Former Boise State defensive lineman Paul Reyna never got to trot onto the field for a regular-season game at Albertsons Stadium, but he’s indelibly linked to the Broncos.
Reyna was a freshman at Boise State when he died in August 1999 as a result of a head injury suffered in a preseason scrimmage.
A plaque featuring his picture hangs outside the Broncos’ locker room, and players have made a tradition out of touching it on the way to the field on game day.
Below Reyna’s face, the plaque includes a quote his mother, Carolyn Gusman, shared with his classmates and teammates the day after he died: “Be not afraid… Go out and win championships.”
There aren’t any players or coaches currently on Boise State’s roster that met Reyna. Most of the players were born after he died, but his legacy lives on.
Reyna’s younger sister, Ryann Gusman-Reyna, will graduate from Boise State on Saturday with a degree in business administration. When she walks across the stage, she’ll do so wearing her brother’s graduation tassel, which was presented to her during a ceremony at the Stueckle Sky Center on Friday.
“My brother was always a good person, and he was always happy and treated people with love and respect,” Gusman-Reyna said. “I was shocked by this, but I’m so thankful for the opportunity to fulfill his dream of graduating.”
Gusman-Reyna, 40, is 14 months younger than her brother. She’s been on and off with school as she spent much of the past couple decades taking care of her mother and building a career as an accountant for a hardwood flooring company in California.
She decided to finish her degree after a trip to Boise for the 20th anniversary of Reyna’s death in 2019.
“I left Boise that time in a better place than where I was after his passing,” Gusman-Reyna said. “I came home and knew this was where I needed to come to finish my degree. I know in my heart it was the same feeling Paul had when he came here.”
Reyna had scholarship offers from several schools when he graduated from Bishop Amat High School in California. His mother said he was set to sign with another program when he decided at the last minute to visit Boise State at the behest of former football coach Dirk Koetter.
Gusman could tell her son had found his perfect fit as soon as he stepped off the plane from Boise. She had the same feeling when she returned home with Gusman-Reyna in 2019.
Gusman plans to celebrate as two of her children graduate on Saturday — the youngest of her four children in person and Reyna in spirit.
“Everything really has come full circle,” Carolyn Gusman said. “Paul loved Boise State, and this is something he would have experienced when he graduated.”
‘A life cut way too short’
The day Gusman learned of her son’s injury is etched into her memory.
The phone was ringing when she and Gusman-Reyna arrived at their home in La Puente, California, after an evening out on the town.
Gusman-Reyna ran inside to answer it, and she knew right away that something was wrong. Former Boise State assistant coach Tom Nordquist was calling, and he didn’t sound like himself.
“Normally, all of our interactions with the coaches were really upbeat and positive,” Gusman-Reyna said. “Usually it was ‘Hi, Ryann. How are you doing?’ But his tone was different, and he said right away that he needed to speak to mom.”
Reyna had just arrived at Boise State to begin his college football career a few weeks earlier. She assumed the coach was calling to update her on his progress.
Gusman wasn’t concerned when she heard he was injured. Her son played football for most of his life, and she understood that injuries came with the territory. Warning bells didn’t start going off in her mind until Nordquist mentioned Reyna had suffered a head injury and was in surgery.
“Paul had never had surgery of any kind,” Carolyn Gusman said. “When you hear head injury, surgery and brain in the same sentence, that’s a bad combination.”
Reyna suffered a torn blood vessel between his brain and skull after tripping over a teammate, falling backwards and hitting his head on the turf during a scrimmage in August 1999. He was immediately rushed to the hospital and underwent surgery to stop the bleeding and remove a blood clot, but he never regained consciousness.
Five days later, on Aug. 23, 1999, Reyna was declared brain dead. He was 19.
“For a young man to lose his life like that and for his family to endure what they did, it’s incredibly traumatic,” Koetter said. “It was a life cut way too short.”
‘It’s not something you get over’
Gusman isn’t the only one who will never forget the day Reyna was injured. It’s also seared into Koetter’s memory.
Koetter said he can still see the young defensive lineman falling backwards as if in slow motion, and his voice still cracks with emotion when recounting the events that unfolded.
“When you recruit a kid to go away to school and you tell their parents you’re going to take care of them and that happens, it’s not something you get over,” Koetter said.
Koetter said the most difficult thing he had to do in his 37-year coaching career was gather his team the day Reyna died and deliver the news.
“Football is a violent game and there’s risk of injury on every play,” Koetter said, “but you sure don’t ever think it’s going to result in death.”
Koetter hadn’t seen Gusman since the 20th anniversary of Reyna’s death, and he didn’t know Gusman-Reyna was a student at Boise State until he found out she was graduating.
Koetter was reunited with the family on Friday as he presented Gusman-Reyna with her brother’s tassel during a graduation ceremony for Boise State athletes.
“That family has shown unbelievable strength,” Koetter said. “As a parent myself, I can’t imagine the strength and courage it took on their part to carry on. There’s no doubt it had a huge impact on all the players and coaches that have come through this program.”
Gusman and her daughter will head home on Sunday after a visit to Table Rock — a place that was so special to Reyna that his headstone includes an etching of the 60-foot cross perched on top of the popular hiking trail.
The celebration of his life won’t end there. Every year on Reyna’s birthday, the family makes a special trip to one of his favorite restaurants, Taco Bell.
“You could go broke trying to feed Paul anything — even Taco Bell,” Gusman said.