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Kristin Murphy, Deseret News
Stephen M. R. Covey throws a football around with his sons Christian Covey and Britain Covey outside of their home in Provo on Thursday, June 14, 2012.
I loved football; I breathed football, and I really worked hard. —Stephen M. R. Covey

Editor's note: This is the first in a weekly series of stories that examine the influence participating in youth and high school sports had on the lives of successful people.

PROVO — When his friends were collapsing under the pressure of college final exams, Stephen M. R. Covey was confident he could push through it.

When he was suffering in the sweltering Paraguay heat as a young missionary, he knew the fatigue wouldn't defeat him.

Covey was sure that not only would he survive — but that he'd also succeed. He was certain because, as a teenage boy, he'd done something so difficult, so challenging that it provided him with confidence that has sustained him throughout his adult life.

Covey played high school football.

"I don't remember every test I took or even every teacher I had," said Covey, who is the co-founder and CEO of CoveyLink Worldwide and a best-selling author and motivational speaker. "But I remember every pass I caught in every game of my senior year. I could give you the score of every game my senior year. ... It is what gave me the capacity to do difficult things because I had done them before."

Covey graduated in 1980 from Provo High, where he played wide receiver and defensive back for the Bulldogs.

"I loved the competitive nature of it," he said of why he chose football.

The third child and oldest son of Stephen R. and Sandra Covey, he grew up playing in a park near his home where young boys gathered to have pick-up games.

"It was sort of the frontier back then," he said laughing. "They didn't have the knowledge they have now about fitness and workouts. They didn't let us drink water or take breaks. You just had to be tough. Being thirsty was part of the conditioning. It was really grueling."

It was so grueling Covey said he considered giving up the sport more than once — most often during two-a-days.

"Many times I wanted to quit, but I wasn't going to," he said. "Football at the time was the old mentality of command and control. Coaches would scream at you all they wanted; they could grab you, and they did."

He recalls incidents where star players were "humbled" by vocal coaches. The mantra was "work hard" and the result was a committed group of players.

Covey said he wasn't as athletically gifted as some of his siblings. But what he lacked in skill, he made up for with effort. It seemed his sacrifices had finally paid off when he earned varsity time his junior year.

"My junior year I'd earned a position in the rotation," he said, a smile spreading across his face. "I was going to bring in the plays every other play. I was alternating with a senior, who was a captain."

Provo's first game that season was against rival Orem.

"I went to block a guy and the guy knocks me down, and I broke my arm," Covey said. "I played one play my junior year. ... It was quite an ordeal just playing one play after working so hard to earn that position. It was extremely disappointing. I loved football; I breathed football, and I really worked hard."

Football had taught him to not tolerate self-pity, so he funneled his competitive desire into debate.

"I enjoyed it and it filled the gap," said Covey. "My father had done it. I knew I needed something to fill that void. I wasn't good at basketball. I learned a lot in debate — how to think, analyze, speak, to make arguments and to respond."

When his arm had healed, he went back to preparing himself for what would be his last season of football.

"We (his teammates) worked really hard and we were very committed," he said. "This is back when they didn't have summer workouts, but we had our own."

Even with superstar players like Kyle Whittingham and Craig Garrett, the Provo Bulldogs had been mediocre during Covey's prep days. But the young men were determined not to have a mediocre senior season.

"As seniors, we were determined we were going to be good," he said. "We really worked hard and we had a great senior year."

The team went 9-1, earned a region title and was ranked as high as No. 3 in the state.

"We won our first-round playoff game, but then we lost in the second round 15-10 to Highland," he said. "We lost on a 50-yard bomb in the last 30 seconds. It was a heartbreaker. We didn't have enough time to come back."

To everyone else, Provo High had overachieved that year. To Covey, it provided another learning opportunity — how to handle disappointment.

"It was really significant," he said of his high school sports experience. "It was a sense of belonging, a sense of meaning and camaraderie, teamwork, brotherhood. It was just a huge part of my life at the time. I was not an extraordinary athlete that could go out and play other sports. I ran track to get better for football."

Covey walked on at BYU and was part of the Cougars' scout team, and while he enjoyed it, he realized very quickly that college football was much different from the high school experience. After he served his mission, he decided his sports career was over and focused on his education.

He walked away with many fond memories and insights as to why team sports in particular are so extraordinary.

"Team sports can teach a person as much about life, or maybe more about life, than even academics," he said. "I'm huge into academics; I believe in it. I have a master's degree and I'm not downplaying academics. But I believe the things you learn from a team sport are as significant as the things you learn in a classroom."

And then he rattles off the lessons he learned on the football field — lessons that have helped him succeed in a very competitive business world.

"You learn discipline. You learn sacrifice. You learn unselfishness. You learn teamwork. You learn independence, to trust people, to rely on them. You learn to collaborate," he said. "I learned hard work and determination. There were so many times I wanted to quit, but I had to stay at it.

"We had fun but we were driven. We felt we were good enough to take state, and the work did not get in the way of the fun. All of it had a broader purpose."

He learned skills as a football player that he still uses as an author and businessman.

"I learned goal-setting, and beginning something with the end in mind," he said. "And I learned that there are things bigger than any one of us. And being part of something bigger is special."

Covey returned from his mission, graduated from BYU and then worked in real-estate development. He earned an MBA from Harvard Business School and in all of his life's ups and downs, he's never experienced anything quite like he felt when he wore that Provo Bulldog football uniform.

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He said his experience has helped him so much away from the field of play that he encourages his children to play some kind of team sport.

So far, they've all taken their father's advice.

"It's where you learn hard work, discipline, preparation," he said. "The best preparation for my mission was football because it made me tough. I'd been through it. It strengthened me.

"I learned collaboration, teamwork, and that's what so much of life is about. In an organization, family, it's about being a team player, learning to play your role and being able to trust others and be trusted."

Email: adonaldson@desnews.com Twitter: adonsports