Editor's note: Steve Wiley, Utah State's Night Runner, died on Friday at the age of 67.
LOGAN, Utah -- Standing on the sideline of Utah State football games, Steve Wiley is hard to miss. A massive human being with a white, flowing mullet and a long handlebar mustache, he could easily be cast as Santa Claus or a warlock. And he's heard both comparisons.
In the Cache Valley of Northern Utah, the 67-year-old Wiley isn't just the Aggies' assistant equipment manager. He's much more than that. He is the Night Runner.
Until last month, Wiley hadn't missed a Utah State game since 1995, and even then it took a near-death experience to keep him away. For the first 19 years of that streak, he went so far above and beyond the level of even the most die-hard of fans that it's easy to classify him as one of the most devoted supporters of any program, at any level, in college football history.
Wiley didn't just travel to every game. He volunteered his time -- and his personal vehicles -- to haul the team's football equipment to away games, beginning with a trip to New Mexico State (1,810 miles round trip) on Oct. 21, 1995. Usually paired with his son-in-law, Brian Lee, and a couple of student assistants, Wiley drove approximately 150,000 miles on more than 100 road trips, equivalent to about six trips around the equator.
He drove the Aggies across memberships in the Big West, the WAC, and now the Mountain West, and, over a two-year span in 2003-04, the Sun Belt, in the Southeast.
Wiley estimates he was behind the wheel about 65 percent of the time, during which he said he had to buy six dually pickup trucks, the kind with four tires in the back needed to pull a horse trailer with a payload of about 6,200 pounds. Wiley and his crew would usually pack up the gear and leave after practice on Thursday, drive all night and try to get to the away stadium before the team arrived the following day. Hence Wiley's nickname. He finally only gave it up when Utah State started contracting the job out to parties with a semi truck and trailer in 2013.
Until he retired from his job as a machinist eight years ago and was hired as an assistant equipment manager, Wiley didn't have an official role with Utah State athletics. They tried to give him money for his driving -- at least to cover his expenses -- but Wiley would take that money and donate it back to the athletic department. He turned down mileage reimbursements too, a huge sacrifice when you consider the standard rate was 50 cents a mile even 10 years ago. The university granted his son, Jeremy, a significant academic scholarship to study athletic training, and Wiley saw driving, in part, as a way to show his appreciation. And he liked to do things his own way.
"I was private," Wiley said. "I was never actually employed by the school to drive, so I had my own rules."
He took pride in his work. Inscribed on a few of his six bowl rings are the letters HLNAS, an ode to his time spent on the road with his foot to the floor: Haulin' Ass.
It was common for people to ask him what his job with the program was, and Night Runner -- it's spelled as two words on his shirts -- was a title that just felt right.
Only in rare circumstances, as on trips to Connecticut and South Florida, did Utah State fly its equipment to away games. Most of the time, the Aggies relied on Wiley, who notably made the 3,951-mile trip to Clemson in 2004 and back-to-back 3,510-mile trips to Alabama in 2004 and 2005. He traversed the western United State dozens of times, making frequent trips through the Rocky Mountains, the Sierra Nevadas and across the barren desert of Nevada. They never failed to reach their destination -- though there were a few close calls.
On a trip to play at Nebraska in 2002, the truck broke down Friday morning about 130 miles west of Lincoln. They spent all day at a dealership trying to get an ignition issue fixed, but it still wasn't ready to go at the end of business hours. The mechanics on duty, Wiley says, were anxious to get off work to go to a local strip club and weren't exactly concerned about what would happen if the Utah State gear didn't get to Memorial Stadium the next day. They had already missed Friday's walk-through, but that was only a relatively minor inconvenience.
"I asked Brian how much cash he had on him. Between the two of us, we had about $300," Wiley said. "So I took that cash and laid it down in front of them and said, 'You're fixing the truck tonight.'"
They did. The Utah State gear was there in plenty of time for the game, and no one was the wiser.
Wiley's first season behind the wheel wasn't exactly in the middle of the glory years of Utah State football. It was John L. Smith's first year as head coach, and they were in the midst of a 12th losing season in 14 years. But following wins, he would smoke a cigar with Smith's wife, Diana. After back-to-back 6-5 seasons for Smith, Louisville came calling in 1997. Wiley told the coach it was a payday he would be stupid to pass up.
It's all part of life in a college football program. Wiley has seen players come through, and he's seen coaches come and go, and even come again, such as Gary Andersen, who recently agreed to become Utah State's coach following the departure of Matt Wells for Texas Tech. Wiley and Andersen have a permanent connection.
Following the Aggies' win in the 2012 Famous Idaho Potato Bowl -- just before Andersen left to become the head coach at Wisconsin -- Wiley and Andersen got matching Utah State tattoos. (Andersen's is on his shoulder; Wiley's is on his leg.)
"Steve is Aggie through and through," said Wells, whose relationship with Wiley goes all the way back to when he was a Utah State quarterback from 1993 to 1996. "He bleeds Aggie blue. That is a man who loves his job, loves the players, loves the coaches and remembers every single person that's been in that building as a coach or a player."
To many of the players, he represents a caring father figure during their college years. Most of them call him "Pops."
"He's told these kids' parents, 'I'll keep an eye on your kid,'" his son, Jeremy, said. "And he does. I know he truly and honestly cares about any kid that has worn that uniform, any coach that's been on the sidelines. You may not think it [when you] look at him, but he has about the biggest heart on the planet. When it comes down to it, he's a pretty big softy."
His life has always been intertwined with Utah State football.
He married his wife, Rhonda, before he went to the Vietnam War. After a brief separation, they remarried, in a joint ceremony with their daughter, Michele, and Brian, during a trip to Las Vegas for the Aggies' bowl game against Ball State in 1993.
Eleven years ago, Rhonda died of cervical cancer. She's buried in a cemetery across the street from Maverik Stadium in a plot they'll eventually share, with a headstone that has the Utah State logo on it. He bought the plot because you can see into the stadium from it.
Wiley has rarely let a day pass without stopping by her grave. He visits so often that the grounds' caretaker makes sure there is always a plowed pathway through the snow to a bench Wiley had installed.
That devotion is part of who he is. And there is nowhere in the world he would rather be on Saturday than in Albuquerque, where the Aggies will play North Texas in the New Mexico Bowl (2 p.m. ET, ESPN) with a chance to move to 11-2. But he will be stuck at home, on strict doctor's orders.
Wiley decided in the spring that he would retire after the 2018 season. He realized he was slowing down but wanted to make one more trip with the team to Hawaii for their Nov. 3 game against the Rainbow Warriors. Rhonda never made it there, and it has become tradition for him to drop a lei in the ocean in her memory. Plus, Michele and Brian used the game as a way to celebrate their 25th wedding anniversary.
Instead, it turned into a nightmare.
The day after the game, Wiley woke up feeling strange. Soon, blood started shooting uncontrollably out of his leg, the result of what was eventually diagnosed as a septic infection. He called for help and eventually got the bleeding to stop. In the aftermath, his daughter said his hotel room looked like a crime scene. There was concern he wouldn't be able to fly back to Utah, but a local EMT determined he could get on the plane and seek additional medical treatment upon his return.
Michele and Brian spent a stressful six hours tracking the flight online as it crossed back over the Pacific Ocean. Wiley spent the entire flight shining the light from his cell phone onto his leg to make sure it hadn't started bleeding again.
After landing in Salt Lake City and driving the 85 miles north to Logan, Wiley swung by the football facility to seek advice from the team's medical staff. They told him instead to go to the emergency room. The doctors' immediate concern was to get him stable. He had gone in and out of shock since the initial bleeding, and his leg had swollen up to about one and a half times its usual size. His blood pressure was 84 over 40; his body was shutting down.
It wasn't until later that he found out just how dire the situation was.
"The doctor told me I came this close to dying," said Wiley, bringing his index finger and thumb close together. "That gives a man pretty good perspective."
He spent a week in the hospital and remained there during the team's 62-24 win against San Jose State on Nov. 10. It was the first Aggies game he missed in more than two decades -- and when it was over, Wells told the team there would only be one game ball given out, instead of the usual two, and that it was going to Wiley. Wells surprised him with a visit to his hospital room.
Wiley qualifies as somewhat of a celebrity in Logan.
That's a product of living there his entire life, being heavily involved in the community and, at least partially, due to his unique appearance.
Wiley's son, Jeremy, adopted the mullet look because as a high school football player in the 1980s, he wanted to emulate Brian Bosworth. The look agreed with him, and soon after, his father followed suit and it stuck. It makes him a favorite of Utah State fans and a subject of curiosity on Twitter whenever the Aggies play on television.
Texas Tech can take whoever, but Pops stays in Logan https://t.co/xiJ0YjJIgd— Tipa Galea'i (@TipaGaleai_) November 30, 2018
But he doesn't spend a lot of time on Twitter, and the Vietnam vet -- he was a helicopter crew chief who was awarded a Bronze Star Medal for valor -- doesn't much care what anyone thinks anyway.
"When I returned from Vietnam, I told myself I would never let other people decide how I should look," he said.
For the past three years, Utah State players have run onto the field before every home game with both Utah and American flags. It's Wiley's job to hand off the American flag to whoever has the honor that game, and it's always preceded by a speech.
"He handed it to me and he said, 'I've fought and bled and I have friends who have died for this,'" offensive lineman Quin Ficklin said. "'So take it out there, carry it with respect and I'll be at the other end waiting for you. Give it to me and don't let it touch the ground.'"
Then, after every game, there's another Wiley ritual: Players hand their gear to him and give him a hug before they receive their postgame meal. It's been that way since 1995 and figures to continue at home games, even after Wiley's retirement.
Much to his dismay, Wiley will get his first taste of retirement this week, as he watches the New Mexico Bowl from his couch.
"It's going to be really hard," Wiley said. "Really, really hard. During the other games I missed, there was absolutely no option. For this one, I'm still not in good health, but I'm doing better and wish I could have been there."
He'll be at home surrounded by one of the only things he cares about more than Utah State football: his family. His son, daughter, son-in-law, four grandchildren and a great-granddaughter are all coming over to help him see out his final season as an official member of the program.
Andersen assured Wiley this week that he'll always be welcome around the program, and the return of the coach re-energized Wiley with thoughts of the two old friends (and their matching tattoos) again sharing the sideline.
But, Wiley says, it's the end of an era. After thousands of miles and several decades caring for the underdog football program from Logan, Utah, it's the Night Runner's final ride.