Somebody had to be first.
When Paul Petrino in late 2012 took on the challenge of reviving a University of Idaho football program that had been spiraling down ever since the giddy high of its go-for-the-win-two-point-conversion victory over Bowling Green in the 2009 Humanitarian Bowl, he found a football desert, a team with a ton of needs.
When Reuben Mwehla emerged as a second-team KingCo pick from an undefeated Bellevue High School Washington state champion ranked fifth in the nation, the Vandals were probably not his first choice to keep his impressive football roll going.
But as his career as an Idaho receiver tapers to three or possibly four games, if the Vandals can qualify for a bowl, Mwehla can look back on what he is convinced was the right decision at the right time to become the first player to sign with the Vandals in the Petrino era.
“I learned a lot while being here. It was definitely worth it. I became a better man and a better football player.”
With a win over Coastal Carolina Saturday, Idaho’s 16 seniors can match the 11 Kibbie Dome victories posted by the four-year classes of 1999, 2010 and 2011, spanning the years in which the Vandals have played FBS football.
“It’s a great senior class. They’ve done a lot of good things. They should be proud,” says Petrino. “They left the program in a lot better shape than when they showed up.”
In this group, the first guy still stands out. “He’s just a special young man,” Petrino says of Mwehla. “He works extremely hard at everything he does. He does everything he can for the team. He’s always team first.” In Mwehla’s final home appearance, “I would love for him to go out there and have a big game.” For his senior year, through nine games, Mwehla has 18 receptions for 213 yards and two touchdowns.
Even though he was a product of the elite Bellevue High program that won 11 state titles in 16 years before it was derailed, and even though he trained at the controversial, hard-charging Ford Sports Performance in Bellevue, Mwehla didn’t bring a football-first mentality to his decision about where to go to college.
What sold him on the Vandals was the family atmosphere the coaching staff projected – a big deal for someone who acknowledges he grew up without a father figure – and the respect the coaches showed his mother on his recruiting visit to Moscow.
“It seemed like the coaches really cared about the players, which I loved,” Mwehla said, and “my mom was really happy. They made her feel at home. Seeing her happy made me love the place even more.”
After five years at Idaho, Mwehla says none of this was an act. Idaho’s coaches still “care about their players here. they want what’s best for them.”
Which is not to say Mwehla ever felt coddled.
“We worked hard every day I was here. They pushed you the way you are supposed to be pushed,” he said.
As Petrino points out, though, Mwehla brought his own motor. He came to Moscow the summer before his freshman year to begin working out with his new team. He showed up at 205 pounds, he says. “I was a big dude.” However, with the intensity of those summer workouts “I was 175 or 180 by the time we were about to start fall camp.”
After a redshirt year he played mostly on special teams in 2014 and made his way into the receiver rotation the following year, when the Vandals left behind back-to-back one-win seasons to win four games.
“That’s when things started to look up for us,”Mwehla said. “We saw the team we could have been.”
The Vandals completed their turnaround last year with a nine-win season crowned by a victory over Colorado State in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl.
“I think God was just rewarding us,” says Mwehla of the bowl season. “I’ll remember that for the rest of my life.”
In Mwehla’s final season, the 3-6 Vandals have outperformed their record, he says. Three of Idaho’s losses in the Sun Belt Conference were by a combined 11 points. “We’ve come up short this year,” he acknowledges. “But you could tell what kind of team we are.”
At Idaho, Mwehla will mostly be remembered for what he accomplished as the Vandals’ number 26. But he also achieved the fundamental goal of a college education. He became thoughtful. From a “day-to-day type of guy, I’ll think about my future later,” Mwehla said, “now I realize how important things are. There are a lot of sad things that are happening in the world. I pay attention to these types of things more lately. I realize how short life can be. We have to be happy and do the best we can to make others happy.”
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