Tender Mercy: Mendenhall Remembers The Best Times With His Father

By Jerry Ratcliffe

Photo Courtesy Matt Riley/UVA Media Relations

Bronco Mendenhall will always remember the whistle.

Not a coaching whistle, mind you, one of the tools of his trade. Rather a distinct, shrill reverberation that pierced the air of stadiums from little league football to LaVell Edwards Stadium at BYU.

Crowd noise didn’t matter. Mendenhall could easily distinguish his father Paul’s whistle above any commotion. The whistle was his dad’s personal stamp of approval of the son’s deeds on the football field.

It became legend in the Mendenhall household, around Provo and beyond. It was a story retold by the Virginia football coach Friday night after the Cavaliers opened training camp at historic Lambeth Field. Mendenhall had just returned to Charlottesville on Friday after sharing the last five weeks of his father’s life in Alpine, Utah.

Paul Mendenhall passed away this week at age 87.

“So when you work on the farm — my dad grew up on a ranch in Stockton, California — if you can’t whistle, the dogs don’t obey you and you can’t round up the sheep and cows and horses,” Mendenhall told media after practice. “He took that whistle to every game, starting from little league on. When he whistled, it only happened if I did something good, which was infrequent I would say.”

Infrequent perhaps, but nevertheless boosted Bronco’s confidence. There was an acknowledgement that his father was proud, and certainly that mattered.

“I worked hard and it mattered to me to gain my dad’s respect,” Mendenhall said. “It mattered to me to get his approval. His whistles were one of the things that let me know, that at least for that moment, that I was on track.”

July is normally the only break for college football coaches, away from spring practice, summer camps, recruiting and the like. That’s usually when every football coach in the country is on vacation.

Mendenhall’s July was more challenging. His father had battled dementia for the past three years and so when the break in the schedule came, Mendenhall went home to be with his dad. The only interruption was his duty to attend the ACC Football Kickoff event in Charlotte a couple of weeks ago.

No one who covers the team was aware of the situation. Everyone was under the impression that Mendenhall was flying back out west to continue his vacation when the Kickoff ended.

Instead, Mendenhall described his trip home as tender mercy that he was able to be with his dad until the end.

“I was able to spend the last five weeks with him, being the primary care giver,” UVA’s coach said. “I consider that an absolute blessing to be able to serve him and my mom. It allowed me to have a sense of peace that I couldn’t have had if I wasn’t there seeing it.”

The support he and his family received during the ordeal was meaningful. Mendenhall’s voice was on the verge of cracking several times as he recounted the calls and texts he received from his coaching staff and their families. Upon his return Friday, an hour before practice, he was greeted with seven cards that every player had signed.

In typical Mendenhall style, he used the moment as a life lesson to the young men that he’s coaching in football, but also coaching in life.

“I tried to do the best I could to frame what family means and what a healthy father-son relationship looks like,” Mendenhall said of the meeting with his team. “My dad was my best friend. Growing up, we worked side by side. I didn’t ever have to look outside his example to know how to conduct myself.”

(See video below for a touching recount of Paul and Bronco Mendenhall’s special relationship).

To Mendenhall, his father was the perfect example of faith, work ethic, and character, the ideal patriarch of a family, leading and doing all the things that he valued as most important.

The bond between him and his dad was unbreakable, undeniable. I remember asking him on the day he was hired as Virginia’s football coach about his unique name: Marc Bronco Clay Mendenhall, known to us and the football world as Bronco.

“There is a story,” Mendenhall said. “My mom was fiercely opposed [to the name], and wanted to call me George because my birthday is February 21st, the president’s holiday, and no way was George happening to my dad and brothers.

“To my mom’s and granda’s chagrin, my dad named me, and his background was in the ranching business, in the sheep business. But he got a passion for training and developing cutting horses, cow cutting. He had that in mind, and then I was raised with that intent.”

Bronco himself ended up training and teaching 12 to 15 colts a year, and was in boots and spurs from the time he was in fifth grade on, and learned the work ethic from his father.

“I think my dad named me that intentionally, knowing that he was going to become more involved in the horse business, and would need help. My brothers were all older and I was going to be it.”

It was his fifth-grade year, and the Mendenhalls had moved out in the country when Paul Mendenhall tossed the keys to the truck to young Bronco and instructed him to go feed 200 of the cattle.

And, he had never taught me to drive,” Mendenhall chuckled.

If you’re wondering, yes, the truck had a clutch.

“This was early before school and he expected me to go do the chores. I mean, I was in the fifth grade,” Mendenhall said, remembering that he wasn’t big enough to both see over the steering wheel and reach the gas pedal at the same time.

“If I pushed the gas pedal, I couldn’t see. If I saw, I couldn’t push the gas pedal. I went and grabbed a stick from one of the closeby trees and I used that to push the gas so I could see. I’ll bet he was just laughing as he sent me.  The expectation was that I would find a way, and I did.”

His father was cut from a rugged cloth. Mendenhall witnessed that growing up in the stockyards when his father simply wasn’t backing down to anybody. What was right, was right, and Paul Mendenhall wasn’t afraid of anyone, any challenge.

That toughness served the elder Mendenhall well when he played tight end and defensive end for BYU in the days of one-platoon football, when players had to play on both offense and defense.

“The only thing he told me about his college career is that he dropped a touchdown pass in the first televised game with BYU versus Utah,” Bronco said. “Whether that’s true or not, I don’t know. Sometimes he embellished on occasion.”

While Paul Mendenhall watched Bronco follow in his footsteps as a college football player, then extended that success by becoming the BYU coach for 11 seasons, he didn’t really get to enjoy his son’s success in turning around Virginia football.

He didn’t have the opportunity to travel to Charlottesville or the East Coast to watch his son’s teams, but rather watched on TV.

“His dementia over the past three years, he would occasionally know that I was the coach of the team that was playing,” Bronco explained. “It mattered to him how I treated other people and it matter to him that I was teaching young people. I think he expected me to groom them the way he groomed me.”

Mendenhall said his personal healing will come through his team. He truly loves being with his team and has been humbled as the recipient of advice and caregiving by them over the past month.

He will carry on his dad’s legacy, but admitted he doesn’t have a similar discriminating whistle. Members of his UVA coaching staff, the ones who played for him at BYU, said that rather than a whistle, Mendenhall has “a look.” Bronco describes it as “a nod.”

“It’s more subtle, but I think it has a similar effect,” he divulged. “There’s no replicating my dad’s whistle.”

A man of strong faith, Mendenhall is confident of where his father is and what his father’s future will be.

He won’t be surprised some day on the sidelines if he catches himself listening above the noise of the crowd and wondering, was that a whistle he just heard. Somewhere, Paul Mendenhall will be smiling.

Comments

  1. Carl Johnson says:

    Great article Jerry. You’ve captured Bronco not only as a coach but as a kind, compassionate, caring son. What a great example he is to the young men he coaches and teaches. Your skill with words is most appreciated. Oh, and thank you for making your website free of charge and canceling my fee. You’re the best.

    • Jerry Ratcliffe says:

      You’re most welcome Carl. Thanks for the kind words. All I ask is that you help spread to word about my website to Virginia fans that doesn’t know it exists. Thank you.

  2. Alex says:

    Great article Jerry. I was wondering how Bronco was dealing with this

    • Jerry Ratcliffe says:

      I believe Bronco has dealt with this as well as anyone could. The fact that he recognized the end was near and spent the last five weeks of his father’s life with him was a great comfort.

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