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Vai's View: What's in a name? Bobby Salazar knows

Published: Thursday, Aug. 27 2015 8:54 p.m. MDT

Last weekend, we hosted Bobby and Julie Salazar in our home. They were in town with their sons, Colton and Jacob, who are stud college wrestlers in the Big 10 Conference.

Philadelphia hosted the three-day NCAA Wrestling Championships.

Colton Salazar wrestles for the Purdue Boilermakers at 157 pounds. His younger brother Jacob wrestles at the same weight class, but for the Michigan Wolverines. They've never competed against each other because Colton is a senior and Jacob is a redshirt freshman. The boys grew up in Midway, Utah, won multiple individual and team state championships at Wasatch High, are on college wrestling scholarships and are returned missionaries.

Colton Salazar, the Purdue senior, served in Tokyo, married his high school sweetheart, will graduate in June with a degree in aviation, is a pilot and plans to work in air-traffic control.

Jacob Salazar is a freshman pre-med major at Michigan, served a Spanish-speaking mission in San Bernardino, Calif., and is engaged to his high school sweetheart, whom he'll marry this summer in the Jordan River Temple.

The Salazar boys have an older married sister, Jennica, who has two children and graduated in nursing from BYU. The youngest Salazar, Aubri, is a sophomore heptathlete on the BYU women's track team.

As accomplished as the Salazar kids are, this story isn't about them.

It's about their dad, Bobby, and his remarkable life. It's a life shrouded in a guarded family secret of false identity, poverty, alcoholism, conversion and redemption. Certainly, there was no indication in the early years that Bobby Salazar would play at, not one, but two of the most storied football programs in the country, race in the Iditarod, marry a pretty college cheerleader, have a successful career in the medical field and raise children who would attend and graduate from the top schools in the country.

Bobby Salazar and I were teammates and knew each other at BYU for just one year — 1983.

I had just returned from a mission and was redshirting when Bobby was a senior safety.

Bobby Salazar was born in Montebello, Calif., as Robert Earl Smith Junior, after his father. When his parents divorced in 1960, his mother Pat moved with her two little boys, 2-year-old Bobby and 3-year-old John to Las Vegas, to be closer to her family. Pat worked as a barmaid at a casino and caught the attention of a Scottish-Canadian bartender with the ill-fitting Hispanic name of Alexander Salazar. Pat and Al married and eventually gave John and Bobby two half-brothers, Harry and Al (Alexander).

When Bobby was 8 or 9, the family abruptly left Vegas and returned to California. They moved to San Rafael, about an hour north of San Francisco, living in an apartment for a few years, while Al and Pat worked odd jobs trying to make ends meet. Eventually, they moved to Sonoma, a nicer area roughly 40 miles away, into a small three-bedroom house where parents and four boys shared one bathroom. Al worked late hours as a bartender and whenever money was tight, which was often, Pat would find work in the fast-food industry until their finances were more stable. It was a good, loving home where they were taught values and work ethic, but not exceptionally religious. Pat grew up Catholic, so they attended midnight mass on Christmas and Easter and prayed over meals.

When Bobby was about 16, he returned from school one day to find his mother pacing nervously, wringing her hands. "My mom was a worry wart, but she seemed particularly agitated that day," Bobby recalled. "She asked us to sit down, then proceeded to tell us, for the first time, a long-held family secret. It started with a letter that came to Al Salazar from the Internal Revenue Service. The IRS was seeking to know why two Alexander Salazars, with the same social security numbers, were filing tax returns in separate parts of the country. Pat confided in Bobby and his brothers that their father's real name was Arthur McCarthy. He was a Scottish immigrant who grew up working since age 12 in a logging camp in Saskatchewan, Canada. When he turned 18, Arthur McCarthy wanted a better life and sought to go to America. A fellow worker at the logging camp named Alexander Salazar had an extra social security card and sold it to Arthur. Just like that, Arthur McCarthy assumed a new identity. He found his way to a logging camp in Montana and eventually Las Vegas, where he met Patricia Smith.

Worried about his family if he was exposed, Al (Arthur) wrote a long letter to the IRS explaining how it all happened, hoping that his confession would grant him leniency when the feds arrested and deported him. But the IRS never responded, so he continued to live as Alexander Salazar the rest of his life, unpunished. Stepsons John and Bobby took their father's name and became "Salazars", though not legally.

Al wasn't a sports fan nor did he have the time, so it was Pat who taught the boys how to throw a baseball and catch a football. They all loved to play sports, but Bobby was especially gifted in football. By his senior year, he was being offered scholarships by small schools in California, but he chose to stay close to home because Pat's health was deteriorating. Al and Pat were heavy smokers and social drinkers. Pat had contracted lung cancer from the cigarettes and for years had battled alcoholism. "She wasn't mean or abusive when she drank but rather, she was passive and lethargic," said Bobby. "As kids, we just managed around her addiction and our dad did his best."

Bobby played at nearby Santa Rosa Junior College so he could be near his mother, who passed away during his freshman year. Pat's illness seemed to inspire Bobby's play, as he started receiving offers after his freshman year at Santa Rosa from big-time Division I programs.

After his mother's passing, no longer obligated to stay close to home, he accepted a scholarship from the University of Southern California.

Before leaving for USC in January 1979, a high school teammate named David Bailey gave him some pamphlets about his church and a book that he took with him to Los Angeles. Southern Cal was the center of the college football world. The Trojans were the defending national champions, two future Heisman Trophy winners were still on the team (Charles White and Marcus Allen) and all 22 starters would eventually play in the NFL. Just in his defensive backs group were Ronnie Lott, Dennis Smith and Jeff Fisher, who respectively, became a Hall-of-Famer, a six-time All-Pro and a head coach in the NFL.

One night, he came across the pamphlets and the Book of Mormon his high school buddy David Bailey had given him and casually began reading them. He was intrigued with the odd names in the book and even more fascinated with the stories like Lehi's dream. So, he started calling David and asking questions. Long-distance calls were expensive in those days before cell phones and family plans, so David did his best to answer Bobby's questions quickly because of cost. David also suggested Bobby find the "Institute" at USC where Mormon kids hung out and encouraged him to find missionaries who could answer all of his questions. Word must have gotten out through the campus Elders because one day in the football office, USC's backup quarterback sidled up next to Bobby and whispered, "I hear you're taking the discussions. I am too." Bobby nodded, somewhat puzzled. Bobby whispered back, "What do you think?" His teammate replied, "I'm not sure. It's a lot to consider." For Bobby, it was too late. He knew. In June, at semester's end, Bobby asked David Bailey, his high school friend who gave him the tracts and Book of Mormon, to baptize him.

He had only been on the USC campus a semester, but already he knew the group of guys he was around at 'SC would not be help him live his new faith. He wasn't sure what he'd do or where he'd go, but he knew he couldn't stay at USC. Head coach John Robinson was perplexed with Bobby's request, but graciously released him from his scholarship. Being Mormon was so new, he didn't even know that his church owned a university with an up-and-coming football program. A friend in his ward called and said he knew someone at BYU and asked if he would he be interested. Then, LaVell Edwards called.

When he arrived in Provo, he was assigned to room in an apartment with a group of players who were mostly non-LDS, including quarterback Jim McMahon. He had only been a member of the church two months but felt he was at the right place.

One day, a former teammate at Santa Rosa Junior College named Homer Jones, who was now BYU's starting halfback, introduced him to a pretty blond from Yakima, Wash., named Julie Byers. She was a BYU cheerleader and stunningly beautiful. He asked her out. As a transfer, Bobby redshirted the '79 season so couldn't go to the Holiday Bowl in San Diego, but as a cheerleader Julie did. She attended a fireside at bowl week featuring Elder Thomas S. Monson of the Twelve Apostles. At the fireside, Julie felt the impression to ask Bobby a question that their future children would call "DTR" — Defining The Relationship. "I asked him if he had thought of going on a mission," said Julie.

Bobby had never considered it, but he started praying over it. When the answer came early in the winter semester of 1980, Bobby hoped to leave in April after finals. But he learned he had to be a member a year before he could go, so he waited until June. His mission call was to Argentina, where he was known as Elder Smith, the name on his birth certificate, though he had never used it.

In South America, he learned the gospel and Spanish. He learned the organization of the church, how it operates and leadership skills, as he was called to be a zone leader and an assistant to the president. "There were areas where my companion and I had to go sober up the ward mission leader so we could have correlation meeting. Ultimately, I learned a lot about people, the Church and myself. I loved Argentina, her people and appreciated my adopted Hispanic name."

When he returned in June 1982, Julie Byers was waiting but their window for marriage was either before two-a-days started in July or after the semester and football season. So they married three weeks after Bobby's return. "I wore the brown Mr. Mac suit I wore home from my mission, " said Bobby. "I felt bad for Julie who was beautiful in her white dress and there I am in the pictures in a brown suit. But it was all I had."

Before their marriage in the Oakland California Temple, Bobby quietly and legally changed his last name from Smith to Salazar, to make it official. After marriage, his two younger step brothers, Al and Harry came to Provo to visit them. Bobby introduced them to the church and later baptized both. He and Julie performed the temple work for his deceased mother, Pat, but deferred his father's work to his step brother, Al, who is a biological son and father's namesake.

After BYU, a tryout with the Denver Broncos didn't pan out. He floundered for a few years. He bought a husky dog for his kids and ended up with 36, which led to running a kennel. He took up dogsled racing and eventually ran a team of 16 dogs in the Iditarod — yes, THE Iditarod — the grueling endurance race of man and beast covering 1,200 miles from Anchorage to Nome, Alaska. "1995 was the coldest ever recorded in the history of the Iditarod, temperatures dropping to 40-50 degrees below zero," said Bobby. "The winner took nine days. I did it in 13 but I lost a day helping a competitor save one of his dogs. It was worth it."

He tried coaching, but didn't pursue it for a career. He applied to a program at the University of Utah to be a physician's assistant not expecting he'd be accepted. He was. While Bobby attended the U. by day, he built a log home at night in Heber for his growing family, waking at 3 a.m. to study. "I don't know what I was thinking," he says laughing. For the past 15 years or so, he's been part of a successful practice in Heber. "I absolutely love my work," he told me. He's served in his stake high council and is currently in his ward bishopric.

We watched and cheered Jimmer and the BYU team last Saturday night against Gonzaga and stayed up late just talking and catching up. His sons aren't Cougars, but only because BYU scrapped the wrestling program. What's important is that in their hearts, they are.

Bobby Salazar likes to say, of himself and his kids, "Once a Cougar, always a Cougar."

His life certainly exemplifies it.

Copyright 2015, Deseret News Publishing Company