SALT LAKE CITY — As appealing as college football can be, bad news has been draining the fun for years. Allegations of sexual assault or news of tutors taking player exams can make swapping game tickets for the ballet seem reasonable.
Yet this week, in the unlikeliest of circumstances, football was tied to one of the most moving stories I’ve ever seen. It had nothing to do with touchdowns and everything to do with courage. But it’s not the kind of courage a player shows when fighting back from an injury. This is the purest kind, changing a tragic event into a transcendent experience.
It’s the story of BYU assistant coach Reno Mahe and his wife Sunny, and their unspeakable loss and meek acceptance. But it’s also about the things coaches claim football embodies, i.e. strength through adversity, dedication, humility, confidence and family.
BYU won eight games with one of its most imposing schedules ever. Mahe’s work as running backs coach speaks to that. But aside from football, he taught off the field too. There is no adversity in sports — barring an injury-related death — that can compare to losing a 3-year-old daughter who became tangled in the cord of a window blind. Elsie Mahe was pronounced dead Tuesday evening.
Because of how Reno and Sunny Mahe faced the passing of their daughter, they have shown that all the ugly scandals in the world can’t obscure a single act of grace.
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To understand where Reno got his strength, look to his father. Reno once told me he followed the advice of Sateki Mahe, who advised his children to speak the truth and deal with any outcome. And so he did. Several years ago he openly spoke of having gone through bankruptcy after trusting the wrong people to handle his NFL money.
“No excuses. I’m blaming myself,” he said.
There is a high degree of humility and accountability to Mahe. While he has always admitted flaws in judgment, he must have married the closest thing to perfection. Sunny, a former BYU volleyball player, and Reno have eight children. She posted several elegant and tender updates on social media about Elsie’s condition in the last week. The posts spoke of attending the LDS temple in Salt Lake City and finding answers regarding their daughter’s accident.
“The miraculous healing we have been praying for is not FOR Elsie, but FROM Elsie,” one Facebook post said. She went on to say they were donating the child's organs, hoping to save someone else’s life.
“It is not the miracle that we wanted,” the post said, “but it is the one we got. It is still a miracle."
When tragedy occurs, most public figures issue a news release asking media to “respect the family’s privacy in this time of great difficulty.” They’re well within their rights. But the Mahes knew it wasn’t gossipy interest, but genuine concern driving the news coverage of their daughter. The couple posted regular, heartfelt messages for the public to see, expressing gratitude for support and requesting prayers.
An update came Tuesday evening.
“Our Elsie girl has officially been released to heaven,” Sunny wrote.
“We feel peace and we are again so grateful for the privilege of being Elsie's parents. She continues to sprinkle love and hope across the world and I am in awe of the Lord and His marvelous plan for my sweet girl.”
The Mahes' strength, faith and acceptance has taught BYU’s football players things they could never learn just playing the game. In its sadness, this has become one of this year’s most uplifting college football stories.
As a journalist, I’ve always felt the importance of being objective. But when it comes to someone loving and losing a daughter, I’m not. Next time Reno is on the sideline, I won't be standing at a detached distance. I’ll be cheering all the way.
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