Mixing football and art

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Blair Buswell’s hands can painstakingly and skillfully sculpt fine details into rough clay, but he isn’t your typical sculptor.

Those large, strong hands that now create such delicate art once gripped footballs as he dove through defensive lines.

His skills as a running back would eventually bring him to BYU, where he found his home both on the field and in the art studio. He walked on the football team and studied art on a scholarship.

Blair Buswell makes the final touches on his bronze statue of former UCLA head basketball coach, the late John Wooden.

“(Art) was something I had always done,” Buswell said. “I didn’t really think (art and football) was a strange combination. It was something I’d always done since I was a little kid.”

Originally from Ogden, Buswell was a top running back in high school, making the All-Region, All-Area, All-State and All-American teams. He was team captain and was Weber High School’s “Best Athlete” during the 1974–75 school year.

Buswell then went to Ricks Junior College, where he excelled on the football field for two seasons — as team captain and in earning MVP and All-Conference awards. He also excelled in his childhood love: art.

After his LDS mission to Washington, D.C., Buswell turned down football recruitment and scholarship at Weber State and Utah State and transferred to Brigham Young University for its art program. As a walk-on to the football team, Buswell played in BYU’s first bowl win, the storied 1980 Miracle Bowl.

“Most of my teammates didn’t know what I did, I just played ball,” Buswell said. “They didn’t know until after. They’ve all gotten to know what I do now. Back then I was just another player.”

Because of his experience with BYU legend LaVell Edwards, and with the likes of Steve Young, Jim McMahon, Robbie Bosco and current BYU athletic director Tom Holmoe, few would expect the beautiful art pieces Buswell created to come from a running back.

The team’s doctor, Dr. Brent Pratley, however, had seen firsthand Buswell’s artwork and fit Buswell with protective pads for his hands before every game to preserve and protect them.

“(Brent Pratley) was the one that had seen what I’d done and said, ‘You’re crazy to be out here,’ and he checked and made sure I had my handpads on before the game,” Buswell said.

While still a student, Buswell sculpted bronze statues of McMahon and BYU basketball great Danny Ainge. He also taught a night sculpting class for beginning to advanced non-majors.

“I would go from practice and change and run to teach my class,” Buswell said.

Buswell took his love for athletics and art and merged them together to find his niche in sports art.

“When I first came out of college there was a big Western art craze,” Buswell said. “Everyone (was) trying to be (Frederic) Remington and (Charles Marion) Russell. I decided then I’d rather go off and be the Remington or Russell of something I knew the best, rather than the Blair Buswell of Western that would be just another name thrown in the Western art craze. So I went off and did sports and climbed to the top of that field.”

Buswell was hired by the Football Hall of Fame upon graduation and has sculpted over 60 busts for all of the new Pro Football Hall of Fame inductees, including former teammate Steve Young. He also created the Super Bowl XIX, XX and XXI medallions.

Buswell attended the Pro Bowl in Hawaii for many years and told Young, “If you keep doing this, these MVP seasons, you and I are going to spend some time together in the Hall of Fame.”

“He just laughed,” Buswell said. But in 2005, when Young was inducted into the Hall of Fame, Buswell sculpted the bust that now sits among the other football greats.

“I was able to give him a big hug and a congratulations, and he posed for me a little later,” Buswell said. “It’s awesome to sculpt a teammate.”

In 1990, Buswell was named the Sport Artist of the Year — the first sculptor to ever receive this award.

“I did sports because that’s what I knew,” Buswell said. “I used my knowledge of being an athlete and an artist to design pieces that capture the intensity of an action in the moment or the feeling of a win or a loss.”

In 2005, he received the Eliza R. Snow Distinguished Alumni, Art and Music Award. And in 2008 he received both the BYU Football Distinguished Alumni and the BYU Distinguished Alumni awards.

Most recently, Buswell unveiled his 8-foot-tall bronze statue of UCLA’s late basketball coach John Wooden at Pauley Pavilion on October 26. Wooden led the Bruins to 10 NCAA championships from 1948 to 1975.

Buswell said it was a privilege to sculpt one of the greatest basketball coaches in history and that the statue was well received by Wooden’s family and former players.

“I captured (Wooden) on the sideline coaching so that when the students walk by they become the players,” Buswell said. “He’s looking out on the court so when they’re walking to and from class he’s watching them.”

Buswell has made a name for himself in the art world for his impressive sports sculptures, capturing the athleticism and physical talent of his subjects on the field or court. While Buswell can and does sculpt other types of art, sports art brings the best of two worlds together for him.

“Football and art (have) been a big part of my life all the way along, and being able to combine my two loves together has been a lot fun,” Buswell said. “As a sculptor, I get to meet and have some of the greatest athletes and coaches pose for me and get to know them. You can’t beat that.”

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