About Utah: Elder Wirthlin's goodness now a legacy at U.

Published: Friday, Jan. 16 2009 10:02 a.m. MST

In the 91 years he was on this Earth, Elder Joseph B. Wirthlin, by all accounts and in spite of his many accomplishments, was a most unassuming man.

"He taught us to never really seek the limelight," remembers his son and namesake, Joseph B. Wirthlin Jr. "Just be good to others and let life take care of itself. That's how he himself tried to live."

So it was something of an out-of-character aberration when the University of Utah played Alabama on national television in the Sugar Bowl two weeks ago and Elder Wirthlin's name was all over the field.

On the side of every Utah helmet were the initials JBW.

"Quite a humbling time in our family," says Joe Jr.

And quite an extraordinary honor for their dad.

Elder Wirthlin, then the oldest living apostle of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, died six weeks ago, on Dec. 1, 2008, nine days after watching the football team from the University of Utah — his University of Utah — defeat Brigham Young University 48-24.

His death, due to incidence of age, wasn't entirely unexpected. But it was mourned and lamented widely, including by members of the Sugar Bowl-bound Utah football team, who were used to hearing inspirational talks from a man who played football not just before they were born, but before their parents were born.

In 1934, 1935 and 1936, "Speedy" Joe Wirthlin was a running back for coach Ike Armstrong during a golden age of U. football unrivaled until, well, now.

All his life, Elder Wirthlin maintained fealty to the Utes of his youth, joining the faceless crowd to regularly and quite anonymously cheer on his alma mater.

But as often happens with fine art, literature and wise men, the older Speedy Joe Wirthlin got, the more his value multiplied and appreciated.

Six years ago, at the spry age of 85, he was invited by new Ute coach Urban Meyer to come to spring practice and address the team.

Quietly, which was his way, he became the team's inspirational leader — the Utes' Yoda.

Urban Meyer, an ambitious young football coach born in Ohio and named after a Catholic pope, formed a particularly fond attachment to the Mormon apostle born in Utah. As Joe Jr. recounts, "Their relationship just clicked. ... Urban wanted to know about the (LDS) church, and Dad wanted to know about football."

Before long, Elder Wirthlin was accompanying the team on road trips as well as attending all the home games. "He felt wanted; he felt he could contribute. He would tell me, 'If I can inspire these young people to work hard and play with honor and integrity, I want to do that,"' says his son.

Later, when the Utes' 12-0 2004 season catapulted Meyer to the head job at the University of Florida, he invited his venerable Salt Lake friend to join him in Gainesville to watch the Gators play.

Elder Wirthlin made that trip with his wife, Elisa, who died in 2006, but at heart he was a Utah man, and what coach Meyer got started, his successor, Kyle Whittingham, kept going. For the past four seasons, Elder Wirthlin remained a de facto member of the Utah team — every bit the mentor to Whittingham that he was to Meyer.

"He gave me lots of good advice and wisdom. I got to know him well," says Whittingham. "He was a great man and a huge fan of football."

At the aforementioned 48-24 triumph over BYU, Elder Wirthlin stayed in the stands until it was time to tear down the goalposts.

If not for the unfortunate timing of his death, he would assuredly have been in the Louisiana Superdome for Utah's first-ever appearance in the Sugar Bowl.

The Utes took him there anyway.

"I'm not sure whose brainchild it was to put his initials on the helmets," says Whittingham. "But everyone agreed it was a good way to pay tribute to him."

Even better was the 31-17 thrashing of Alabama that is regarded as the greatest victory in University of Utah football history.

The win vaulted the Utes all the way to No. 2 in the final Associated Press poll — second only to the team from Florida, coached by that other guy Elder Wirthlin mentored.

It's small wonder that Urban Meyer and Kyle Whittingham were the first to contribute to the Elder Joseph B. Wirthlin Family Scholarship that was established in mid-December as yet another tribute to the grand old man of Utah football. The good that JBW did for others, well-concealed during his life, is now part of his — and Utah football's — legacy.


Lee Benson's column runs Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Sunday. Please send e-mail to benson@desnews.com.

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