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BYU Athletic Director Tom Holmoe tells about his Mormon conversion

Published: Thursday, July 18 2013 5:00 a.m. MDT

BYU athletic director Tom Holmoe poses for a photo at LaVell Edwards Stadium Thursday, May 12, 2011.

Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News

“And I will tell you of the wrestle which I had before God, before I received a remission of my sins” (Enos 1:2).

PROVO — During his seven-year NFL career in San Francisco, Tom Holmoe played on three Super Bowl championship teams and later earned a fourth ring as an assistant coach with the 49ers. He was also a member of the BYU squad that pulled off an incredible comeback victory against Southern Methodist University in the 1980 Holiday Bowl.

As thrilling, dramatic and blissful as those accomplishments were, they just don’t compare to another life-changing event that transpired in 1988: Holmoe’s decision to become a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

“At the time we won our first Super Bowl, the feeling was joy,” he said. “We had worked so hard for something that was so difficult to achieve, and we did it. That lasted for a while. But your conversion to the gospel is eternal. I felt a sweeter spirit.”

Now BYU’s athletics director, Holmoe’s long road to church membership started in high school and stretched until late in his NFL career. Along the way, key people influenced his life in ways that helped him to make the critical decision.

“It was a wrestling match,” Holmoe said recently at BYU football media day. “I wanted to feel it for a long time, but I wasn’t in the right frame of mind. I wasn’t humble enough. I tried, but half-heartedly. I thought about it all the time. It was yes-no-yes-no. I saw guys at BYU get baptized for girls, but when the girls were gone, the church was gone. I wasn’t going to have that. I wanted to do it for the right reason. I told my wife, ‘Honey, if I do this, it’s forever. I’m going to do it on my terms, not for anybody else.’ ”

True examples

Before Holmoe knew anything about the church or BYU, he knew the Hales.

Klane Hales played with Holmoe on the Crescenta Valley High School basketball team in Southern California. Klane’s little sister, Kathy, participated with Holmoe in student government. He was also acquainted with the rest of the family and admired them all, he said.

“I looked to them as a great example,” Holmoe said. “They didn’t really try to teach me the gospel. They did in essence through their example.”

Holmoe recalls going with the basketball team to Las Vegas for a tournament his junior year. During some free time, the team ventured out for some excitement on the Vegas Strip. Holmoe said Hales went along to make sure he didn’t get into any trouble.

“He told everybody, ‘I’m not going in there for these reasons, and you can’t go there. Don’t go there.’ Everybody went, and I stayed,” Holmoe said. “Why did I stay? He had power at that time to convince me to stay. I’ll never forget that.”

Years later, when Holmoe was a senior at BYU, Hales mustered the courage to share his testimony and feelings about the church before leaving for medical school. It was something he had always wanted to do but feared it would ruin their friendship.

“It was powerful and I thanked him,” Holmoe said. “Those seeds that he planted definitely were a part of moving me along, because I needed to be dragged.”

Choosing BYU

Growing up in the suburbs of Los Angeles, Holmoe was a huge UCLA fan. He wanted to follow in his older brother Steve’s footsteps and earn a scholarship to play for the Bruins.

But Holmoe, a star quarterback, suffered an injury to a finger on his throwing hand in the state playoffs his senior year, causing some recruiters, including the Bruins, to lose interest.

Despite the injury, BYU never lost interest in Holmoe. The 6-foot-3 athlete was also being heavily recruited by Oregon, Washington State, Harvard and Air Force.

Although family, friends and coaches encouraged him to go elsewhere, his January visit to BYU left quite an impression. He connected with coaches, players and personnel before watching Danny Ainge lead BYU against Utah State in a packed Marriott Center.

“I loved my trip. I thought, ‘I could do this, I could come to BYU.’ The people were great. It was beautiful — snowed like crazy,” Holmoe said. “On the way home, I thought, that was something, it’s going to be tough to beat this.”

Subsequent trips to Oregon, Washington State and Harvard didn’t compare to BYU, Holmoe said. On national letter of intent day, Holmoe signed with the Cougars.

“From the time I committed, I knew that was the right choice,” he said.

Observing, praying, dating

With plenty of talented quarterbacks, Holmoe switched positions and became a defensive back in 1978. He redshirted his first year and developed a reputation as a solid special teams player the following season. In his third year as a sophomore, the hard-hitting safety led the Western Athletic Conference with seven interceptions.

Off the field, he enjoyed campus life and attended a local Lutheran church.

“I was content; I was happy,” he said.

At the same time, he was being exposed to the LDS Church through religion classes and devotionals. He also gleaned knowledge from returned missionary teammates.

Holmoe recalls one significant event that transpired in the chaotic moments following BYU’s memorable comeback win over SMU in the 1980 Holiday Bowl.

Prior to the game, Holmoe said he had been half-heartedly asking the Lord, “What about this church?”

Then quarterback Jim McMahon and the Cougars erased a 20-point deficit in the final minutes of the fourth quarter to escape with a 46-45 victory.

Holmoe said the locker room was a scene of “pure pandemonium." Still dressed in full uniform, he found himself kneeling to pray in the shower area.

“My prayer was, 'I’m so grateful (for the win).' ... I won’t stop trying to find out about the church. I know there is something about this church. I will never quit,” Holmoe said. “It was weird. I was emotional. Then I returned to the festivities.”

Shortly thereafter, Holmoe began dating his future wife, Lori Wright, a cheerleader.

Lori later told the Deseret News, “My mom sent me to BYU to meet a nice Mormon boy, and I came home with the only Lutheran in the whole school.”

She invited him to attend church with her, and he accepted. Holmoe enjoyed the meetings. He enjoyed being around her family and discussing church doctrine. He agreed to meet with the missionaries, but at his own pace. He started reading books written by church leaders. He loved the words of Elder Neal A. Maxwell of the Quorum of the Twelve. When the late President Spencer W. Kimball spoke at BYU, he was there.

Holmoe was progressing but not ready for baptism.

“I can remember specific things in my mind that made me think, 'You are making me sweat over this, Lord,’ ” he said. "This is hard.”

As the couple prepared for marriage, Holmoe was still undecided about the LDS faith, but he committed to Lori that he would continue investigating the church.

“When I wasn’t playing football in the NFL, I went to church,” Holmoe said. “I was really stubborn and prideful and fearful of what other people might think.”

Six years

Holmoe finished his career at BYU with 13 interceptions and was named as an all-conference defensive back in 1982. He was selected in the fourth round of the 1983 NFL draft by the San Francisco 49ers.

During Holmoe’s time in San Francisco, the 49ers won the Super Bowl in 1984, 1988 and 1989. He was part of a fourth Super Bowl as a 49ers’ assistant coach in 1994.

During that time, he continued to attend church meetings and study the gospel. He even entertained visits from home teachers.

Among a wide variety of personalities and backgrounds in an NFL locker room, Holmoe appreciated associating with men like former Cougars who were also Mormons like Steve Young, Bart Oates, Todd Shell, Bill Ring and others.

“Those guys were rock-solid, stable, very good people and friends. I wasn’t a member, but we talked about it (the gospel),” Holmoe said. “They knew I went to church and tried to help me in my conversion process. They were great examples.”

Following the 1987 season, Holmoe was approached by his ward’s bishop, Jordan Clements, who asked Holmoe if he had ever fasted before.

Fasting involves going without food and drink voluntarily for a certain period of time for the purpose of drawing closer to God and requesting blessings.

“He explained it to me and said, ‘I think you are close and this might help the Spirit testify to you,’ ” Holmoe said. “So I did. I just kept praying and praying. … I didn’t feel anything at the time, but three weeks later I was in Utah and that’s when it happened.”

A clear impression

In February 1988, Holmoe was walking around BYU’s campus, visiting coaches and old friends, when he felt a “clear impression” that the time had come for him to be baptized.

He placed an emotional call to Joe Wood, a favorite religion/history professor and close friend, and asked what he should do.

Wood directed him to BYU’s longtime equipment manager, Floyd Johnson, who gave Holmoe a big hug and directed him to find the missionaries on campus.

When he informed the missionaries of his desire to be baptized, the missionaries tried to tell him he needed the discussions first.

“No, no, we are not having any discussions,” Holmoe laughed. “I’ve already had them about four times. I need to get baptized now!”

A week later, Holmoe was baptized in a font in a classroom in the Jesse Knight Building by his father-in-law, Joseph Wright.

"It was a beautiful service," Johnson wrote in his book, "Touchdowns, Tip-offs and Testimonies." "As Tom bore his testimony, I sat there trying to hold back the tears while listening to him talk about his faith in the Lord … the church and of his experience of coming back here and having the Spirit whisper that he should be baptized."

Holmoe knew his parents and family would not be happy about his decision so he didn’t tell them right away. Instead, he wrote them a letter, explaining his feelings and reasons for making the decision.

During their weekly phone call, the subject didn’t come up. Holmoe’s father eventually raised the subject a few months later in a conversation with his son.

“I guess you got baptized," Holmoe recalls his father saying. "You know, I think that’s good. It’s probably best for you. Your wife is LDS, and it’s good that your family is unified in the same religion.

“My parents have since passed away and we’ve done their temple work," Holmoe said.

Unique perspective

After retiring from pro football, Holmoe coached at BYU, Stanford and the 49ers. He spent five years at the University of California as head coach.

Holmoe was named BYU’s director of athletics in 2005. His duties involve overseeing 21 intercollegiate sports with more than 600 athletes and 150 staff members.

As an athlete who came to BYU as a nonmember and was later baptized, Holmoe can relate to many athletes in his role as an administrator.

“It’s helped enormously because I come from a background where I saw things differently. I know how they feel. I know how their parents feel. I know there are pressures on them that LDS people might not feel or see or sense. It’s easier for me to put myself in their shoes,” he said. “I like rubbing shoulders with our athletes. When I can help them, especially the non-LDS kids, through difficulties or troubles that they might have here or celebrate their achievements, that’s my favorite part of the job.”

The takeaway

During his NFL career, Holmoe once had a conversation with an LDS friend that stuck with him.

"Tom, you think you have a great life, don’t you?" the friend said.

"Yeah," Holmoe said.

"You have a beautiful wife, beautiful children, you're on the 49ers, you have a home in the Bay Area, but you don’t know what you are missing," the friend said. "The blessings that are going to be poured upon you at some point in time, you can’t fathom."

His friend was right, Holmoe said. The gospel has changed and blessed his life in "millions of ways."

"I couldn’t fathom it, until I took that step," he said. "I was prideful, I wouldn’t humble myself to do what I knew was right. I felt it, and I resisted it. That's why it took me so long. That would be my message."

"There are a lot of people who resist the message of the gospel of Jesus Christ because of what other people will think. When I made my decision, some people were cynical and made fun of me, but I did the right thing. I made it for the right reasons. Now I look back and I’m so grateful that I wasn’t pulled away completely so I couldn’t make the most important decision of my life. ... But until you commit, get baptized and make covenants, you can't fathom what you're missing. Your life will change in ways you can’t understand. You can’t read it in a book; you've got to feel it in your heart through the Holy Ghost. And I’m still learning. I hope to learn more on my spiritual climb as I continue to grow in the gospel."

Email: ttoone@desnews.com Twitter: tbtoone

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