A Cougar converted: Mark Bellini, the '84 national championship and beyond

Published: Wednesday, Dec. 19 2012 5:00 a.m. MST

Barely a month after BYU won the 1984 college football national championship, Cougar wide receiver Mark Bellini was hustling to class on a frigid February morning when he bumped into his old religion professor.

The previous fall, while BYU marched to an undefeated season, Bellini had taken John Fugal’s Book of Mormon class even though he wasn’t a member of the LDS Church. Although a graduation requirement, the class became one of Bellini’s favorites, and the two men developed a warm relationship.

As it turned out, their encounter that frosty winter morning occurred near an enormous banner that read, “BYU National Champions.” They momentarily paused to admire the giant sign.

“You guys must be very proud of what you were able to accomplish,” Fugal said.

“Oh yes,” Bellini replied, “definitely.”

Fugal then uttered words the football player would never forget.

“He looked me in the eye and said, ‘I know something that will make you feel higher than that. When you are ready, give me a call,’” Bellini recently related, his voice choking up. “He was talking about me joining the church. Three weeks later I asked him to baptize me.”

Amid the pageantry and pomp of the greatest season in BYU football history, it was a humble teacher and his inspiring Book of Mormon class that played a central role in Bellini’s decision to join The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The memories of his career as a Cougar are still meaningful, but more than 25 years later, Bellini is most grateful for the gospel.

“The national championship was a highlight of my life. But such accomplishments are temporary and in time, no one remembers or cares,” Bellini said. “The gospel is truth, something that never fades.”

‘Who are you?’

Mark Bellini always wanted to be a football player.

“I never thought about how far it might take me,” Bellini said. “I just knew I loved to play and wanted to play as long as I could.”

Raised in a Catholic home in San Leandro, Calif., Bellini was an all-conference running back and defensive back in high school. After graduation, Bellini’s football coach, Chuck Belshe, a Mormon, wanted to see him get a shot at the next level. Belshe made some phone calls and sent game highlights to Cougar assistant Tom Ramage, who offered Bellini the chance to walk on the team (without a scholarship) as a defensive back.

But the freshman didn’t want to play defense. He wanted to be a wide receiver.

As players were issued gear on the first day on fall camp, Bellini told the equipment staff that he was a receiver. Never expecting a player to be dishonest, they handed him a blue jersey instead of the white jersey for defensive players.

“I knew I had one or two days before they would catch on, so I knew I had to do something big and impress somebody,” Bellini said. “I dove for every ball, I was really dramatic and going all out.”

It worked.

At some point, Norm Chow, the receivers’ coach, approached the freshman and asked, “Who are you?”

Bellini gave his name and Chow studied his clipboard but found no such name. Bellini shrugged. To his delight, Chow instructed him to stay with the receivers because “he was doing good.” Within two weeks, a couple of the team’s top receivers were injured and Bellini, who had never played the position before, found himself in the starting rotation and on the varsity traveling squad, a rare honor for a freshman in those days. By the end of the season he had earned a scholarship.

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