When I first came out here, I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to feel the spirit. But it was one of the most impressive meetings I’d attended in my life. —BYU head coach Bronco Mendenhall
DRAPER — Shame almost kept Mark Byrge in his seat.
But after listening to BYU offensive lineman Ryker Mathews tell the heartbreaking story of losing his father at age 6, the American Fork man couldn’t stay silent.
So the former baseball coach, who was once lobbied to have the American Fork alum on his Little League All-Star 11-and-under baseball team, rose from the plastic chair where he sat with the other prison inmates and asked Mathews if he remembered him. Mathews acknowledged his former coach, and the two exchanged kind words before the LDS fireside hosted by the Utah State Prison featuring the BYU football team continued with other questions, other testimonies.
“It was bittersweet,” said an emotional Byrge afterward. “I’m proud of him, but it’s hard for me to have him see me in here like this. This is the last place I expected to be.” A car accident and multiple back surgeries led 44-year-old Byrge to a prescription pain medication addiction and eventually incarceration.
“At first I was worried about embarrassing my son who played with him,” he said, his eyes wet with tears. “But there is a lesson that needs to be shared. Bad things happen in the lives of good people, and good people can come back from bad things. There is adversity in everything, and it’s how we respond to it.”
On the surface, it might seem that the BYU football players have very little in common with the inmates in the Utah State Prison’s Con-Quest program. But, in what has become an annual tradition for the team, the fireside, arranged by LDS Correctional Services and administered by the players, offered a little inspiration to everyone in attendance.
“When I first came out here, I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to feel the spirit,” said BYU head coach Bronco Mendenhall on Friday night. “But it was one of the most impressive meetings I’d attended in my life.”
The players entered the Promontory Facility’s small, white gymnasium where they were greeted with a standing ovation and songs from an inmate choir.
“We look up to them,” said 29-year-old Zachary Bird of West Jordan, who attended the fireside last season as well. “It’s motivating hearing their stories. Adversity for us has been an excuse to do drugs and abandon our families. These guys take adversity and use it to better themselves. It shows us that there is better than this.”
Bird said the fact that the players share how they’ve dealt with their own struggles is both comforting and inspiring.
Mathews shared a story he said some of his teammates may not even know about him. The senior said he felt impressed to talk about loving your enemies.
“It’s easy to love your family and friends and people who treat you right,” he said. “What gets lost is the loving your enemies part.”
Mathews, the youngest of five children, lost his father when he was 6 years old to an illness that was misdiagnosed. Instead of a few weeks recovering, Mathews has struggled with how to forgive the doctor who made the mistake that was discovered just hours before his dad died.
Mathews looks to his mother, who refused to sue the doctor after the mistake came to light. He described how she gathered her five children together and told them they were not going to pursue legal action.
“She said, ‘We will not ruin this guy's life, just because he altered our path,'” Mathews said. “It was rough on my family. That doctor had just become our life-long enemy. He’d taken so much from us.”
He and his siblings still struggle with the way their father was lost.
“I look to my mom,” he said. “She loves her enemies. I pray for help, but obviously it’s not going to come quick.”
Freshman defensive lineman Moses Kaumatule talked about hope and then running back Algie Brown sang and played guitar.
Senior defensive lineman Remington Peck offered inmates the chance to ask questions, which ranged from expressions of gratitude to questions about how they avoid judging while remaining loyal and committed to each other.
“Hope and optimism,” said Mendenhall, when asked what he hoped his players brought to the inmates in attendance. “Maybe just the knowledge that they are thought about, they are cared about.”
That sentiment may have been summed up best by senior defensive lineman Bronson Kaufusi who responded to an inmate’s question about how they deal with failure and loss.
“With any sport, it’s always a roller coaster ride,” Kaufusi said. “But it’s all about when you’re down, you have to get back up. Sometimes you feel broken. But we’ve been taught, you’re so much more than that. You have the power and the ability to become unbroken.”