College football is an amazing sport, an amazing experience. But that just by itself, for me personally, is not enough. The spiritual component has to be part of it to make sense of it. The service part of it has to be there for this whole experience to make sense to me. I hope some of that is trickling through to our staff and players. That is the intent. It becomes a more rich, fulfilling and balanced experience. —Bronco Mendenhall
UTAH STATE PRISON — An inmate at the Utah State Prison Promontory Facility stood up last Friday night in a crowded gymnasium, sincerely and desperately seeking help, answers and inspiration.
The man, dressed in his prison-issued white clothing with “UDC Inmate” emblazoned on the back of his shirt, directed his earnest question at the army of young men in front of him, members of the BYU football team, dressed in blue-and-gray warmup garb.
What the inmate wanted to know was, while referencing former Cougar quarterback Max Hall’s recent troubles — Hall was arrested last month on suspicion of drug possession and shoplifting in Arizona — how do you overcome temptations that lead to addiction to prescription medication?
It was clear this question wasn’t asked out of curiosity. It was deeply personal.
Tim Duran, a non-LDS student assistant and former Cougar offensive lineman who had to stop playing football last year due to injuries, made his way to the podium to tackle the question.
“Before I came to BYU, I was addicted to prescription pills, dabbled in cocaine, and I was an alcoholic,” Duran told the hushed crowd. “The reason I came to BYU is because it’s an atmosphere that I could throw myself into where I have the support of all these guys and coaches to keep me on the right track. It’s been tough. But I know what I’m doing is bettering my life.”
When he sat down, several of the inmates in attendance called out, “Thank you.”
Duran's candid and heartfelt message was coach Bronco Mendenhall’s favorite moment.
“I don’t think he’d shared hardly any of that with his teammates,” Mendenhall said later. “Tim’s a great person who loves life and wants to help people. His interaction and answer was a highlight for me — a life highlight, not just a season highlight.”
Last Friday — the eve of No. 20 BYU’s 41-33 victory over Virginia — marked the fifth consecutive year that Mendenhall has taken his team to the prison as part of its traditional fireside the night before a football game. It's not a typical fireside, but that's part of the reason why Mendenhall loves coming here.
The team bus pulled into the Promontory Facility parking lot at the prison and the players walked through the gate surrounded by a barb-wire fence. Then they filed through multiple secure doors before entering a gymnasium where they found approximately 100 inmates, participating in Con-Quest — a residential substance abuse therapeutic treatment program — eagerly awaiting the team's arrival. Prison guards were stationed throughout the room.
A prison choir comprised of inmates sang LDS Church songs as the team took its seats. After the meeting began, a few BYU players stood and offered words of hope and encouragement, detailing some of the toughest moments of their lives.
Then the team fielded several soul-searching questions from the inmates such as, "What strategies do you use to get through difficult times?" "How is it possible to let go of past mistakes and overcome weaknesses?" "What's the best way to manage your time?"
Various players stood up and offered counsel based on their experiences.
“They’re battling real stuff,” tight end Devin Mahina said of the inmates. “To hear some of their questions about real-life situations is interesting. They’re asking us kids — we’re a lot younger than them — for advice.”
Mendenhall enjoyed "the genuine interest and humility in the questions.”
Near the end of the fireside, Mendenhall told the inmates that “nobody’s perfect,” adding, “I don’t see us as any different.”
The coach shared a story with the inmates that showed he could relate to their struggles.
When his older brother, Mat, a former BYU star who went on to play for the Washington Redskins, went on his recruiting trip to BYU, his player-hosts took him to smoke marijuana.
“He’s still addicted,” Mendenhall said. “How could that happen? But it does happen. Your stories resonate with me. Anything that I could possibly do in my role as BYU’s head football coach to make one day here a little bit better is worth it to me. This current stage in your life will pass. It doesn’t mean it’s permanent. It’s just one blip on a radar, one snapshot in time. It doesn’t mean it has to last. I’m pulling for you and I know it’s difficult. On the side of our buses, it says ‘Band of Brothers.’ I consider myself lucky to be part of that. I’m not talking about a football team. I’m talking about an eternal family.”
Mendenhall started doing pre-game firesides during his first season in 2005, but they’re only one aspect of the program’s community outreach. His team is also active in various service projects.
In 2006, Mendenhall started the “Thursday’s Heroes” program that is sponsored by the Bronco & Holly Mendenhall Foundation. It offers support, encouragement and financial help to families dealing with serious challenges. More than 130 families have benefited from the program. As part of the program, the families attend practice, interact with the coaches and players and receive autographed BYU gear and memorabilia. "Thursday's Heroes" provides comfort to families impacted by tragedy or adversity.
These types of off-the-field endeavors have shaped Mendenhall’s coaching career at BYU.
“It’s provided a sense of connection and service but also meaning and substance,” he said. “College football is an amazing sport, an amazing experience. But that just by itself, for me personally, is not enough. The spiritual component has to be part of it to make sense of it. The service part of it has to be there for this whole experience to make sense to me. I hope some of that is trickling through to our staff and players. That is the intent. It becomes a more rich, fulfilling and balanced experience.”
Linebacker Jherremya Leuta-Douyere, who is not a member of the LDS Church, admitted that the firesides are “definitely a real change from what I’m used to. But looking at the bigger picture, it’s not just about football here. We represent a lot of things — the LDS Church, our families. We have a lot of support throughout the nation. It’s the least we can do, even if it’s one person watching us wondering about our beliefs. Firesides are a time to step back from the game and give back.”
When playing on the road, BYU draws huge crowds for its firesides, filling stake centers in places like Hartford, Connecticut, and Austin, Texas.
After putting on firesides locally before home games for years, Mendenhall decided to reach out to a new group. His brother Marty works in juvenile corrections in Ogden, and when Bronco arrived at BYU as an assistant coach in 2003, he would take a few of his players to speak with troubled youths.
“That idea never left my mind,” Mendenhall said.
So in 2010, BYU started going to the prison to put on a fireside.
“I realized there was a group we could touch. We could go to a few places that could benefit from an evening like that,” Mendenhall said. “At first, I didn’t really know what to expect, or if I’d be able to feel the spirit there in the prison. That answer is absolutely yes. The sincerity of some of those men who are trying to figure it out is always refreshing and humbling. They’re very engaged and seeking help and solutions and answers. Yeah, there are some that are tattooed or look more hardened, but the overwhelming majority look like the same people I see on Sundays (at church).”
This year, Mahina was charged with the responsibility of organizing the firesides, which includes assigning speakers and musical numbers. He decided to alter the format somewhat by involving more non-LDS players and introducing a question-and-answer period with the audience.
“The firesides have been happening for a long time and I was feeling like it was the same routine,” Mahina said. “I thought it would be nice to change it up a little bit and get the audience more involved. The guys get excited about going and the fans are hearing about how fun they are and we’re having a better attendance. I like to have a diverse group of kids because sometimes it’s the same old returned missionaries. I try to bring different perspectives. That way, the audience can see that we really are a diverse team. Hearing their stories, and where they come from, is really cool.”
“What a great format change,” Mendenhall said. “It’s fun for me to see different players stand and speak or answer questions. I feel more connected as I learn more about them.”
For BYU players, attendance at the firesides are optional.
“But once players start hearing feedback from the firesides and once they know that I try to do it by position groups, they want to support their guys,” Mahina said. “They come because they want to see their teammates speak.”
At the end of Friday’s fireside, the inmates walked out of the gym, single-file, and back to their cells. On their way out the door, many of them shook hands with players and Mendenhall. A few shouted, “Go Cougars!”
When they had all exited, the warden of the Utah State Prison, Scott Crowther, thanked the BYU football team.
“The time you share with these guys helps get them through another day,” he said. “Our goal here at the prison isn’t necessarily to lock people up and throw away the key. It’s actually to try to get these guys to come back out into society. The stories and testimonies you shared with these guys will go a long way to help them achieve these goals. We really appreciate your time.”
Mendenhall can’t imagine spending the night before games any other way.
“I need those firesides personally. I like feeling the spirit and I want to feel it as much as possible,” he said. “My job is so all-inclusive that I look forward to those nights as much as anything. It might be a strange way for people to imagine preparing for a game, or taking away from getting ready. But for me personally, it’s an ideal way to unify the soul — the body and spirit to perform at the highest level — and to reiterate an impactful cause.”
As Mendenhall told the inmates on Friday, “This might be viewed as us coming to give, but the reason we keep coming back is the head coach likes what I get from this.”