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Bryan Kehl's big Mormon family and the blessings of adoption

Published: Thursday, June 16 2011 4:00 a.m. MDT

Mason Woodward, a friend of Bryan Kehl, is a running back at Syracuse High School. Like Kehl, Woodward is adopted.

Roger Woodward Family

Editor's note: At the time this story was written, Bryan Kehl was with the St. Louis Rams. He recently signed with the Washington Redskins.

"And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God." (Romans 8:28)

In the predawn hours of Saturday, June 16, 1984, a baby was born, wrapped in a white blanket and purposely kept from the young woman on the hospital bed. The infant male with bits of black hair was fed a bottle by his grandmother before he received a priesthood blessing at the hands of his grandfather. As the women looked on, the grandfather gently kissed the little one's forehead and handed him to the nurse.

Then he was gone.

More than 25 years later on a night in early December, the mother, Amy Smith, was preparing her five children for bed when the phone rang. An old friend delivered news that landed like a bombshell. The child Smith had given up for adoption in 1984 had found his biological father and was interested in meeting her. Never in her wildest dreams did she imagine this day would come. Now the Smiths had a major decision to make.

Initially, revisiting the past caused some anxiety and awkward feelings. But fear eventually evaporated into hugs, joyful tears and expressions of love.

As he celebrates his 27th birthday today, Bryan Kehl, the adopted baby, says reconnecting with his vast biological family has been a glimpse of heaven. The incredible experience illustrates that given time, the Lord can extract the most good out of some unfortunate circumstances.

"Nobody owns anybody, we are all brothers and sisters, and we are down here (on earth) to help each other struggle through the difficulties of life. When you have that perspective, it really changes you," said Kehl, an NFL linebacker for the St. Louis Rams. "This could be what it's like whenever we die and go to the other side. We will be introduced to family members and ancestors we have never known."

* * * 

"We glory in tribulation also: knowing that tribulation worketh patience." (Romans 5:3)

In the early 1980s, Amy Evans (Smith) was a student and Aggiette at Utah State. She was dating an Aggie football player named Maurice Turner when she discovered she was pregnant. Initially, she assumed they would get married. Turner loved her but didn't think marriage was the solution.

Not prepared to raise a child on her own, Evans opted for adoption. Turner asked her not to give the baby up, that he and his family could raise the child, but Evans didn't think so. She felt strongly that having the child placed in an LDS home where he could be sealed to a family was the right thing to do. Turner objected but didn't stop the adoption.

"I felt at peace with the whole decision. It was the right thing to do," Amy said. "Now when I look back at all the timing of it, I feel like Heavenly Father had the whole situation in his hands and he knew what would happen, and … things would work out the way he wanted them to work out."

The biracial child arrived in the capable arms of two very experienced parents, Gary and Nancy Kehl. They named him Bryan. He became one of nine children in the Kehl home, and one of six adopted.

The Kehls are generous, compassionate people. Over an eight-year period, Gary and Nancy welcomed in and cared for 13 different unwed mothers. They have also sponsored 23 foster children. They did all this while raising and adopting the other children. Bryan was in good hands.

A year later, Amy had her life back in order. She was attending Weber State when she began dating a returned missionary named Brian Smith. As their relationship deepened, Amy knew she needed to tell Brian about her past. It was not easy.

One day she sat Brian down and told the story of the previous summer. If he wanted out of the relationship, she understood.

Brian admits he was tempted to judge her but was struck by a distinct, stronger feeling: "If you choose to abandon this relationship and this beautiful, trusting girl at this point, you will never forgive yourself and you will be no better than a hypocrite."

Brian himself was adopted and had imagined the desperate situation of his own biological mother. He was prepared for this moment. Their love intensified, and Brian eventually proposed to Amy on June 16, 1985, so she could have a more positive memory of that day.

* * * 

"And patience, experience." (Romans 5:4)

Finding his biological parents was something that just happened, Bryan Kehl said.

He always knew he was adopted, but he felt no desire to find his biological parents. Then one day he became curious.

The Kehl family's legend was that Bryan's father was an NFL running back. In reality, all Kehl knew was the man's height, weight, eye and hair color. For fun, he searched the Internet for a player drafted from Utah in 1983. Kehl's finger stopped at No. 325 in the 12th round, where Minnesota picked Maurice Turner, RB, Utah State.

He found a roster and compared the measurements. They matched. Kehl told his mother, and his mother told some friends, who opted to track Turner down. In no time they had a phone number, and contact was made.

It was a phone call Maurice Turner had been waiting 25 years to receive.

"Bryan, you can't understand what this is like," Turner told Kehl the first time they spoke in 2009. "I have been praying for this phone call every day of my life."

At the time, the 6-foot-2, 235-pound Kehl played for the New York Giants. At the end of the 2009 season, the Giants had a game in Minnesota, and the weekend turned into a family reunion. The meeting was emotional and could not have gone better. It was fascinating for Kehl to learn about his father. He now had another big piece in the puzzle of his life. Now he was interested in meeting his biological mother, if she was willing.

But it was a little more complicated for the Smiths. First, the news was overwhelming. Second, how would they break the news to their five kids? Was the timing right? Brian wanted to protect his wife, so they took some time to process what was happening. First, Amy googled Bryan and learned all she could about him. Chills ran through her body as she discovered he served an LDS mission and married a beautiful woman in an LDS temple. Among the many things she learned, that was all she needed to know.

"It appeared he was an amazing person. I really couldn't wait to meet him," she said.

Finally, she worked up the courage to send a text message. The text led to a phone call, and that led to a secret meeting with the Kehls in Holladay. Things were "awkward" at first because the Smiths didn't want to intrude. They didn't know if they should hug or shake hands. What was appropriate? But the Kehls welcomed them with open arms and the ice was quickly broken. Nancy had no reservations about Bryan meeting his birth mother.

"There are so many who don't want their kids to go out looking. How sad. How would you like to go throughout life never knowing what happened to your child?" Nancy said. "So far it hasn't backfired. Maybe this happened so we could tell others that it's OK."

They visited, looked at photo albums and watched Bryan's wedding video. At the end of the evening, Bryan offered a heartwarming family prayer. It felt good for Amy to finally meet the child she had given up 25 years earlier.

"It was an awesome experience. We couldn't get over how cool they all were and how wonderful they made us feel," Amy said. "I was so glad we had finally taken that leap of faith."

Amy and Brian met Bryan again for lunch before the Smiths told their kids in a family home evening almost two months later. Amy and Brian had counseled together and prayed about what to do, and telling the kids felt right. The children were astonished but accepting of their mother and excited to meet their half brother. They were told he served a mission and was married, but not told his identity or that he played in the NFL.

On Sunday, Feb. 28, 2010, the Kehls pulled up to the Smiths' Ogden home. A welcome message was painted in the large living room window. A text was sent out inviting extended relatives. Some recognized Kehl right away because they were BYU fans and had followed his career. The sizable family surrounded Kehl in a big circle and the atmosphere was electric as stories were told and memories shared. Pictures were taken. A strong spirit filled the room.

One of the night's most tender moments came when Amy's elderly father gently kissed Kehl on the forehead. "That is what I did the last time I saw you," he said sweetly.

"That night was one of the greatest nights of my life," Amy said. "It just went so well."

* * * 

"And experience, hope: and hope maketh not ashamed; because the love of God is shed abroad in our hearts." (Romans 5:4-5)

This coming fall, Mason Woodward will be a junior at Syracuse High School. In 2007, he and his parents were invited to attend an LDS fireside in West Point, where Bryan Kehl was the featured speaker. Woodward and Kehl had a lot in common. Like Bryan, Mason is the son of a Caucasian woman and an African-American man. The mother, who was Mormon, wanted him placed in an LDS home. Roger and Cindy Woodward adopted him shortly after his birth.

Upon learning this, Kehl expressed interest in meeting Mason after the fireside.

"Bryan walked in and said, 'Hey, my little bro,'" Cindy recalled. "Their stories were so similar, and you could see chemistry between them."

Phone numbers were exchanged, and the two kept in touch.

Fast forward to Jan. 3, 2010, the day the Vikings hosted the Giants and the same weekend Kehl met his biological father, Maurice Turner. Mason and his father, Roger, were also at the game. The trip was a Christmas present because Mason's favorite player is Minnesota's Adrian Peterson.

Bryan was visiting with his two fathers on the field when he realized it was almost time for warm-ups and he needed to suit up. He hustled toward the visiting locker room when guilt forced him to stop to sign an autograph for a little girl. Then he noticed a familiar face and a head of dreadlocks.

"What are you doing here?" Kehl exclaimed when he saw Mason.

He invited Mason to meet him after the game.

The Vikings destroyed the Giants in the game, 44-7, but Kehl didn't let that ruin his special reunion. He introduced Mason to Turner's family and his adopted family. He also handed him his game cleats, gloves and sweat bands.

Mason practically floated back home to Utah.

"We have a ton in common, and I see a lot of myself in him," Kehl said regarding his friendship with his "little bro." "It was important I reach out and try to be a positive influence."

Mason plans to be just like him, not only on the football field, but he wants to serve a mission and get married.

Someday, he also hopes to meet his biological parents.

"I think Mason looks at Bryan's adoption experience as positive, and he is more comfortable with his situation," Roger Woodward said. "I can't think of a better role model for our son."

Considering the whole spectrum of his experience, from growing up adopted to meeting his biological family and befriending Mason, Bryan Kehl is humbled by the blessings in his life. He knows that not every adoption has a happy ending.

"I have wondered, why me? Why now? Honestly it has been one of the most unique and special moments of my life. There aren't words to describe the feelings. It's still surreal," Kehl said.

"I am 100 percent confident it was meant to be. We were meant to be reunited and it has been a blessing for all of us."

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