“My beloved brothers and sisters, I testify of angels, both the heavenly and the mortal kind. In doing so I am testifying that God never leaves us alone, never leaves us unaided in the challenges that we face.” — Elder Jeffrey R. Holland (October 2008 general conference)
Sam Bracken’s childhood was one of unspeakable abuse and neglect.
By the time he was a teenager, Bracken had been beaten, starved, set on fire, molested, and exposed to all kinds of drugs and alcohol. At age 15, his mother kicked him out on the street and took up with a motorcycle gang.
Despite the hopelessness, the Lord did not abandon this troubled youth.
Thanks to a long list of loving friends, generous strangers, teachers and coaches — Bracken’s “angels” — he found the LDS Church, earned a college football scholarship, served a mission and was eventually married in the temple. Today the father of four is a successful businessman and philanthropist. He is a speaker and author. He seeks out opportunities to mentor at-risk youths.
“I was really fortunate, truly blessed, I had angels all around me. I had some key people at the right time, who did the right things, and they reached across to help me,” Bracken said. “It made all the difference.”
Conceived when his mother was raped, Sam grew up in Las Vegas in the 1970s. His dark childhood was scarred by poverty and a series of bad decisions by his mother.
When Sam was 7, his mother married Leroy Bracken. She worked three jobs, was rarely home and took pills to stay awake. According to Bracken, his stepfather watched TV in underwear, consumed alcohol and abused Bracken and his siblings. Lenny, a stepbrother who once poured lighter fluid on Sam’s arm and laughed as he flicked a lighter, introduced him to marijuana and beer, Bracken says.
Big for his age at 13, Bracken passed as an adult at the casino where his mother worked. He was allowed to gamble, drink and meet women. He also befriended a kid whose father was a mobster.
At age 15, Bracken’s mother moved in with a Hessian motorcycle gang and abandoned him, saying, “Someday you will thank me for this.”
And that’s only a sampling of his horrific childhood. Bracken details all the atrocities of his youth in his book. (More on the book later.)
Amid the despair, at least three blessings emerged.
At age 14, one of his teachers figured out he needed glasses, not special education courses, to succeed in school. His grades went from Cs, Ds and Fs to As.
Bracken also discovered he was gifted athletically. He started running track and playing football.
After his mother abandoned him, he went for a long run in the desert and collapsed in the dirt. At that low point of his young life, Bracken said a desperate prayer for God to help him.
“I had no place to go; I was at a loss. Then I get this impression to call my friend, Brent,” Bracken said. “He was a Mormon.”
A new course
Bracken’s prayer was answered when Brent’s family took him in for a time. He excelled in a “normal” family environment. A few coaches and teachers who were aware of his situation went the extra mile in helping him. Bracken raised his GPA to 3.9 and stood out in football and track. He also began investigating The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. As he met with the missionaries and read the Book of Mormon, he gained a strong testimony of the gospel, but had to wait until his senior year for permission to be baptized.
As he continued to find success in high school football, many schools recruited Bracken. He was most thrilled with an offer from BYU and accepted it. But right before graduation, BYU withdrew its offer. Bracken was disappointed, but still had other possibilities. That summer, however, he injured his knee playing in an all-star game.
Just when he feared his career was over, Bracken’s doctor, Andrew Welch, told him his knee would be fine. Welch had heard his patient was a good student and considering UNLV. The doctor believed there were greater opportunities out there and offered to help Bracken send letters and film to programs around the country.
“He asked why I was going to UNLV. I said I don’t have a choice. He said, ‘Son, you always have a choice,’” Bracken said. “It changed the trajectory of my life.”
Several rejection letters came back before the day the phone rang. The call led Bracken to Atlanta where he accepted a scholarship from Georgia Tech coach Bill Curry.
Several people influenced Bracken’s life during his days with the “Ramblin’ Wreck” at Georgia Tech in the early 1980s.
One such individual was coach Curry.
First, the coach learned of Bracken’s background and recognized his need for psychotherapy.
“He helped me rid myself of baggage so I could move forward,” Bracken said. “It made a big difference.”
Bracken made the dean’s list and lettered as a freshman. He was slated to start as a sophomore and the future looked bright. The following spring, however, he suffered serious damage to both shoulders. Once again, his career seemed over and he spiraled into depression and self-pity.
A defining moment came one day when he was sitting on a Florida beach with some teammates. A flock of seagulls flew over him and unloaded a mess of smelly bombs. As his teammates rolled with laughter, Bracken began to see the humor, too.
“I recognized a great truth,” he wrote. “Life is not fair, but nothing good comes from sitting around and feeling sorry for yourself. The course of my journey depends on the choices I make.”
Bracken resolved to make a comeback. In addition to intense physical therapy, he turned to coach Curry for advice. The coach suggested Bracken make a binder with four tabs and label them “spiritual,” “mental,” “physical” and “emotional.” Bracken was to evaluate and write about each section of his life, then make goals and a plan for how to reach them. The exercise proved to be just what Bracken needed. He also came away with a profound respect for Curry.
“The notebook changed everything,” Bracken said.
Bracken returned to the gridiron with greater strength and confidence. He moved to the offensive line and earned a starting position. In 1985, he helped his team to a record of 9-2-1, a national ranking and a victory over Michigan State in the All-American Bowl.
One of the first people Bracken met when he arrived in Atlanta was Don Conkey. The men crossed paths at an LDS chapel where Conkey was a member of the bishopric. It was Conkey’s habit to invite new visitors to his house for a meal, and he persuaded Bracken join him for breakfast. As they ate, Bracken told Conkey his story. Conkey, also a convert, listened to Bracken’s unbelievable tale and felt prompted to offer the young man a home.
“I don’t know why I did it,” the 84-year-old said in a telephone interview from Atlanta. “I was impressed to do it, I did it and it changed both of our lives.”
When Bracken wasn’t staying at the dorms or needed to get away, he was welcome at the Conkey home. He earned his keep by helping Conkey with chores around the house. In time, Bracken became regarded as family. The Conkeys also assisted Bracken in his effort to remain active in the church.
“Had they not been there, it would have been easy to go back into other behaviors; I probably wouldn’t have gone on a mission. They loved me and held me accountable. I had to report to Don and I didn’t want to let him down,” Bracken said. “My testimony grew over those years and when I went on a mission, I was ready. They made all the difference.”
Preparing to serve
Bracken earned all-conference honors following his junior and senior years. He went undrafted, but received invitations to a few NFL training camps. He toyed with the idea of the NFL, but two meaningful experiences prepared him to pursue something else — a mission.
The first episode came when he was asked to briefly share his testimony and talk about his relationship with the Lord at the Fellowship of Christian Athletes breakfast prior to the All-American Bowl. There were thousands in attendance. He had spoken at firesides before, but never to a non-LDS audience.
“I felt weak all over. I don’t remember what exactly I said,” Bracken wrote of the experience in a March 1988 New Era article. “I told them about the Savior and how he’d taken upon himself the sins of mankind. I was doing pretty well emotionally until I started talking about my teammates. Then I started to cry because I loved them. I closed in the sacred name of the Savior.”
There was a favorable response and people appreciated how he had presented his spiritual message. As a result, Bracken was later invited to speak at several different Christian churches and faiths in the Atlanta area.
The second experience started with an idea that came to Bracken during sacrament meeting. He wanted to give copies of the Book of Mormon to his coaches, teammates and friends. He fasted, prayed and eventually created a list with several hundred names, including Curry, teammates, the athletic director, professors, the president of Georgia Tech and several others. With the financial support of the Conkeys, each book cover was embossed with the recipient’s name in gold. Inside, he posted two pictures — one of him in his football uniform, and one of him in a suit and tie. Next to the photos he wrote his testimony. One line read: “One can experience many victories in life, but no other experience can compare with the victories that come from obedience to the gospel of Jesus Christ.”
The Conkeys hosted a party for Bracken at the end of his senior year and that’s when he passed out the copies of the Book of Mormon. Of the hundreds he gave away, only one person declined.
“They were all very appreciative,” Bracken said in the New Era article. “It was unbelievable to see the receptiveness of these people. I knew the Holy Ghost was helping me.”
Conkey knew Bracken didn’t have any money, but he found a way around that. As the church’s public affairs specialist in Atlanta, he was acquainted with prominent Mormons in the Southeast. He talked with Atlanta Braves’ star Dale Murphy and Gerald Day, the dean of Tech’s college of management and the future president of Snow College. They would work together to pay for Bracken’s mission.
Bracken was called to serve in Toronto, Canada.
Before he left, he flew to Idaho to visit his mother, who was staying with relatives while she recovered from serious injuries sustained in a car accident. His aunt was very critical of Bracken for turning down the NFL and job options to serve a mission while his mother was in poor shape. He almost changed his mind about serving until his mother gave him her blessing.
“It was the strangest thing,” Bracken said. “She said, ‘No, you have to do this. This is something God wants you to do.’”
As they said farewell at the train station in Boise, Bracken felt impressed to promise his “very hardened, Hell’s Angels biker-chick” mother that before he finished his mission, she would gain a testimony of the gospel and get baptized.
“I got on the train with tears in my eyes and thought, ‘What in the world have I done? Am I a lunatic?’” Bracken said.
Over the course of his mission, Bracken communicated with his mother and sent requests to the church headquarters for missionaries to visit her in McCall, Idaho. After almost a year, he could tell she had not been taught, so he penned a candid, strongly worded plea to Salt Lake for someone to visit her.
The letter worked. An older couple found the humble home, and Bracken’s mother responded positively to their friendship and gospel message. As Elder Bracken concluded his mission, he received special permission to fly to Idaho and baptize his mother before returning to Atlanta for his release.
“As I stood in the waters of baptism, performing that ordinance for my mother, who had made about as many mistakes as you can make in life, for her to come out of that water clean and pure, following Christ, was one of the most sacred, beautiful moments of my life,” Bracken said. “She was the most unlikely Mormon you would ever imagine.”
Bracken’s mother eventually received her temple blessings and was faithful until she died in 2004.
Bracken was blessed to teach and baptize many converts in Canada, but it was also where he met his wife, Kim. Following his mission, they stayed in touch as she served a French-speaking mission in Montreal. After her mission, they dated and were married in the Washington D.C. Temple.
Today, Bracken is the global director of FranklinCovey Media Publishing. He and his family live in Kaysville. His oldest son, Beau, is serving a mission in Chile. “I’m pretty blessed in my life,” he said.
With the help of co-author Echo Garrett, Bracken self-published his book, “My Orange Duffel Bag: A Journey to Radical Change,” in 2010. The title stems from when Bracken moved to Atlanta and all his possessions fit into one small orange duffel bag. In addition to sharing his story, Bracken shares his “7 Rules for the Road,” designed to help readers set goals and gauge their own progress.
The book sold about 12,000 units and won several awards before Crown Publishing picked it up.
Additionally, Bracken and Garrett co-founded “The Orange Duffel Bag Foundation,” a nonprofit organization that provides professional coaching, training and ongoing mentoring for at-risk youths ages 12-24, as well as support for their guardians and caring adults. The program, with his principles and goals, has already started to change lives, Bracken said, with more down the road.
“I was a dope-smoking, little hippie kid in Vegas that grew up on the fringes of the mob and motorcycle gang members. There was no way a Utah family would have approved their kids playing with me. To help a kid (like that) is messy, risky and hard. It’s not neat and tidy,” Bracken said. “But if you can do nothing more than just help one person transition to a productive, positive life, it could change the whole trajectory and landscape of their life. It is so worth it. It made all the difference for me.”
Email: email@example.com Twitter: tbtoone
Copyright 2015, Deseret News Publishing Company