Top 10 Polynesian Players in BYU history: #2 Harvey Unga

Harvey Unga looks back at the Utah defender he steamrolled to get into the end zone for the game winning touchdown in 2007.

Harvey Unga is a running back with a similar size and playing style to Lakei Heimuli--the number three player on this list. He is also the fourth Polynesian player on this list that played running back for the BYU Cougars. When asked why Polynesians make such good running backs, especially big backs, Unga pointed out that many Polynesian boys have a rugby background.

Unga explained that rugby allows big guys to still hold the ball and develop their ability to run in space. He learned to play rugby from his dad and his uncles, and that has made it innate in him to run and move despite being bigger than a typical running back (6-foot, 237 pounds). Unga pointed out that he wasn't the biggest Polynesian running back on the BYU roster while at BYU. He said Fui Vakapuna and Manase Tonga were both bigger than him.

For a spot so high on this list, it is hard to believe that Unga's BYU football career almost didn't happen. Unga played high school football in the shadows of LaVell Edwards Stadium at Timpview High School in Provo, Utah. As a senior, he helped Timpview win the state championship and was named first-team All-State. However, during his freshman year as a Cougar, Unga suffered a serious injury that put his playing career in jeopardy.

Entering 2006, Unga wasn't part of the two-deep roster, but he was able to get a sniff of major college football by playing special teams. He also got a taste of carrying the ball and the end zone at the end of a blowout win against Tulsa. That was the last game he saw the field that season.

Unga suffered a hip injury. It was the same hip injury that ended Bo Jackson's professional football career. Unga's BYU teammate Dennis Pitta suffered the same hip injury while playing for the Baltimore Ravens, which caused him to miss most of three seasons and, ultimately, retire prematurely.

It was a difficult decision for Unga, but he decided to return to the team in 2007 as a redshirt freshman. He was humbled by his injury the year before, and was just working to do what he could to make the team better, to continue the winning tradition, and to perfect his craft. Unga didn't think he would start that season, but when the Cougars took the field for game one against Arizona, he was in the backfield.

He scored BYU's first touchdown on a 27-yard catch in the first quarter. He also scored BYU's last touchdown on an 11-yard run in the fourth quarter. He led the team in rushing (15 carries, 67 yards) and receiving (nine receptions, 127 yards).

The Cougar offense was going to go through Unga that year.

Unga's first 100-yard rushing game came at Tulsa in game three. He would top the century mark seven times that season. The only BYU player with more 100-yard rushing games in a season is Luke Staley (2001). A 53-yard catch against Colorado State helped Unga have his second 100-yard receiving game of the season.

Unga's two biggest games were the final two games of the regular season. All game, he punished the Utah defense. He rushed for 141 yards, averaging over six yards a carry, and scored the game winning touchdown with just 38 seconds left. He also had a 27-yard catch. The following week at San Diego State, Unga ran for 161 yards and found the end zone four times (three rushing, one receiving).

In his own word, it was a "magical" season for Unga. It was the best freshman season in BYU history. He set a new freshman rushing mark with the fourth most rushing yards in a season, at that time, for any class (1,227). He was also third on the team with 44 pass receptions and 655 yards receiving (second most by a freshman). His 17 total touchdowns was second most in school history. Unga's 1,882 all-purpose yards are still the third most in school history for a single season.

Going into 2008, Unga was a known commodity. He didn't have the luxury of surprising opponents anymore, but that didn't hurt his production. In the season opener, he scored three touchdowns in the first half. While his role in the passing game diminished, he was still the Cougars' primary back. He led the team in rushing every game that year.

Source: Doug Pensinger/Getty Images
Against Colorado State, Unga had a key 40-yard touchdown run during a wild fourth quarter that had five lead changes. After a lethargic first half for the entire BYU team against Air Force, the Cougars trailed 14-10. Unga scored two touchdowns in the first six minutes of the third quarter to give BYU the lead and control of the game.

Unga ended the season with his second 1,000 yard rushing season. He led the team in scoring for the second straight season, too.

The BYU Cougars would open the 2009 season playing in the palace in Dallas--the $1 billion new stadium for the Dallas Cowboys. The opponent was equally imposing: number three ranked Oklahoma led by reigning Heisman Trophy winner Sam Bradford. The only problem was Unga would not play. He had pulled his hamstring during fall camp, and Unga's playing status would be a game-time decision. During warmups it was evident he hadn't recovered enough to play. That didn't mean he wouldn't be a factor in the game.

Unga demonstrated true leadership in that moment. Rather than sink off to the back of the crowd, he relished the opportunity to help his replacement Bryan Kariya. Unga told Blue Cougar Football that one of the best moments of his college career was the conversation he had with Kariya before the game and seeing his excitement and nervousness, and then coaching him up on the sideline throughout the game. Kariya came up big for BYU all night long converting several third downs.

Unga's unselfish leadership came out again later in the season. At UNLV, he ran for three touchdowns in the first half. He was poised to get his fourth in the third quarter. BYU had the ball at the UNLV one-yard line. The play call from the sideline was for quarterback Max Hall to give the ball to Unga. In the huddle, Unga objected. He told Hall that fullback Jo Jo Pili deserved to experience the trill of scoring a touchdown. It would be the only touchdown of Pili's career.

Opposing defenses continued to struggle to find an answer to the question how to stop Unga. By the time Air Force came to town, Unga trailed Curtis Brown by a few yards for the most rushing yards in school history. Unga, however, was completely unaware. No one ever mentioned it to him. In his mind it was just another game.

As Unga recalls, he broke the record on a seemly run-of-the-mill run. However, the crowd started going crazy. He had no idea why they were so excited for such an average carry. Then, he noticed Mark Atuaia on the sideline motioning to him to come out of the game. When he got to the sideline Atuaia and others were celebrating with Unga. He still didn't understand why everyone was so excited. It wasn't until he heard the announcement over the PA system informing the crowd of the new record that Unga found out about it.

Unga was able to appreciate the moment after the game. He felt it was a huge, big-time achievement. However, he and the rest of the team still had some unfinished business.

There was still a game against Utah on the schedule. The Utes had embarrassed the Cougars the year before. Unga did his part to make sure that didn't happen again. He ran for 116 yards and one touchdown. It was the 15th 100-yard rushing game of his career. That put him in a tie with Brown for the most in a career. Also, in his career, Unga averaged 124.3 yards rushing against Utah. He never had less than 116.

BYU beat Utah in overtime and went on to win its bowl game against nationally ranked Oregon State. Unga would score the final touchdown of his collegiate career in that game. He scored 45 times in Cougar blue (36 rushing, 9 receiving). Only Staley has more touchdowns in BYU history (48 total, 41 rushing).

Unga scores the final touchdown of his college career (Daniel Gluskoter, AP).

What was Unga's secret for getting into the end zone so often? He gives credit to Lance Reynolds, running backs coach, during his playing days. Unga explained that Reynolds instilled in the running backs a mentality to "smell blood" once the offense reached the opponent's 30-yard line. He would tell the offensive coordinator to give his backs the ball once the BYU offense was in scoring territory. That caused Unga to fight to get into the end zone whenever he had the ball and use any means necessary, be it through speed or by overpowering defenders. He had the attitude that no one was going to stop him.

Unga also set a school record for most rush attempts in a career. He is currently fourth all-time in career all-purpose yards with 4,540.

 Rush  Yards  Ave.  TD    Rec.  Yards  Ave.  TD 


Unga ended up leaving BYU a year early. He was taken by the Chicago Bears in the seventh round of the 2010 NFL Supplemental Draft. Unga had a tumultuous NFL career. He stuck around for five seasons, but never appeared in any games.

Blue Cougar Football also asked Unga to provide an insight into the Polynesian culture that readers might not be aware of. Unga is of Tongan descent. He explained that visitors to Tonga, namely Captian Cook, called these islands the friendly islands. According to Unga, that is because Tongans have a deep love for everyone. Tongans, and Polynesians in general, have a deep love for everything they do. Some people may look at football as a barbaric sport, but because of his Tongan roots, he sees it as a selfless sport. Football players give their all for their team. They play from their heart. Their power on the field comes from love.

Top 10 Polynesian Players 
10. Mekeli Ieremia, DT, 1974-77
9. Kurt Gouveia, LB, 1982-85
8. Reno Mahe, WR/RB, 1998, 2001-02
7. Glen Kozlowski, WR, 1981, 1983-85
6. Aaron Francisco, DB, 2001-04
5. Vai Sikahema, PR/KR/RB, 1980-81, 1984-85
4. Kai Nacua, FS, 2013-16
3. Lakei Heimuli, RB, 1983-86
2. Harvey Unga, RB, 2006-09
1. Kyle Van Noy, LB, 2010-13

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