SAN DIEGO, Calif. — The man with massive arms and tree-trunk legs was finishing his second helping of barbecue ribs when his wife asked the question.
"Ryon, are you done eating?"
"Honey, what kind of silly question is that? Of course I am not done eating," he said, smiling through the red sauce.
The Southern California sun was going down on the Binghams' backyard barbecue when the 6-foot-3, 300-pound defensive tackle for the San Diego Chargers returned to the grill for thirds.
It was during that third serving, licked fingers and all, that Ryon Bingham, the former Alta Hawk and Nebraska Cornhusker, openly shared the details of his true conversion to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The gospel has filled his life with pure happiness, Bingham said.
"You can strip all the money I have made, everything I have, but I would still have my family and most importantly, God," the 29-year-old said. "It's wonderful to play in the NFL and make lots of money, but I would give it all up for my faith. Your faith is the most important thing, nothing else matters in life."
Bingham was baptized a member of the church at age 8, but said he drifted away from the gospel when his parents divorced at age 12.
As the Sandy, Utah, native grew older, he had Mormon friends, but had no interest in learning about Joseph Smith or the Book of Mormon.
"I was the kind of person that would say, 'Do not talk to me about the gospel. DO NOT. I don't want to hear it,'" said the man with an enormous neck. "I was living a lifestyle like most other football players, which included doing a lot of things I shouldn't. It felt normal because I didn't have the gospel."
After crushing quarterbacks and winning two state wrestling titles at Alta High School, Bingham graduated and opted to play football for the Nebraska Cornhuskers.
Little did he know that both discouraging and happy times awaited him in Lincoln.
As Bingham arrived in Nebraska, his good friend, Elder Ryan Clark, was arriving in Cleveland, Ohio, to begin his two-year LDS mission. While excited to serve, Clark was deeply concerned for his friend.
"When I left on my mission, he had some strong feelings against the church. He had said some things that made me think I needed to pray for him," said Clark, now a general contractor living in Lehi. "So at the end of each day, I prayed that his heart would be softened."
Clark's prayers were answered when Bingham broke the navicular bone in his foot in 2000, a painful injury that refused to fully heal for almost a year. Bingham doesn't even know how or when it happened.
"It took forever. Doctors didn't know when it would heal or if I would play again. When horses break their navicular, they are put down. It's a pretty severe injury if you don't get it repaired," Bingham said. "It was a humbling experience."
Sidelined from football, the 20-year-old fell into a state of depression. He considered giving up football and going home. He started to spend more time with beer bottles and "dumb friends." One night while partying with friends, he felt suicidal. That's when he felt impressed to do something he had not done in at least 10 years — pray.
Bingham's impression to pray stemmed from some advice Clark had given him months earlier — "If you ever have a problem, know that the Lord is there for you. Ask for his help."
As Bingham contemplated taking his life, those words entered his mind. He decided to give prayer a chance.
"I didn't really believe in God at the time. I said 'God, if you are there, show me a sign that you are there,' " Bingham said.
A few days earlier in Ohio, Elder Clark had received a down-in-the dumps letter from Bingham in which the injured lineman pleaded for help. Clark said another prayer and called the missionary referral department in Provo, Utah.
"He had gone from bottom to rock bottom," Clark said. "I prayed he would accept the missionaries."
The day following Bingham's prayer, he awoke to a knock on his campus apartment door. He kicked aside empty bottles from the previous night's party and opened the door to find a couple of guys in white shirts and ties. (Bingham was surprised they even got to his door. Non-tenants were not permitted access through the locked main apartment complex door without the code.)
Bingham's first reaction was to slam the door and he did.
That's when he recalled his previous night's prayer.
"It hit me. I had prayed them there," Bingham said. "I let them in and they taught me the first lesson. The spirit in the room was amazing. It was like a warm blanket had been placed over me."
As their discussions continued, the injured Cornhusker began attending church meetings. A game plan was formulated to help Bingham distance himself from old friends and old habits, a difficult but necessary step. Despite the strange looks and alienation of teammates, Bingham persevered. His foot eventually healed and the mammoth lineman returned to the field with a new outlook on life.
Brandon Fox, now a chiropractor in northern California, was one of the missionaries who knocked on Bingham's door.
"He did a total U-turn," Fox said. "He was rock solid. Eventually he was helping the stake missionaries."
A decade later
Back at the barbecue, Bingham talked smack with Chargers teammate Eric Weddle.
"How many national championships did you win at Utah? Oh, yeah, that's right, none," Bingham joked.
"How many undefeated seasons did you have at Nebraska? Oh, yeah, that's right, none," Weddle shot back with a grin.
Their wives looked at each other and eyes rolled simultaneously.
A decade has passed since Bingham's freshman year at Nebraska and the now happily married father of two is genuinely at peace.
Since earning all-conference honors with the Blackshirt defense as a senior in 2003, Bingham has spent the past six seasons as an anchor on the Chargers' defensive line.
The Binghams are members of the San Diego Scripps Ranch 1st LDS Ward where the hulking lineman serves as an elders quorum instructor and Webelos leader.
"While Ryon is a great football player, he is a better father, husband and member of the church," said Brooke M. Shields, a fellow ward member.
Despite playing on Sundays, Bingham strives to be a good example to all. His conversion experience, which also had a profound effect on his friend Ryan Clark, continues to inspire him. He shares his story when appropriate.
"God uses us as his tools. The importance of missionary work can never be underestimated. Ryan didn't give up on me. He prayed faithfully and had the courage to send the missionaries," Bingham said. "It's so important to be an example and share because you never know. God may be humbling someone or something goes wrong in their life and they realize they need something more, and before you know, they are willing to accept things they never imagined."
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