By Wendy Weiler
It’s all fun and games, until somebody loses an eye.
Apparently fun and games were all BYU football fans had in mind when they threw out more than 3,100 corn tortilla shells at a Sept. 6 game. But somebody did get hurt; and if things get worse, those weak little tortilla shells may hurt the fans and the team.
“I turned to give my friend a high-five, and I got hit in the face with a tortilla,” said David Low, 18, a freshman from Calgary, Alberta, with an open major. “I was shocked and chagrined that such riffraff attend BYU sporting events. Some people think it’s funny, but there’s nothing funny about a bruise.”
Other students think the tortillas add to the excitement and spirit of the game.
“I think it’s great,” said Ryan Jensen, 24, a senior from Mesa, Ariz. majoring in industrial design. “BYU is known for its creativity. Other schools throw toilet paper; we throw tortillas. I think it’s going to sweep the nation.”
Tortillas may not sweep the nation, but they are definitely sweeping BYU. The issue has everyone from the administration to ESPN talking tortillas. The athletic department met Tuesday morning and discussed the tortilla trend in detail.
“It’s completely inappropriate of a BYU crowd,” said Duff Tittle, associate athletic director.
At the first football game, 500 tortillas were smuggled into the stadium under the blankets and sweatshirts of fans. The movement caught on and fans finagled in more than six times the tortillas at Friday’s game against Hawaii. Right after Marcus Whalen scored the first touchdown, 3,100 corn shells flew into the air.
“It was like being inside a Jiffy Pop popcorn bag,” Jensen said.
Throwing tortillas is nothing new at Cougar games. However, the shells have never been thrown in these 4-digit quantities before.
“They may have been throwing a few in years past,” said Paul James, former BYU football commentator, “but it hasn’t been anything noticeable like this year.”
Numbers of tortillas have soared this year because a few fans had a vision.
These few fans, who call themselves the Tortilleros, got the fiesta started. The Daily Universe spoke with members of the Tortilleros, who asked to have their names remain anonymous for fear of retribution from administration. The Daily Universe does not normally allow anonymous sources but has chosen to do so with this story. “John” and “Joe” said they’re trying to get a tradition started.
“What goes on at BYU football games?” John said. “They don’t let us do anything. We can’t rush the field or tear down the goal post. We need some life at the game. Enough of the wave. As fun as that is, we wanted something more.”
Joe said he knows he didn’t originate the tortilla tossing concept, but he wanted to take it to the next level.
“The main purpose is to show support for the team,” Joe said. “You can cheer, and that”s nice, but when thousands of tortillas are flying – that”s excitement.”
The night before the game against Hawaii, the Tortilleros personally bought more than 3,100 tortillas, buying out the entire stock of Mission corn tortilla shells at Macey”s Food and Drug. Between the two of them, John and Joe put down $60, buying 2000 shells. They took the shells to the dorms, where they knew they would have supporters.
“Freshman are all about tradition and getting something started,” John said.
Much to the Tortilleros” surprise, freshmen were willing to donate money for the cause in exchange for the shells. More than $30 in donations later, John and Joe went back to the store and bought even more tortillas.
“We turned around and dropped every dime we got on tortillas,” Joe said. “We”re not out for money. We”re out to feed something that is larger than life.”
The viral growth of the tortilla tossing has surprised everyone, including Joe, who said this has gone far beyond his expectations.
“When I saw those tortillas flying in waves, I almost cried,” Joe said. “I derive a great deal of satisfaction knowing that we provided 5 percent of Lavell Edward”s stadium with tortillas.”
The phenomenon has spawned all kinds of rumors.
ESPN sportscasters speculated the fans were throwing the tortillas as a bitter statement against not being invited to the Fiesta Bowl last year.
Joe said this has absolutely nothing to do with the Fiesta Bowl, but everything to do with excitement.
By the time the second touchdown rolled around Friday night, the tortillas had been picked up and were thrown again.
“We don”t want them on the field,” John said. “We want them in the stands so they can be recycled in the 3rd and 4th quarters.”
The true Tortilleros have perfected the tortilla tossing technique.
“You take half a stack, about 16 tortillas, fan the stack, and then you let them fly into the crowd after the first touchdown,” John said.
Ironically, John and Joe said they didn”t bring in any of their own ammunition for the game against Hawaii. They passed out every tortilla they had.
John said a favorite point of the game was when his got smacked with his own idea.
“I got hit with a flour tortilla,” John said. “We didn”t buy any flour tortillas. Great, this means somebody else is bringing them.”
Not everyone shares in the quesadilla quest.
Adam Clark, 28, a graduate student from Elk Ridge, Utah County, studying education is the president of BYU Superfans and is very opposed to the tortilla trend.
“It”s the dumbest thing I have ever seen,” Clark said. “It doesn”t say you”re a good fan at all.”
Clark said he associates this kind of behavior with the fans at Utah State, the University of Utah or the University of Wyoming.
“If we want to put ourselves in the same category as these other schools, go ahead and throw things, we can be just like them,” Clark said. “I love BYU fans. We have the greatest fans. When we come together and get rowdy, it”s great. I know we have that in us, and I”d like to see more of that.”
Clark said he is concerned about the image it gives of BYU fans.
“It made us look stupid on national television,” he said. “Now ESPN and the rest of the country thinks we”re throwing tortillas in protest of the Fiesta Bowl.”
Fiesta Bowl invite or not, some students said the tortillas add to the success of the players and make the Cougars a better team.
Jensen said he thinks without the tortillas, BYU wouldn”t have beaten Hawaii.
“The margin of victory was so small, there is no question,” Jensen said. “The tortillas pushed us over the edge.”
Tortillas may not have caused the win, but some players said it doesn”t hurt either.
Tight end Spencer Nead said he doesn”t mind the fans behavior nor the tortillas.
“I like it; it doesn”t bother me,” Nead said. “The fans help us out so much. Anything they want to do to show support is fine.”
Tittle said administration is concerned for three reasons.
“First, someone could get hurt,” Tittle said. “All it takes is one person getting hit and the university has a lawsuit. The person throwing is liable too.”
LaVell Edwards Stadium has a policy restricting the throwing of anything, even paper airplanes. Anyone who breaks the policy is subject to removal from the stadium.
“Anything thrown as a projectile can be considered a missle,” said Lt. Greg Barber, manager of administrative services. “If it causes an injury, it can result in either criminal or civil consequences.”
Tittle said the athletic department has already received e-mails, comments and complaints of people getting hit by tortillas.
“The second concern is that it”s poor sportsmanship,” he said. “We pride ourselves for being above the rest, and this just doesn”t show well.”
Finally, Tittle said if BYU fans are out of control throwing anything, officials could call a 15-yard penalty against the Cougars.
The Tortilleros are not surprised with the university”s concerns, but they are hardly halted by them.
“I would be shocked the day someone gets hurt by a tortilla,” John said.
His supporters agree.
“It”s a freaking tortilla,” said Ryan Peterson, 22, a junior from Portland, Ore., majoring in microbiology. “You don”t get hurt by it. You pick it up and throw it again.”
Joe said they practice safe tortilla throwing only.
“We only use the softest tortillas,” Joe said. “We use Mission corn tortillas. They are thrower- and spectator-friendly.”
Some beg to differ.
Clark said he remembers seeing a girl get hit in the forehead with a tortilla when BYU played the University of Utah in Fall of 1999.
“She turned around to look up and one of them came straight down,” Clark said. “The edge was really hard and it hit her in just the right spot. I saw her get cut. Later I got an email from her friend saying she had to get several stitches in her forehead.”
As for the poor sportsmanship, Joe said he thinks a poor fan is someone who doesn”t do things like this.
And in response to the possible penalty, Joe responded:
“Whoop-de-freaking-do. Fifteen yards isn”t going to hurt us that bad.”
The aftermath of the tortillas has other people bothered.
Roy Peterman, director of grounds, has been cleaning the football fields after the games for 30-plus years. He said the wash down last Friday took an hour longer than usual. Peterman said he thinks there are other ways to support the team.
“Instead, organize yourselves to cheer in an upbeat, positive way,” Peterman said. “Make the university have a positive light instead of a glimpse of bizarre behavior.”
Tittle said the athletic department plans to take action at the next home game, the Homecoming game scheduled for Oct. 19 against UNLV.
“We will be telling fans that if caught throwing anything on to the field, they will be escorted out of the stadium for that game,” Tittle said. “If it doesn’t work, we may start checking people at the door.”
Although they would not say specifically, the Tortilleros told The Daily Universe they have big plans for the Homecoming game.
“We plan to increase our numbers for the next home game,” Joe said. “We figure we can round up three to four times more tortillas with all our donations.”
Jeff Reynolds, associate director of Athletic Media Relations, said he hopes fans would chose other ways to get involved in the game.
“Our marketing statement this year is ‘Be Heard,'” Reynolds said. “Find a different way to be heard. There are a hundred other ways to get involved and get excited about the game. Tortillas don’t make any noise. We want noise.”
Speaking of marketing, John said he’s seen the billboards on Interstate 15. His favorite is the one that says, “Bring the family. Bring the casserole.”
“I’m bringing the ingredients,” John said. “If anybody else brings the chicken and the sour cream, we’re ready to go.”