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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.

Scripture power

Although part of the football team and enjoying college life, Bellini still felt like an outsider at times.

“I wasn’t part of the club. I had a different cultural background than most of the guys,” Bellini said. “But I was intrigued by the (LDS) culture and what it was that made them so devout. It made me curious.”

There were several “philosophical discussions” with friends about religion that provoked some deep thoughts, Bellini said, but these debates rarely resulted in any resolutions.

Going into his sophomore season in the fall of 1984, Bellini enrolled in the second of two classes that covered the Book of Mormon. He wasn’t in the class because he wanted to study Mormonism — he was in it because it was a graduation requirement. What Bellini didn’t expect to find was the friendship of an “incredible” teacher in John P. Fugal.

“He took an interest in me and we became friends,” Bellini said. “You could feel the Spirit in his class.”

Fugal started teaching seminary in 1946 and was a member of the BYU religion faculty from 1966-86. Even now at age 91, Fugal remembers Bellini’s class was held in the Joseph F. Smith Building and contained about 50 students. He tried to learn each name by assigning seats. Then he opened his scriptures and did his best to bring the stories and characters of the Book of Mormon to life.

“Each class I tried to teach by the Spirit and bring the message into their hearts,” Fugal said. “Then I would go to my knees in my office and thank the Lord.”

The class required Bellini to read the Book of Mormon, and by the end of the term he knew it was true.

“Although parts of me fought it, in my heart I just knew it was true. I couldn’t deny it,” Bellini said. “The Book of Mormon became the foundation of my testimony.”

National champs

Bellini redshirted in 1983 and spent the season schooling BYU’s secondary in practice as a scout player, according to former teammate Vai Sikahema.

“It irritated the defensive players, who were often embarrassed when Mark burned them on routes and made spectacular catches,” Sikahema said. “He ran such precise routes and possessed sure hands. … It was clear Mark was a good receiver.”

Bellini cracked the receiving rotation as a sophomore in 1984. By the end of the season he was starting opposite Glen Kozlowski, another standout Cougar receiver. Bellini made notable contributions in victories over Tulsa, Air Force and UTEP before finishing the season with 35 catches for 572 yards and four touchdowns — the best season by a sophomore receiver to that point in the school’s history.

Legendary BYU coach LaVell Edwards described Bellini as an “outstanding” player and person.

“There was never any question about his athleticism or ability to catch the ball,” Edwards said recently. “But when I think of Mark, I’m reminded of a deer, almost prancing along. He was so quick and light on his feet.”

For Bellini, three things stand out from the ‘84 season.

First, he appreciated the influence of faith and prayers, felt individually and as a team.

“Football is dangerous, especially for a receiver because you are going to get creamed. I prayed before and during games, in the huddle and while walking the line of scrimmage. I prayed for help to do my best and for the Lord to keep me safe,” the 48-year-old said. “At team meetings the night before a game, the coaches would leave and a teammate would lead us in prayer. We were a pretty religious team.”

The second highlight came on the evening of Dec. 14, 1984, a week before the team left for San Diego to play Michigan in the Holiday Bowl. The team was invited to the grand ballroom of the Hotel Utah to have a special dinner with the LDS Church’s First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. Players were allowed to bring their spouse or a date. Each table seated eight people, including a member of the Twelve, the Presiding Bishopric or Quorum of the Seventy and his spouse.

President Gordon B. Hinckley, the only member of the First Presidency present, conducted the proceedings. (Presidents Spencer W. Kimball and Marion G. Romney were unable to attend for health reasons but watched the event via closed circuit television.) President Hinckley encouraged the team to play hard and represent the school and church well, knowing the media attention would be tremendous. The Cougars came away feeling emboldened and ready to play, Sikahema said.

Bellini also recalls President Hinckley telling the group that the gathering was one of the greatest nights in the history of football. Although not a member yet, Bellini agreed.

“When else has a football team sat down with the First Presidency and Twelve Apostles and dined together?” Bellini said. “It was such an occasion. I felt lucky to be part of that evening.”

The third memory came in the big game. Bellini caught three passes for 48 yards against the Wolverines, including two in the fourth quarter that sustained BYU’s final two scoring drives. The last one was the most meaningful. With less than four minutes remaining and the score tied, 17-17, quarterback Robbie Bosco got off a 20-yard completion to Bellini, who was tackled by the facemask, adding 15 more yards. A few plays later, Bosco hit Kelly Smith with the game-winning touchdown. BYU 24, Michigan 17.

“As a sophomore, I didn’t have a big role,” said Bellini, who has a picture of his final reception in his office. “But catching a ball over the middle on that last drive, with a national championship on the line, was a highlight of my football career.”

Bellini's baptism

Bellini came away from Fugal’s class knowing the Book of Mormon was true, and the professor knew it.

“Mark had a solid understanding of the Book of Mormon and I felt he would be a solid member of the church,” Fugal said. “Golly, how could he not get baptized?”

So when they ran into each other on that chilly February morning, Bellini, who respected Fugal, considered the professor’s invitation seriously.

About three weeks later, Bellini found Fugal again and told him he was ready to be baptized. He was even willing to do it in the Provo River. But Fugal prevailed upon his student to first take the missionary discussions, then be baptized it in a heated font.

The service took place on March 16, 1985. Edwards, Chow and other members of the team attended the low-key event. Fugal performed the baptism and Mike Young, a quarterback and close friend, confirmed Bellini a member of the church.

Fugal said the service was both emotional and memorable.

Still strong

Bellini finished his career at BYU following the 1986 season with 146 receptions for 2,429 yards and 23 touchdowns, earning all kinds of individual honors and accolades in the process. (His little brother Matt Bellini followed in his footsteps to BYU to play football and later joined the LDS Church, as well.)

Bellini was selected by Indianapolis in the seventh round of the 1987 NFL draft and played two seasons for the Colts. One of his most memorable NFL moments came when he attempted to pull in a pass and was nearly decapitated by Chicago Bears’ linebacker Mike Singletary. The pass was intercepted.

Injuries derailed further opportunities to play and Bellini’s career was over at the close of the 1980s. He finished his short NFL career with 10 receptions for 133 yards. But Bellini was OK with that.

“How many can say they got there, made the squad, played in the games and heard the crowds?” he said. “The highlight is just being able to say I did it.”

From there, Bellini earned a master's degree from BYU in environmental engineering. At different times he has worked as a real estate developer, a property manager and once he even owned a restaurant. Today he makes a living as an environmental consultant and biologist in Midway, Utah, where he lives with his wife and six children (five daughters and one son).

Bellini says making the transition from pro sports to a new career is difficult for most athletes because they can’t find a new passion.

“It took me some time to figure out my next place in life,” he said.

Most importantly, Bellini has continued to nourish his faith and build upon his testimony of the gospel. He has two church callings — shepherding his 19-year-old son with Down syndrome through the Young Men program and serving as a ward clerk.

Bellini will admit he’s had moments of lazy discipleship over the years. For now, however, he's grateful for how the Lord has blessed his life. More than a year ago, he felt compelled to create a Mormon.org profile and shared his story in the LDS Church’s “I’m a Mormon” campaign.

“I’ve gone through periods where I’ve been close to the Spirit and others where I’ve been distant … I got to the point when I realized it wasn’t working for me on my own. I needed the blessings of God in my life,” Bellini said. “When you are engaged in seeking the Spirit and trying to follow the teachings of Christ, your life is truly blessed.

"Live the teachings. It leads to happiness.”

Email: ttoone@desnews.com Twitter: tbtoone

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