the region championship level in the fourth year of the Fernandes regime? The coach credits a lot of that to his quarterback.
“I think we’ve got the best quarterback in the state,” Fernandes said. “He’s not getting a lot of attention anywhere, but he just does everything you ask him to do. He hasn’t thrown for the most yards, he hasn’t thrown for the most touchdowns, but he has the highest quarterback ranking in the state at 130. He just takes care of the football and just manages a football game beautifully.
“In my opinion, he’s an NFL guy. He’s going to be a superstar. There’s not anything on the football field that he can’t do, other than run the spread-read. He’s not a running quarterback, he’s a Jim McMahon-type and they have a lot of similarities.”
Skidmore says it has a lot more to do with the guys around him.
“Our offensive line is the best I’ve had since I’ve been here,” he said. “We’ve got big guys up front and they work as hard as they can. All of my receivers are really good, but two guys that stand out are Nate Jones and Cody Hobbs. They are as good as anyone. I think that’s the reason I’m getting all the attention, because of those two. I throw it up and they make me look good. I wouldn’t be as accurate throwing to any other receivers than those two.
“We’ve got a running game of Baby Tee (Eteuati) and Matty (Matautia). They are hard-nosed players. Baby Tee is one of the strongest people I’ve ever met, physically and emotionally, going through what he’s gone through.”
Sense of Community
The community has embraced this team. Skidmore has lived in the same Roy home his entire life and he has seen how the city reacts to the team’s success.
“Growing up, I really didn’t pay much attention,” Skidmore said. “Now, I go to school and I see signs at the grocery stores and a lot of things up at gas stations about the Roy home game tonight. We’ve had to put in extra bleachers in the end zones to hold the people especially for our game last week (Sky View game). I’d say there were about 7,000 in attendance, at least it sounded like that. It was really loud.”
And there has been a lot for the community to embrace. It’s not just on the football field with this group, but there are off-field stories, some of them sad stories, that bring this team and its supporters together. One is the well-documented story of kicker Ben Aikuli, who came from Africa thinking his family was dead.
“There’s just enough human interest stories on this team that actually make it really interesting,” Fernandes said. “Our kicker is just a great individual and it just makes your heart cry. He’s just a great teammate and that’s just added a whole other level of love to my team.”
“My goodness, it (Aikuli’s story) really puts things into perspective,” Skidmore said. “You think football is the most important thing in your life, but to him it really is just fun. That really puts things into perspective for me. He’s such a good kid and always has a smile on his face. The news he received on Mother’s Day, finding his family, I couldn’t be happier for him.”
Another story comes from the Eteuati brothers, whose mother passed away during the 2013 season.
“Baby Tee Eteuati, my fullback, and his little brother, Tyler, their mother passed away in the middle of the season last year, and she was just a football diehard fan and that’s kind of brought everybody together,” Fernandes said. “There’s a lot of emotion that we’re riding as a football team, and good or bad, I think it’s really benefited us.”
The Eteuati’s are Skidmore’s neighbors and the quarterback remembers well the day they lost their mother, and he also thinks often of the Fremont game that followed at the end of that September week in 2013.
“It was devastating,” Skidmore said. “I saw an ambulance by their house, and I saw them at school and asked if everything was alright. They said, ‘yea, my mom just had a scare and they took her to the hospital.’ I heard the news that night, my parents told me. I’ll tell you what, that kid (Baby Tee) is tough, because he played the game the day after. We were down with five seconds left, 12-7, and we threw a Hail Mary from the 50 and he caught it for a touchdown to win the game.
“After the game, our coach named the play, he called it ’76 Tina’ because that is his mom’s name. That was a thrill. He’s just a really tough kid, and Tyler coming up, he’s a sophomore now, he’s also a tough kid and they’re both just really good kids.”
Now, the goal, even for the seniors who will be moving on from Roy High after this season, is to keep the program on top.
“Hopefully after this year, we can just keep maintaining a winning tradition,” Skidmore said. “Back before I came, they just won one game, then when I was a freshman, we won four, and we’ve just gone four games, five games, six games and now nine. I think we just need to maintain a winning tradition and I hope people can see us for who we are and how we play. Roy is a city that’s kind of old and run down, but we have some good people here, good football players, but a lot of good people here.”