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The ultimate cheerleader: Kyle Whittingham talks about his mother

Published: Tuesday, July 28 2015 7:37 p.m. MDT

Kyle Whittingham stands with his mother, Nancy. (Courtesy of Kyle Whittingham) Kyle Whittingham stands with his mother, Nancy. (Courtesy of Kyle Whittingham)

Editor's note: This is an excerpt from "Life's Lessons From Mothers of Faith," compiled by Gary W. Toyn and published by Covenant Communications.Click here for more excerpts from "Life Lessons from Mothers of Faith."

Growing up wasn’t easy for my mom. As a child, she was always teased for being the “chubby girl.” It didn’t help that her father owned a bakery and brought home unsold jelly doughnuts and other goodies. On other nights, her father would give away his leftover pastries to homeless people and others down on their luck, and he often asked my mother to help him. Giving to others came easily to him, and my mother has kept that important lesson with her since then.

My mother was the youngest of three children, but she was seven years younger than her next-oldest sibling. She didn’t have much interaction with her older brother and sister and consequently developed a very strong bond with her father. They were best friends.

Kyle Whittingham stands with his parents, Fred and Nancy, at his graduation from BYU in  1982. (Courtesy of Kyle Whittingham) Kyle Whittingham stands with his parents, Fred and Nancy, at his graduation from BYU in 1982. (Courtesy of Kyle Whittingham)

Her father worked hard to build his bakery business. He would wake up early to prepare the day’s baked goods, and he often went to bed late in order to manage the business’s finances. Burning the candle on both ends took its toll on his health, and when my mom was only 14, her father died suddenly at age 52 of complications related to high blood pressure. She was devastated. It was hard for a young teen to deal with such a tragic loss, and it is still something she rarely talks about today.

Because of this tragedy in her life, she was forced to grow up fast. But she soon became a beautiful girl who all the boys liked. Not only did she grow up to become a gorgeous cheerleader at her high school, but after graduating, she attended BYU on a cheerleading scholarship. When she was a sophomore, a friend introduced her to Fred Whittingham, a strapping young freshman linebacker who had come to Provo from Rhode Island to play football for coach Hal Kopp. After a whirlwind romance, they were married, and then they moved to California, where my father decided to play at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo.

Fred and Nancy Whittingham sit with their family in 1965. (Courtesy of Kyle Whittingham) Fred and Nancy Whittingham sit with their family in 1965. (Courtesy of Kyle Whittingham)

After my dad graduated in 1962, my parents embarked on a career in the National Football League. He played for the Los Angeles Rams, Dallas Cowboys, Philadelphia Eagles and New Orleans Saints. He rarely played for more than a year in a city during his 10-year career. During the season, my parents decided it was best for our family to remain in the Los Angeles area. My mom was left to manage the family affairs for much of the year while my dad was away.

When my mom was pregnant with my younger sister, my father couldn’t leave the team to be with her, so she went to Salt Lake City to be with her mother until she had the baby. She was unsure of how far along she was in her pregnancy, and upon arrival in Utah, the doctors determined she was two weeks overdue. They decided to take the baby by C-section. The baby had apparently ingested some toxins and was near death when she was born. After two days on a ventilator, she died. My mother never let on about how much she suffered emotionally from that event.

Nancy Whittingham, left, dresses up to support Kyle Whittingham's Utes. (Courtesy of Kyle Whittingham) Nancy Whittingham, left, dresses up to support Kyle Whittingham's Utes. (Courtesy of Kyle Whittingham)

After a decade of playing in the NFL, we remained in Southern California while my dad began his coaching career. It was difficult for us to establish friendships outside our family, and my mom became one of my best friends. During my stint playing pro football, and after I began my own coaching career, my mother was always there for me, offering me encouragement and reminding me to hang in there and be tough.

In 2003, my father passed away due to complications from surgery, leaving my mom alone again without her life-long companion. It was difficult for her, yet she was never one to complain or feel sorry for herself. She just kept going.

Although my mom can be tough, she lives her religion through her Christ-like love for others. A few years ago, she was driving along University Parkway in Orem, Utah, during a heavy snowstorm. A segment of this busy highway is steep, and during the storm, the snow piled up quickly on the sidewalks, and the snowplows could barely keep up with the snowfall. Along the way, she spotted a young man in a wheelchair who was trying his best to make it up the hill to a bus stop through the ice and snow. She couldn’t bear to see the young man struggle in such conditions, so she pulled over and offered him a ride.

Although it was not unlike her to help people she didn’t know, she stopped to help because of the oddity of the situation. Undaunted, she innocently joked as he opened the door, “You’re not going to shoot me are you?” They both laughed, and he felt at ease as she helped him and his wheelchair into the car. While she drove him to work, they had a chance to get to know each other.

His name was Andrew Holmes, and he had just moved to Utah from Monroe, La. About a year prior, he was a star linebacker at Carroll High School, and he was planning to attend Grambling University on a football scholarship. Tragically, however, he was paralyzed in an automobile accident. While he was recovering, he learned that his best hope to overcome his handicap was to come to Utah, where specialists have helped other paraplegics learn to walk again.

Without any support from friends or family, he came to Utah, found a job, and was doing his best to afford the costs associated with physical therapy and learning to walk again. He was alone and needed guidance, and my mother went out of her way to help Andrew as much as she could.

Little did my mother know that stopping to help this young man would be the beginning of a friendship that remains strong to this day. Her willingness to take a risk and stop to help a total stranger is indicative of her courage, compassion and love for others.

My mother is one-of-a-kind. She’s suffered through many trials, hardships and heartbreak, yet because of her willingness to show kindness to others, she is one of the most Christ-like people I know. She’s my friend, my confidant and my life-long cheerleader. And I’m grateful she’s my mom.

Kyle Whittingham is the the head football coach at the University of Utah.

Copyright 2015, Deseret News Publishing Company