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THE HIGHLIGHT REEL WILL TELL YOU THAT IN UCLA'S WIN OVER HOUSTON LAST SEASON, the Bruins showed a flash of dominance when linebacker Akeem Ayers intercepted a pass on the UCLA goal line and ran it back 77 yards. What you may not have seen was the previous play, when Houston quarterback Case Keenum seemed end-zone-bound. "Basically you see this blue blur streak across the screen to stop the quarterback," says UCLA coach Rick Neuheisel. "It was a phenomenal play."
That TD-saving tackle came courtesy of safety Tony Dye, and it's one that Neuheisel shows players as a superlative example of hustle. "[Coach] loves to talk about that play," says Dye. "I'm proud of it."
The Corona, Calif., native didn't hone that hustle on the gridiron—he did it on ice. Introduced to hockey when he was six by his grandfather, who loved watching the sport, the kid with energy to burn took naturally to the rink as a left winger. However unlikely it was for a kid growing up in a warm climate to develop an infatuation with a winter sport, it was even stranger considering that his parents' talents were strictly terrestrial: father Mark played football at San Jose State and baseball in the Houston Astros' organization, and mother Danna plays in an adult soccer league. "We signed him up," says Mark, "and next thing I know, we're in Canada four times a year."
It wasn't until Dye's sophomore year at Santiago High that he turned his focus more intently to football. Playing hockey was getting prohibitively expensive—costs are high in Southern California because of what rinks and teams must spend to maintain the ice—and Tony and his parents and two younger brothers were prepared to move to Minnesota where he would play on scholarship at a prep school.
"That was a pretty big juncture in my life," Dye says. "At the time I wasn't worth anything as a football player. I was very deep [on] the depth chart, [and] I wasn't into it all." But he was even less into the idea of leaving home, so he made the decision to devote his athletic energy to plan B: football. He found that his time on skates had prepared him well. "In hockey you're always going, going, going," says Dye, "and that translates really well to football for me."
It has also translated well for the Bruins: Dye started every game as a sophomore and a junior. "Hockey players are known for unbelievable exertion, and [Tony's] an aggressive guy," says Neuheisel. Indeed, Dye's 8.0 tackles per game (96 total) led UCLA and was fourth best in the conference.
This year, with safety Rahim Moore gone to the NFL, Dye will be even more essential to the D. His talent, versatility (he can play anywhere in the secondary) and his toughness (he has already bounced back from a knee sprain he suffered in spring practice) has earned him a spot on the Lott Trophy watch list, but he is unfazed by the hype. "I feel really comfortable with the pressure right now," he says.
Though Dye insists football is "100 percent my life" these days, hockey still has a place in his heart. He counts among his most thrilling memories a trip to an international hockey tournament in Quebec when he was 13; his California team lost to the Czech Republic in double OT in the final. Despite the defeat Dye remembers how good it felt to make it to that title game, and he has every intention of leading UCLA to great things. "I want to win the Pac-12 more than anything," says Dye. "That's why I work."