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October 31, 2011

Bird savors senior season

In the sporting world, there are certain traditions that ingratiate themselves into the respective, accompanying sport. Take hot dogs and baseball, football and tailgating, the seventh-inning stretch, college football on New Year's Day. All are examples of things that have become part of each respective sport. The list goes on. It seems nothing accompanies sport better than a good old fashioned cliche.

Fans and announcers alike toss them around more than players toss the ball around on the field or court. Coaches spew them endlessly on a daily basis to ward off or dodge the serious questions. Indeed, the cliche has many functions, and the trick is to wade through the speaker's true intent when tossing one out. And the ultimate cliche revolves around stories of the selfless, team player, ever-sacrificing himself for the good of the team.

How then, can one discern between the old cliche and a true team player? Maybe, it's one who walks the walk, rather than talks the talk. One such example of the true and genuine team player is one who takes on mentoring and coaching younger players to the point that they take over his starting spot.

"Really the guy who has helped me the most since I've been here is Greg Bird. He's been with me every night going through our books and making sure I'm getting everything down," said freshman starting safety Eric Rowe. "He knows the defense inside and out, so I feel like there's no one better to learn from than him."

As the only senior on the unit, Bird extended his help and knowledge to every safety on the team.

"[Bird] has been my big brother on the team, and the one that's shown me the ropes. He's taught me the defense and watched film with me all the time," said Quade Chappuis, whose spring and fall camp performances earned him a scholarship. "Without him, I wouldn't know the defense the way I do."

"After I switched [from corner] to safety, Bird was the one who taught me that position. He's been a real big help to me, and been there whenever I needed anything or had questions," said sophomore safety Michael Walker.

Brian Blechen, who had to step into the safety position as a true freshman due to a lack of depth, also relied on Bird during his transition to the new position.

"It was mainly Greg Bird who helped the most last year. He was real cool about spending a bunch of time with me, helping me learn the defense, and the safety position and everything. The coaches too, of course, but it was kind of different to have someone on the field who knew everything and was right there," said Blechen. "I feel like the him helping me out last year was huge in how I played, and learned the position. The safety position here is really complicated, so it takes longer to learn, and he made that a lot easier for me."

Blechen's play at safety was key last season, as the Utes had few answers at the position las season as well. The experience Blechen gained last season has become all the more significant as injuries have depleted an already thin safety unit, necessitating his return to safety from linebacker.

If Bird's willingness to mentor younger players in the program isn't evidence enough, perhaps it's the example he's set throughout his time in the program, bringing the same effort and energy every single day.

"Greg Bird is a guy who has hung in there, he's done everything we've asked him to do. He's been an example on this team with his work ethic and teaching the young guys how we do things here," said head coach Kyle Whittingham. "He's earned the respect of his peers, something that's not always easy to do whether you're a starter, or not. They see him and how he works every day in practice, and so he's earned that. Greg Bird is the same guy every single day in practice, and that's what you want from a player. You want the same, consistent thing, and he's done that."

Bird played in a total of seven games in his freshman and sophomore seasons combined, before playing in all 13 games in 2010. If the story progresses from there, the natural assumption would be that Bird would continue on to a glorious senior season as a starter for a Utah team in its first season in the Pac-12, and the rest is history.

Unfortunately, the story doesn't end that way. Instead, that senior makes his living on special teams, and has been prolific at it, making huge play after huge play - in many cases, game-changing, or even game-winning plays on special teams.

"It's just who I am, and how I raised to go out and do my best. I do it for the team, and I do it for myself, and I don't know really any other way to do it," Bird said. "Obviously, I'd love more playing time, but whether it's special teams, safety, linebacker, or whatever else, I'm going to do it. Whatever it is, I'm going to go all out and play my best. My plan out on the field, whatever position I'm at is to try and make something happen."

The way that Greg Bird has consistently found a way to make a play at key moments on special teams has become so impactful, and so consistent, that he's elevated the special teams unit to something more than the usual side note. Bird has accumulated 30 career tackles through the 2011 season, and each, it seems, made a huge impact or in some way affected the outcome of a game.

It may be to the point where once the special teams unit takes the field, Ute fans actually expect something spectacular to happen. Ute fans are reminded of the Urban Meyer days when special teams was an emphasis and played a pivotal role in Utah's success during Meyer's two year reign.

From big returns ala Shaky Smithson to game-winning blocked punts and big hits, Bird has done it all in his tenure at Utah, but few realize who it was who made the big block and too many don't recollect the name of the guy who blocked the punt or caused/recovered the fumble.

That name, more often than not, is Greg Bird.

"Greg has really excelled in special teams play, and it's become a big part of every special teams game plan. As a coach, to have that kind of impactful player at your disposal kind of opens things up, and gives you options in the game plan," said special teams coach Jay Hill. "He has that kind of knack for it, not everyone has it. It's really a talent, and a gift and it takes a certain player to take it on the way he is. It's the perfect fit for him, and I think people really underestimate that value that he brings to the team, and the whole game."

Bird started his career with Utah back in 2005, when he redshirted before leaving on an LDS mission to Detroit, Michigan for two years. Bird began with the Utes as a linebacker, but was not putting on the weight needed to be a full-time linebacker. However, the biggest factor in his switch to safety was his speed.

"We knew he was a tremendous athlete when we went after him. We wanted him as a linebacker, and he was young and leaving for his mission, so we didn't know about the weight," said defensive coordinator Kalani Sitake. "The biggest thing, the main reason we switched him was that he ended up running like a 4.5-40 or a something. A really fast 40, so we kind of looked at each other, and knew we were going to make the move."

With the unique Ute defense, Sitake and staff have been able to utilize Bird's abilities and speed in a hybrid-type linebacker/safety position, especially against teams like Air Force. Bird is exactly that type of athlete that makes the Ute defense tick. Other players have made their marks this way such as Trevor Reilly and Nai Fotu, who play both linebacker and defensive end, and Bird's charge, Blechen - who is also playing the safety/linebacker position.

"We use him in some different situations. They're situations where not every guy can play it, so his versatility in that way, has been a big positive for us. Bird helps this team in a lot of ways, and unfortunately, it hasn't always been on the field, with a ton of playing time," safeties coach Morgan Scalley. "But I can't be everywhere, helping every guy on the field, so I have relied on him as kind of a coach on the field, helping with all of our young guys. It says a lot about him, because a lot of guys could have handled [the lack of playing time] negatively. He's been always been positive, and given everything, and helped in any way he could."

Bird didn't make his official return to the team after his mission until the spring of 2008. However, he got back from his mission one day before the Utes' 2007 Poinsettia Bowl game versus Navy. A dedicated Ute, Bird made the trip to San Diego to be on the sidelines with the team. Utah would eventually defeat Navy 35-32 in dramatic, last-minute fashion.

It was another Ute bowl victory however that helped convince Bird to choose Utah during his recruitment. Bird, who was recruited as a linebacker, committed just days after the Utes' first BCS-busting bid; a 35-7 win over Pittsburgh in the 2005 Fiesta Bowl.

"I didn't really know anything about Utah or their program when they started recruiting me," recalled Bird. "Then I started paying attention, then when they came down to the Fiesta Bowl it was a pretty big deal."

Bird tripped to Utah two weeks later, effectively ending his recruitment. Ultimately, it was Bird's recruiting visit to Utah that sealed the deal, confirming his decision to commit to Utah. Bird had scheduled a trip to UNLV the following weekend, but canceled it after his experience at Utah.

"Everything just felt right here, and it just kind of clicked for me. I liked the where the program was going. I liked the coaching staff, and that Coach Whit was staying on," Bird said of the trip. "I liked the way the team acted like a family, and that closeness. I really liked the defense, and thought it was a good fit for how I played. I had some family here, so that helped. It just felt comfortable, and I could see myself here."

In addition to Utah, Bird had other offers from Mountain West programs and drew some interest from Penn State after his high school principal opened the door with some personal connections. Bird briefly considered the Nittany Lions but more than anything, he coveted an offer from Arizona State, the local team he followed avidly as an Arizona native.

At Mesa's (Ariz.) Red Mountain High School, Bird grew accustomed to doing whatever it took to help the team. He played defensive back, linebacker, punter and wide receiver, earning all-state honors as a defensive back, while simultaneously setting school records for receiving yards (1,095) and average yards per catch (24.8). Bird's prowess in football was made all the more impressive, given the fact that he didn't start playing the sport until the ninth grade.

"Actually, I didn't start playing football until the ninth grade. Me and my whole family were really into soccer," Bird said. "Then I got to junior high, and all my friends were playing football, so I said 'Mom, I'm playing football', and that was how it happened."

Additionally, Bird excelled in track and basketball as a three-sport athlete. He earned four letters in track and two in basketball at Red Mountain. An extremely athletic family, the Birds made competition and sports the focus of their lives, in particular soccer and basketball, and Bird spent his childhood competing and scrapping against three older brothers in anything, and everything.

"Our whole family is really competitive, and into sports. Even now, at family get-togethers we play basketball, or whatever, and really get at it," Bird said. "It's a big part of how I was raised, and having my brothers and everything, so I just learned how to compete that way. We played everything, and I was also trying to push to keep up."

Extremely close and tight-knit, the Bird family supports their youngest brother, attending as many Utah games as possible. Until this season, Bird's parents had never missed a game, and ironically, the one game they missed was the Arizona State game due to unforseen circumstances.

Bird's brothers and families also try to attend as many as possible, and Bird says he is especially looking forward to this week's trip to Tucson, as the Utes take on the Arizona Wildcats.

"Everyone's going to be able to be down at the Arizona game, so I'm looking forward to seeing them, and playing in front of everyone," Bird said. "It's going to be fun. I'm really excited to have my family there, and you know, in my senior year, it's big."

As Bird wraps up his college football career, his career plans have changed somewhat, as he pursued a degree in Exercise and Sport Science. With some guidance from a close friend from his mission, Bird has seriously begun to consider a career with law enforcement, and specifically the FBI.

With a solid plan post-college, Bird says he is relishing his final weeks as a Ute, looking to draw the absolute most from his time left.

"I hope it doesn't end too soon. I just want to take away as much as I can from my time here. The things I'll remember will just be the struggles of coming out here tired, getting beat up every day. It's hard," Bird said. "But doing that, with your teammates, your family is also the positive thing. I'll remember the come from behind wins, the close games. Even the blow outs. I just think you take all the memories and moments that you had, and take it all away with you when you go."


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