PROVO — Last Friday night, on the eve of the overheated BYU-Utah rivalry game, Cougar head coach Bronco Mendenhall's football team boarded a bus at the team's hotel on its way to the Utah State Prison's substance abuse treatment program.
As the bus prepared to depart, suspended linebacker Spencer Hadley sat nearby in his car. Then he got a text from his coach: "Get on the bus." To the amazement of his teammates, Hadley climbed aboard. It was the first step in an amazing journey back from a week that began with an email from someone claiming to be a Utah fan that led to Hadley's suspension.
Inside the prison an hour later, I witnessed something I'll never forget. Roughly 100 inmates in green and white prison suits sat in a crowded gymnasium to listen to BYU players speak and sing to them. Mendenhall spoke last. As he turned to sit down, an inmate yelled: "Put Hadley in."
Those three words — "Put Hadley in" — touched off one of the most dramatic, poignant scenes I've witnessed in my entire journalism career. That is saying something because I've seen a lot in my 20 years as a writer.
Hadley rose, stood in front of the inmates, folded his arms across his chest, hunched his shoulder and dropped his head. After a long pause, he cleared his throat and owned up to his mistakes. By the time he finished, the inmates were in tears. Then, one by one, they rose to their feet, clapping and cheering. Hadley wept. Then the building shook with chants of "B-Y-U! B-Y-U! B-Y-U!" There wasn't a dry eye in the house. Even I was wiping away tears.
On the bus back to the team's hotel, I texted my editor in New York and told him I wanted to do a story. Although it was about 11 p.m. in the East, he was up. And he was all for it.
I spent most of game day with Hadley and his parents. Honestly, I cried again when I met with them. After getting to know this family in a pretty intimate way, I had a hard time focusing at the BYU-Utah game that night. Despite all the drama on the field, it just didn't hold up to what I had learned.
Sunday morning I flew to Washington, D.C., to cover the Redskins-Lions game. Again, I barely watched the game. I sat in the press box writing the Spencer Hadley story. It was all I could think about. I continued writing on the train to New York that evening.
By Monday, I was at the Sports Illustrated offices. I was joined there by my co-author Armen Keteyian and my colleagues at SI. For the next two days, we worked on this remarkable story about redemption.
As the only Mormon at Sports Illustrated, I was strongly encouraged by my colleagues to also weigh in on the Utah-BYU rivalry and its role in this whole affair. So I did something I almost never do — I spent a few paragraphs expressing what it has been like looking at the "Holy War." That's a small subtext of the Spencer Hadley story. But it is an important one. It is also important to point out that Utah's assistant athletic director over compliance has been unfairly mischaracterized for her role in this situation. She is not a villain in this story. She did the right thing by forwarding those emails to BYU.
None of us would want our lives to be under microscope 24/7, especially not our adolescent years. That's when we are feeling our way, trying to figure it all out. If everything I did between age 19 and 25 were scrutinized, some pretty embarrassing moments would be unearthed. But I wasn't a big-time college football player.
Spencer Hadley made a mistake. The story that appears on SI.com today is about a remarkable young man and a family that is experiencing what we so often talk about: accountability, forgiveness and redemption.
"Put Hadley in."
Jeff Benedict is a best-selling author and columnist for SI.com. He recently wrote "THE SYSTEM: The Glory and Scandal of Big-Time College Football" with Armen Keteyian.