Editor's note: This is the fourth in an occasional series that follows and explores Vai Sikahema's quest to find and thank the people in his life who assisted him in his youth. Read about Marty Klein, Barbara Nielsen and Ross Farnsworth
Neal Nelson is the reason I grew up loathing BYU.
Nelson was my Scoutmaster and the biggest BYU fan I've known in the 32 years I've been personally associated with BYU.
Because he was constantly talking about BYU this and BYU that, like the rebellious teenager that I sometimes was, I became a contrarian simply to annoy him. I became an Arizona State Sun Devil fan. And sometimes over campfires, we would debate and banter back and forth about BYU versus ASU, who were both in the Western Athletic Conference then and just about every sport you can imagine. We debated who were the better LDS quarterbacks, BYU's Gifford Nielsen and Marc Wilson or ASU's Danny White and Fred Mortensen? Who had the better Polynesian players and defensive ends, ASU's Junior Ah You or BYU's Mekeli Ieremia? Who had the better uniforms and team colors? Better mascots? Who had the better stadium? Who had better cheerleaders? Ok, I always conceded that one because I was smart enough to see that BYU's cheerleaders were prettier.
Neal Nelson seemed to be an expert on everything to us Boy Scouts. Even cheerleading, because he had been one in college. He was also on the debate team, which is clearly why we Scouts were at such a disadvantage.
Neal Nelson was the most knowledgeable man about sports I've ever known. He had an encyclopedic knowledge about teams, players and statistics. We didn't know it as young men, but Brother Nelson was a volunteer statistician for the BYU football team when the games were played where the Richards Building is now and they only drew 2,000 fans. "The biggest reaction from the crowd," Neal told me, "was when someone flew a paper airplane from the top of the stands until it landed on the field." As BYU's statistician, he sat in the press box, typically with scouts of upcoming opponents, so he picked their brains about players, teams and strategy.
Basketball at BYU, on the other hand, was a completely different situation.
"Attending a game at the old Smith Fieldhouse was not just a game," Neal said. "It was an experience. The pep band would play Herb Albert Brass Band music and the place would just transform into a festive experience unlike any other." Neal Nelson knew something about every sport. And usually, he harbored strong opinions to boot, which made our debates all the more lively and interesting. He encouraged us to challenge him and one another — respectfully, of course — in everything because he felt strongly conversation and competition drew the best out of us.
We also learned to play all kinds of games and sports because of him. The first time I ever played football was on a mutual night. Our mutual and Scout activities always ended with a tug of war or some kind of team competition. Not everyone in the troop was athletic, so Brother Nelson would insist our competitions had to include EVERYONE — you'd lose or be docked points for neglecting a team member. He cleverly devised ways for us to always include the weakest among us, fostering unity and camaraderie.
Brother Nelson had the habit of meeting with me privately before every event or competition to solicit my support, even when I didn't have leadership responsibilities. Years later, he would tell me it was because he felt my support typically determined the success or failure of our activities. Much of that had to do with the fact I was the best athlete, as my peers naturally took their cues from me, but I was also very vocal and opinionated. Still am, I guess — vocal and opinionated, I mean. Brother Nelson would tell me later he did it because he saw I had natural leadership potential, but in the same breath, cautioned me that some of society's worst individuals were also natural leaders.
Neal and Sally Sue Nelson are the quintessential BYU couple. He grew up on a dairy farm in Preston, Idaho and she's from Mesa, Ariz. They met at BYU in a political science class after Neal's LDS mission to Sweden. He had attended both the University of Idaho and Idaho State, but transferred to BYU following his mission. They met in 1961, married in '62 in the Mesa Temple and stayed at BYU for Neal's MBA from '65 to '67.
The Valley of the Sun was a growing area in the late '60s, so the Nelsons went to Sally Sue's hometown, as Neal was offered a position with her brother's insurance firm.
They raised their nine children in Mesa, along with a generation of young men who grew up in the Mesa 24th Ward.
As a 10- and 11-year-old, Sally Sue was my Blazer B and Webelos leader.
Among my tender memories of those years was a time Sister Nelson prepared and worked week after week with nearly a dozen of us boys on the song, "I Hope They Call Me On A Mission," which we performed in sacrament meeting. She asked each of us to wear a white shirt and a dark tie for the occasion. I don't think it was coincidental that all of us served missions and to this day, whenever I hear the song sung by Primary children, I think fondly of Sally Sue Nelson.
But my most enduring and vivid memory of Sister Nelson happened in their old VW bus as we returned from a Blazer B scout trip to Arizona's capital building in Phoenix. We were sitting in the back of the VW bus telling racial jokes when suddenly Sister Nelson pulled off the road and parked. She shut the engine off, turned to us and calmly said, "Boys, why don't you try substituting the word 'Mormons' or your own last name in place of the ethnicities you're disparaging." That was followed by a stern lecture on cultural diversity and tolerance that is indelible in my mind all these years later and her hope that we would be better than that as we prepared to be priesthood holders.
It had been more than 20 years since I had seen the Nelsons and a few months ago, I returned to Mesa to tell them that I've never forgotten the simple lessons and powerful experiences like the lecture in their blue VW bus on the side of the road that shaped my life.
We attended their ward and they seemed pleased, proud even, to introduce me and my wife to their friends.
After church, we went to their eldest, Adele and her husband, Larry LaSueur's, beautiful home for lunch. Most of their nine children, their spouses, 35 grandchildren and four great-grandchildren came — some on their way from church; others on their way to church — to eat and visit. I grew up with the older kids but left for BYU before some of the younger Nelsons were even born. It was a wonderful reunion with a family who helped raise me.
The Nelsons were like a second family for me. As a young man, I attended every Father-and-Sons Aaronic Priesthood Commemoration Campout with the Nelsons because my dad worked weekends.
We told stories and laughed over memories long forgotten. The Nelsons' oldest sons, Glen and Doug, were a few years younger but got to attend Scout camp because their dad was the Scoutmaster. Glen retold a story I had forgotten that secured my legend as the best athlete in the Mesa 24th Ward and the Mesa South Stake. Brother Nelson had brought a book called "Endurance" — the story of Ernest Shackleton and his two years of survival on the water and ice in the Antarctic — that he would read each night in the leader's cabin before we had evening prayer and retired to bed. We would lay quietly in bunk beds listening intently, some whittling, as Bro. Nelson read a few chapters each night.
I made the mistake of confiding in someone of my fear of mice earlier this particular day and as I was laying on a lower bunk, Brother Nelson was still reading when someone yelled, "Mouse!" and at the same time rolled an orange towards my bunk. It was just dark enough that I couldn't make out that it was an orange — just that it was moving in my direction.
In the most incredible feat of athleticism anyone in my troop had ever seen, I leaped from the lower bunk to the upper bunk from a prone position in a nanosecond. The entire troop and adult leaders laughed so hard that the story was sensationalized with each retelling and more and more people over the years claimed they were either there or had rolled the orange.
Neal Nelson and his two sons would say that it was at that very moment, when I leaped with such incredible speed to avoid an orange, that they knew I would play D-I football.
Which indeed I would.
Not at ASU, but BYU.