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Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
President Russell M. Nelson and his wife Wendy Nelson speak at RootsTech in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Feb. 11, 2017.

President Russell M. Nelson, President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, concluded his remarks at Saturday’s Family Discovery Day at RootsTech by issuing an invitation: “I invite you to prayerfully consider what kind of sacrifice, and preferably a sacrifice of time, you can make to do more family history and temple work this year.”

Sitting in a studio kitchen set, President Nelson and his wife, Wendy, shared their family tradition with the audience at RootsTech 2017: Scrabble. The couple built a scrabble crossword puzzle with keywords to illustrate the points of their talk. The words: Family, Hearts, Elijah, Stories, Detours, Sacrifice, Missionary and Sealing made up their Scrabble board. The couple shared personal family history experiences to illustrate the importance of preserving family history stories and photos, but emphasized that those stories and photos should not be the end. The end goal is completed temple ordinances, the couple said, which will lead to salvation and exaltation.

“We are to be strong links in the chain from our ancestors to our posterity,” President Nelson said. “If our collections of photos and stories should ever become an endpoint in themselves, if we know who our ancestors are and know marvelous things, but we leave them stranded on the other side without their ordinances, such diversion will not be of any help to our ancestors who remained confined in their spirit prison.”

“Exaltation is a family affair,” President Nelson later added.

Sister Nelson shared that she previously enjoyed playing Scrabble by herself in her downtime, but that she decided last year to substitute Scrabble for family history and bore testimony of the difference that has made in her life.

The Nelsons also emphasized the importance of agency and that we “choose” to return to live with our Heavenly Father.

“We choose every day where we want to live eternally,” President Nelson said.

Reno Mahe, former BYU football player and current BYU running back coach, surprised the crowd at RootsTech as a substitution for the second segment of the day, filling in for BYU head coach Kalani Sitake. Mahe joined another former BYU football great Vai Sikahema, and Sheri Dew. The trio shared a powerful testimony of the importance of temple and family history work. Mahe, whose 3-year-old daughter Elsie passed away in November following an accident, was asked to share the things he has learned in the time since the accident.

Mahe said that most of the couple’s response to the experience was the result of his wife.

“Honestly, it’s just me riding my wife’s coattail. I’ve got a great companion,” Mahe said before sharing that he is now part of a club that you never want to be a part of, having lost a child. “One of the things I’ve learned is that she’s an angel on the other side now that is watching over us and I never thought about it in that way.”

“My wife was telling me that there are not just random angels watching over us. It’s our family. It’s our ancestors. It’s my grandparents," he said. "And now it’s Elsie. And now, having Lavell there, Coach Edwards. I just thought about Coach Edwards coaching up my daughter back there.”

The father of eight children reemphasized something he said previously regarding Elsie’s passing.

“It’s been tough but, as a father, your job is to make sure that your kids hold onto that iron rod and they get to the tree. So for me, it’s nice to know that Elsie’s there," Mahe said. "That that one made it and I have seven more that I have to hopefully get to where Elsie’s at.”

Sikahema recounted a phone call with Mahe in December where Mahe told him that because of Elsie’s organs, which were harvested, eight families had gotten the miracle they needed. Mahe said that he and his family were choosing to celebrate with those families.

Mahe said that Elsie’s passing now serves as an inspiration for their family.

In an interview following his appearance, Mahe elaborated on what Elsie’s passing has taught him about family history and his understanding of angels.

“Being able to know that the angels watching over us are our families that are on the other side and what better way to do your genealogy than to know everybody who is there and that they need work done," Mahe said. "And when you do that work, how much more are they going to be there for you.”

“For us, it kind of feels like cheating because now we’re so incentivised to get back to her and to our Heavenly Father. You want to do everything you can,” Mahe said, adding at the end that he doesn’t call the experience a “tragedy,” instead calling it a blessing.

The two former Philadelphia Eagles shared several stories of their Polynesian family history. Sikahema emphasized the importance of the temple by telling of his family’s trip to be sealed in the Hamilton New Zealand Temple when he was 5-years-old and how he shared that experience with Michael Nutter, the former Mayor of Philadelphia, when the LDS Church was trying to obtain approval to build the Philadelphia Pennsylvania Temple. “If you let this happen, this will be the hallmark of your time in City Hall,” Sikahema remembers telling Nutter.

“Mayor Nutter may have been the only mayor who would’ve approved...that project,” Sikahema said.

But now as Sikahema put it, “Moroni oversees the ‘City of Brotherly Love.'”

Despite Dew’s efforts to get an inside scoop about BYU football, the conversation focused on family history throughout.

At the beginning of their segment, Sikahema and Mahe followed up on Dew’s commitment, made at last year’s RootsTech to accept Elder Dale G. Renlund’s invitation to find as many family names as ordinances performed in the temple. When Dew responded that she “almost” achieved her goal, Sikahema chided, “Almost doesn’t count...you either do or you don’t.” But Dew explained that she had never submitted a family name for ordinance work prior to last year. However, since last March every endowment, every sealing and most of the initiatory ordinances she has done have been family names. A knee operation led Dew to do more initiatories than usual which led her to run out of family names.

“So I’m looking for a little mercy here,” Dew said before taking her own jab at Mahe. “You know, kind of like you and the coaching staff were after the BYU-Utah game.”

Dew also clarified that she found a lot of men’s names so if you include those, she found more names than ordinances completed. Most importantly though, Dew shared what she has learned from the experience.

First, she said, “If you’re a total rookie like I was, you need a great coach.” Second, she learned the “absolute thrill” of finding family names and connecting people on her family tree. Third, she found that “it does feel different to take family names to the temple. Fourth, “when you make a commitment at RootsTech, people check up on you.”

In the end, Sikahema and Mahe made commitments of their own.

“I’ll commit to recording my oral Tongan history on the FamilySearch Memory app,” Mahe said.

Inspired by his wife’s recent commitment to do family history for at least 30 minutes a day, a commitment inspired by reading Sister Nelson’s book, “Covenant Keepers,” Sikahema committed that beginning tomorrow he will do the same. Sikahema, who has served as a stake president for three years, said later in an interview that he plans to extend the same invitation to members of his stake.

At the conclusion of the session, Sikahema said he is often asked if it is hard to live the gospel as a professional football player or even now, as a professional journalist.

“No, it is easy to live the gospel,” Sikahema said. “You know what’s hard? My teammates who have drug problems. My teammates who have a wife and three girlfriends. That’s hard. You know what’s easy? Coming home to my wife and getting eight hours of sleep every night. ...I love the gospel. We love the church. We’re grateful for the leadership of the gospel and the church and the way they guide and direct our lives. The latitude they give us to be able to make choices for ourselves.”

“That’s the result of the gospel, right there,” Sikahema said pointing at photos on the screen of he and his wife and their family, to the delight of a cheering audience.

BYU was well-represented during the last day of the conference as BYU religion professor, Hank Smith, was the concluding speaker followed by a concert presented by BYU performing groups, Vocal Point and Noteworthy.

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“Embrace the past, present and future. Celebrate them all. And don’t force. Learn to lead,” Smith said summarizing the message he communicated through stories about his ancestors and family.

Vocal Point and Noteworthy were joined by entertainer Jason Hewlett, who hosted throughout the conference. The two BYU a cappella groups performed in a battle format, each performing songs representative of different life events such as birthdays, weddings, holidays, etc. The crowd favorite of the night was Vocal Point’s performance of “God Bless The USA” which brought the Salt Palace audience to its feet.