It’s always nice to get to see and hear some of the best Aggie athletes talk about their time at Utah State.
Saturday was a special night indeed as the Utah State Athletics Hall of Fame grew by six. The class of 2020 was inducted at a banquet held in the Wayne Estes Center on campus. Yes, that’s right, the class of 2020 as last year’s planned induction was called off due to COVID. There will be a larger than normal class next spring to include 2021 and 2022.
While they had to wait a year, each spoke of how humbled they were to be included among the best Aggie athletes ever. Emcee Craig Hislop summed it up best by calling them the “best of the best.”
No argument here.
The latest class to be inducted included five athletes I’ve had a chance to cover during my time as a sports reporter. It brought back many pleasant memories.
The new members included Zuzana Cernianska, Eric Franson, Russ Paulsen, Donald Penn, Kevin Robinson and Kendall Youngblood. Cernianska, a volleyball All-American from the Czech Republic, was the only one not able to make it as she is living in France and could not leave and return to the country because of COVID restrictions in France. However, there were recorded comments and video of her accepting the honor.
There was plenty of gratefulness and emotion shown throughout the evening. From Youngblood talking about his parents, to Penn wishing his mother was still alive to see the ceremony, to Robinson wishing his brother, who was an assistant coach at USU and went on to coach in the NFL, could also see this day as he passed away almost a year ago. Franson and Paulsen also showed emotion talking about the sacrifices parents made to help them get where they are.
“I wish there were more young people here,” USU Athletics Director John Hartwell said in his closing remarks. “Who says real men don’t cry. Emotion is a good thing, emotion is a very positive thing.”
Hartwell also shared a story relating to what Paulsen had pointed out about being an Aggie family. Penn, who was still playing in the NFL, returned to Logan during the season to attend the funeral of Steve Wiley, a beloved equipment manager and booster.
“Donald came back in the middle of an NFL season to pay tribute to one of our equipment managers,” Hartwell said. “That speaks volumes of Aggie family. Let’s don’t lose sight of that.”
After being a four-year starter as an offensive lineman at USU, Penn spent 14 years in the NFL, starting 170 consecutive games. He recently retired.
During his speech Saturday, Penn referred to himself as “knucklehead” at times while in Logan, but learned lessons that set him up for life.
“I made relationships for life here,” Penn said. “I told Kevin (Robinson) yesterday, who knew. I like saying it, ‘Hall of Famer. Hall of Famer.’ It’s a blessing and I worked my butt off for this. I love Logan and Utah State.”
Robinson and Penn were teammates for two seasons. Robinson said he was surprised to get the call about the Hall of Fame. I was not. He was one of the most dynamic players at returning kickoffs and punts for the Aggies that I’ve seen. He was also a pretty good wide receiver.
But what brought him to Logan was a chance to get to know his brother, John Rushing, better. Rushing was 15 years older.
“This is hard and emotional for me,” Robinson said. “I want to thank Utah State for letting my brother recruit and coach me. The reason I came here was to create a brother bond, which we did.”
Each talked about coaches and teammates. All six of the new Hall of Fame members had former teammates and some coaches in attendance Saturday.
Youngblood and Franson, both basketball players, had head coach Kohn Smith and assistant Jimmy Moore, who is in the Hall of Fame himself as an Aggie player, there to witness their inductions. Franson finished his career at USU playing for Larry Eustachy.
“When I came here on my recruiting trip, Kendall took me golfing with Terrell Baldwin,” Franson said. “... I want to thank everyone that was a part of this.”
Franson was just as proud of being an Academic All-American as any accolade he got on the court.
“My time at Utah State could not have been happier,” Franson said. “From my teammates and coaches, to the academic side with my fellow civil engineers, I will be forever grateful for my fellow students that helped me. I met my wife here. I couldn’t have written up my time here any better.”
Youngblood could have gone and played Division I football as Pac-12 schools were after him, but “I loved basketball more than football,” he said, and he credited Moore with recruiting him to be an Aggie. The four-year starter shared a memory when he was a freshman at the Big West Tournament and had 11 turnovers in the first half.
“Yeah, I had a triple-double that game,” Youngblood quipped. “... All coach Smith said to me at halftime was ‘quit turning the ball over.’ He believed in me.”
A group of his teammates surprised him by being at the event Saturday night.
“I couldn’t be prouder to be an alumni of Utah State,” Youngblood said.
Coming from Iowa and “the wrestling belt,” Paulsen made the trek west to check out USU. His first view of Cache Valley had him sold on becoming an Aggie.
“As soon as we came out of Logan Canyon and I saw the valley, I said, ‘this is the place,’” Paulsen said.
And he spent nearly a decade in the valley as an athlete and then an assistant coach. His coach Bob Carlson, who is in the Hall of Fame, was on hand Saturday, as well as several other members of the Hall of Fame that are wrestlers.
“I still fly my Aggie flag at my house,” said Paulsen, who went 87-13-2 during his career. “I have never considered myself a Hall of Famer. I am an average person. I feel way above average after this weekend. Thank you.”
Cernianska summed it up best in how all six athletes felt.
“I am truly honored,” Cernianska said. “This is an incredible honor and privilege. I want to thank coach Burt Fuller and my teammates. Go Aggies.”