It's been more than 35 years and I can still vividly remember one of the stories Gifford told as if it happened yesterday.
Two of his defensive teammates were in a religion class where the teacher challenged everyone to share the gospel with a non-member during the week and report on it the following week.
Before they knew it, it was the end of the week and neither had done anything. BYU was in Colorado Springs that Saturday to play the Air Force Academy, and at halftime, they realized they were running out of time and opportunities.
Late fourth quarter and the Air Force quarterback is running for his life, when "Bam!" he's hit simultaneously by both defenders for a sack and underneath the pile — one says, "What do you know about Mormons?" followed by, "Do you want to know more?" from the other.
The audience laughs on cue, then Gifford pauses for effect and drops the punch line: "You guys, get off me, I'm already a Mormon." I was mesmerized with the way he told such a simple story.
Gifford was already a Houston Oiler by the time I arrived in Provo, but his legacy was well-established. BYU football players were often asked to speak at firesides, and remembering how polished Gifford was, I accepted every opportunity to go, typically from Floyd Johnson, our equipment manager who was the unofficial team chaplain.
Consider how those speaking opportunities affected our careers in media and politics: Steve Young and Trevor Matich at ESPN; Glen Kozlowski at WGN radio in Chicago; Nielsen formerly at KHOU-TV in Houston; Blaine Fowler; Todd Christensen; Alema Harrington; Jan Jorgensen and Hans Olsen in Utah sports radio; former BYU baseball player Steve Eager at Fox Dallas; myself at NBC Philadelphia; and former BYU teammate Jason Chaffetz, a Utah congressman. It's interesting to note that few if any of us ever took TV or media classes at BYU. We basically learned to speak extemporaneously at firesides, like the one I first attended with my dad to see and hear Gifford Nielsen.
Of course, as BYU alumni, Giff and I have become good friends. Beyond that first meeting, he's been something of a mentor. I specifically followed Giff's career path following football because he once told me while I was still in the NFL that for him, doing sports on local TV offered him a better life than being an analyst where he'd be required to travel and work Sundays.
That's precisely why I didn't pursue being a football analysts, but rather local TV. Giff assured me I wouldn't make a seven-figure salary as the network analyst, but we could be comfortable and have a better quality of life if I was fortunate to work in a big media market. When I accepted a two-year contract with the Eagles in my final stop in the NFL, I did so because Philly was the largest market of the offers I had. I hoped that if I played well enough and found some TV work at a local station, I might be able to parlay it into a permanent career, just as Giff did in Houston. Amazingly, that's exactly how it happened.
To no one's surprise, Giff became Elder S. Gifford Nielsen in April 2010, when he was called as an Area Authority Seventy in Houston.
He continues to impact people's lives from the pulpit.
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