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Stuart Johnson, Deseret News
Youths from the Lehi, Eagle Mountain and Saratoga Springs area surround BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall seeking an autograph following last Friday's fireside.

AMERICAN FORK, Utah — Twenty-one hours before kickoff, David Nixon is in an unusual place for a college football player.

He's not breaking down film of the opposing team's offense. He's not playing video games with his teammates. And he's not at the team hotel watching television — which is what he suspects he'd be doing if he weren't at the Alpine Tabernacle in American Fork, Utah.

Nixon, a senior outside linebacker from College Station, Texas, is instead seated on the front row of the stand awaiting the start of the season's first Brigham Young University football team fireside. It's about 6:55 p.m. on Friday, the night before the Cougars open the 2008 campaign at LaVell Edwards Stadium against Northern Iowa.

At 6:30 p.m., the expansive tabernacle was about three-quarters full. Now, it's getting difficult to find a seat.

More than 40 players are on the stand with Nixon. Meanwhile, the highest-profile athlete among them, starting quarterback Max Hall, is out in the congregation greeting people when he is approached by three young men seeking autographs. Hall obliges.

Most of the people in attendance are youths, particularly Aaronic Priesthood-aged young men in white shirts and ties. There are also families, older couples and a few young adults out on dates. While Sunday dress is the norm, one elderly gentleman enters wearing dress slacks and a royal blue BYU T-shirt. Still, aside from a few scattered college-theme neckties (mostly BYU, with at least one University of Utah version mixed in), there's very little to suggest that this gathering has anything to do with football.

And that's just the way Bronco Mendenhall would have it. After all, the fourth-year BYU head coach considers these firesides more important than the actual games, and he doesn't hesitate when declaring that faith takes priority over football in his program. It's a stunning statement to make within the hyper-competitive world of college football, but Mendenhall isn't budging from what he feels matters most. He's convinced it's the right approach, for the institution, the program, the players — and the head coach.

"Football is only the vehicle to deliver a message of more importance and substance," the coach said recently in an interview with Mormon Times. "That is the way that I view the program. It's criticized, and I'm criticized, and many don't think that that's appropriate. (But) I won't do it any other way."

IN OCTOBER 2005, one month into his first regular season as head coach at BYU, Mendenhall was overwhelmed.

His team was 1-3, having just suffered a 31-10 beating on the road against San Diego State, and Mendenhall admits he wasn't exactly sure how to be a head coach. One of his foremost concerns, however, had nothing to do with football.

"What was bothering me most is I didn't feel like we were giving back enough," he said. "And I didn't feel like we were distinguishing ourselves enough in relation to the mission of this institution and its governing faith. That was really bothering me."

During the week leading up to the game in San Diego, Mendenhall had a feeling that he should organize a Friday evening fireside for church members in the area. The leaders there, however, said thanks, but no thanks. Mendenhall was informed there would be no interest in such an event.

"They'd seen the BYU fireside thing before, is what I remember the phrase being," he said. "My mistake was I took no for an answer, and didn't feel right about it.

"After the game, what I felt worst about was not that we hadn't played well in the most one-sided defeat since I've been the coach ... We weren't magnifying this program and the message that it represents."

A determined Mendenhall met with his staff early the following Monday and told them to book a chapel in Albuquerque, where the Cougars were scheduled to play that upcoming weekend.

"Find us a building," he said. "I don't care if anybody comes, but we're going to, from this point on, have a fireside."

That's essentially what happened. The team did conduct a fireside, and while more than 40 of the players chose to participate, only 13 people showed up to watch.

BY THE TIME the prelude music stops, the Alpine Tabernacle pews are packed. The presiding stake president informs those still looking for seats that there is an overflow area in the basement. He also recognizes Elder Gary L. Pocock, an area Seventy who is in attendance.

Following an opening hymn, Nixon gives the invocation. The first speaker is Brock Richardson, a senior defensive lineman from Idaho Falls who served a mission in Brazil and transferred to BYU from Snow College. Richardson expounds on how scriptures can be applied to lives in a very literal sense, and uses an example from his playing career to illustrate his point. He also speaks about the spiritual focus of the football program and how the coach encourages his team to play with purpose.

Richardson is followed by a musical number, where senior wide receiver Reed White of Gilbert, Ariz., and junior tight end Andrew George of Englewood, Colo., perform "If You Could Hie to Kolob." White plays the piano, while George plays the guitar.

Travis Bright is the second speaker. Wearing glasses and dressed in a suit, the 6-foot-5, 313-pound offensive lineman from Queen Creek, Ariz., who can bench-press more than 500 pounds, speaks softly about the importance of examples. He never mentions his sport, and the only thing that distinguishes him as a football player is his massive frame.

"It's neat to see you guys here on a Friday night," he tells the congregation.

Following Bright, Hall makes his way up to the stand to join his 40-plus teammates in singing "We'll Bring the World His Truth," accompanied by junior running back Wayne Latu of Provo.

Holly Mendenhall, the head coach's wife, then stands and praises those on the team who have shared their musical talents.

"I had no idea Andrew George could play the guitar," she says.

She speaks about her love of music and encourages the young men in the congregation who are learning to play instruments to persevere and keep practicing.

"Hang in there," she says, "because some day I bet the chicks will really dig it."

Many cougar fans remember the weekend of Oct. 8, 2005, as the turning point in the program under Bronco Mendenhall. That night, BYU trailed New Mexico in the fourth quarter, but rallied for a 27-24 victory.

As significant as the win was, Mendenhall values what happened in that Albuquerque chapel before an audience of 13 more than what occurred on the football field.

"(The fireside) was the highlight of the weekend and one of the highlights of my life, just knowing that that was what we were supposed to do," he said. "The outcome of the game wasn't nearly as relevant as, to me, the inner peace that comes when you're obedient ... to the promptings you receive."

From that time forward, the team has convened for a religious service on the evening before each game, whether home or away. The objective, the coach said, is to perform service and use the platform they've been provided with as members of the school's most high-profile athletic program. Players, who participate on a volunteer basis, plan the fireside programs, and the team invites surrounding stakes to attend. Ever since the Albuquerque event, the congregations have been growing.

"We just kept building from there," said BYU quarterbacks coach Brandon Doman, who is in charge of organizing the events.

These days, the venues are usually filled to capacity. And while Mendenhall said some come with the expectation of a "pep rally," the theme is always the same — being a disciple of Jesus Christ.

"All these fans are coming thinking this is a chance to interact with the team and get ready for the game," Mendenhall said. "We think it's a chance to reinforce what's most important."

And what's "most important" to the coach is faith — not football. That's why he counts the team firesides as more meaningful than the actual games.

"They are more important," he said. "There's nothing subtle about it, because it's people gathering to reinforce life choices and discipleship and following our Savior, which hopefully helps them return to our Father in heaven. The other part is just football, so I certainly view it as more important ... It's how I feel, and it's what I believe."

Not everyone believed in the decision initially. Mendenhall acknowledged there was apprehension among staff members and players who thought they may be compromising game preparation. But a 28-7 record and two conference championships since the decision was made have likely alleviated such concerns.

Mendenhall can also point to the positive signs he witnesses when players participate. On the buses back to the team hotel following a fireside, the players are engaged, relaxed and happy — all products of service, the coach said.

Bryce Mahuika, a senior wide receiver from Vancouver, Wash., said the firesides actually aid in game preparation because teammates are spending time together rather than being isolated in their hotel rooms.

"It's going to do nothing but positives," he said. "Some may not believe that, but we do."

Mendenhall doesn't diminish the significance of football games, but he does place them in a unique context. The coach points to the direct correlation that exists between winning and having people pay attention to what the team has to say.

"What I've learned is, through quality on the field, the level of intrigue towards the message and credibility goes up," he said. "If we weren't to play well, then all those same principles that we think are most important and know to be most important are mocked and made fun of. The two are connected, whether they should be or not."

Holly Mendenhall continues her talk by counseling against being a "coaster."

"Are we really living with passion for the gospel?" she says. "Or are we just kind of coasting and gliding by?"

She closes her talk by thanking the players for their examples, and describes herself as the program's "head cheerleader." When her husband takes the stand, he praises his wife's efforts.

Bronco Mendenhall then builds upon what his wife had to say about the players' character.

"Isn't it nice to have examples of guys who can bench-press over 500 pounds talk about things of the spirit?" he says.

Mendenhall then shares some of the experiences he had during the week with media members from national publications like the Wall Street Journal, New York Times and Sports Illustrated. He says most of the questions addressed the team's 2008 motto, "Quest for Perfection." While they think it's about winning football games, Mendenhall says, he explains that the mantra is about life and comes from the teachings of the Savior. At that point, the interviews usually come to a halt, he says.

"They wanted to talk about football," Mendenhall says. "That's not what this is about."

He goes on to cover a variety of topics, like the need for his team to display exactness, courage and sportsmanship on the field in order to represent the institution and their faith. He speaks about being booed in his first game as head coach by the home fans. And he details the priorities of his program, which are, in order, faith, academics, friends and football.

He then ties it all together by asking the congregation to consider what's most important in life.

"So people ask, how is it that football and the spirit are tied together?" he says. "My question to you is, what is not tied to the spirit?"

Mendenhall said he does not pay attention to the media, but at least one article made a deep enough impression that he not only read it but keeps a copy of the magazine on a table in his office.

In an October 2005 edition of ESPN The Magazine, a piece by Chad Nielsen called "A Question of Faith" analyzed whether BYU, which at the time was coming off three straight losing seasons, could honor the school's mission and still return to glory.

Mendenhall approaches it from a different angle.

"I would argue the reason we've returned and are returning is because we're honoring the school's mission," he said.

Mendenhall is quick to emphasize that he isn't operating under any directives from school or church officials. But he does remember his interview with then-Elder Henry B. Eyring, who is now a member of the First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, when he was being considered for the position. It was that experience, and Elder Eyring's first question, that helped forge Mendenhall's perspective on priorities.

"I simply saw that my final interview to be the head coach at BYU was going to be with a special witness of the Savior," he said. "And his first question to me was about my testimony. If a special witness of the Savior is the one who's going to make this decision, and what he wants to know first is about my testimony, then it appears that that's what's most important."

Since then, Mendenhall hasn't hesitated to incorporate spiritual ideals into his program. The team's mission statement includes a phrase about being the "flag-bearers" of the university, and Mendenhall sees no reason not to embrace the values of the faith-based institution.

"The most important thing to him is the spirit of our program," Doman said. "He doesn't shy away from that. Everybody knows that's the case ... I would say 99 percent of the kids that come here to BYU are coming because of their faith. So why would we shy away from that as a strength? That is our No. 1 strength."

BYU's roster features 68 returned Mormon missionaries, while 54 more players in the program are currently serving in the mission field. According to Mendenhall, surveys conducted among BYU athletes show that the No. 1 reason they choose the Provo school is their faith. The program should be reflective of their priorities, he said.

"That's why a lot of us come to BYU," Mahuika said. "I think it's cool he'll integrate this into football ... We're all right behind him."

Mendenhall said he won't change his approach, even if the Cougars see a reversal of fortunes on the field. And while that's always a possibility, he plans to appreciate the opportunities for spiritual growth and progress that have been afforded him while working in this position.

"If it was over today, that's been the greatest blessing," he said. "It has been worth it for that. And there's a good chance that we won't be able to maintain the success or that I will stumble or through agency make a mistake that the tables will turn and people will be asking for someone else to be here. That won't ever take away from what we've learned and the experiences we've had to this point."

In closing his talk, Mendenhall asks those who will be attending the game against Northern Iowa to reflect on their fireside experience while at the stadium.

"By the way, this is much more important," he says of the Friday night service.

After the closing prayer by Shawn Doman, a junior linebacker from Woodburn, Ore., the players begin greeting members of the congregation, many of whom approach seeking autographs.

Twenty minutes after the benediction, Hall has been unable to move from the area where he watched the program. A crowd has been circled around him, with notepads and pens ready to hand over to the quarterback. One boy even has a football for Hall to sign.

After 30 minutes, the crowd finally clears. Hall waits another moment or two before making a call on his cell phone and finally slipping out the side door.

After Nixon finishes with his greetings, he heads out to one of the two buses waiting to take players to the team hotel, where he'll go back to passing the time in anticipation of the first game of his senior season.

Nixon has become a regular participant in these firesides, and he doesn't seem to miss the alternatives.

"This is much better than watching TV," he says. "I wouldn't miss this for the world."

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