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Courtesy Mahe Family
Mahe family
We had so many people that helped us through our hard times. There is no way to pay back everyone. We figured we’d pay it forward by setting up a foundation where we can help people and reach out to people, help them financially and lift some burdens the way people did for us. —Reno Mahe

HONOLULU — Without warning, the tears have flowed at unexpected times and unexpected places.

While traveling on the team bus going to a game or during a meeting with his players in recent weeks, BYU running backs coach Reno Mahe has found himself crying.

“I try to be a tough guy. I’m not a crier. But the last two weeks it's started to hit, maybe because we're coming up on one year. I'm having more of those moments, and I’m having a hard time figuring it out," he said. "When it happens, it’s worse now than it was during the experience. I’ll text my wife and tell her about it and she’ll say, ‘It’s OK. You’ve had to endure a lot while you’ve been busy working.’ I was in a meeting and I’m getting all choked up. I had to apologize to my running backs.”

This week marks the one-year anniversary of the tragic death of Mahe’s 3-year-old daughter, Elsie. On Nov. 22, 2016, days before Thanksgiving, Elsie, one of Reno and Sunny’s eight children, became entangled in the cords of a mini blind and was taken to Primary Children’s Hospital in Salt Lake City, where she later passed away.

The other day, Mahe went to a grocery store near his home and memories came flooding back because it’s a place he used to take Elsie on daddy-daughter dates.

This week, Mahe has brought his family to Hawaii to spend Thanksgiving together. The Cougars will take on the Hawaii Rainbow Warriors Saturday (7 p.m., MST, CBSSN) in the season finale.

“It’s helpful to be away,” he said. “It's just nice to be with the family.”

After Elsie’s passing, the Mahes decided to donate her organs to those in need and Elsie was credited for saving the lives of several people as a result of her sacrifice.

Later, Sunny, a former all-conference volleyball star at BYU, decided to create a non-profit foundation called “Miracles From Elsie,” which provides financial assistance to families that have a child with a life-threatening medical condition. The foundation also helps offer grief counseling to families and seeks to bring awareness to organ donation.

"We prayed fervently for a miraculous healing for Elsie," Sunny has said, "but ultimately, the miraculous healing came from Elsie — for others in the form of organ donation."

“I didn’t realize how much that would help with the healing process,” Reno Mahe said of the foundation. “You realize the magnitude that helping other people can help you heal from the trials you go through. We’ve learned a lot of lessons through that tragedy. My wife’s idea to start a foundation on behalf of my daughter has helped. We’re working with programs and players who want to do community service.”

The foundation's board of directors includes Sheri Dew, publisher, president and chief executive officer of the Deseret Book Company; Kansas City Chief head coach Andy Reid; and Philadelphia news broadcaster Vai Sikahema.

The Mahes benefited greatly from grief counseling and their foundation has helped other families cope with tragedy by providing a way for them to meet with professional counselors.

At this time of year, when the principle of gratitude is celebrated, the Mahes always live in thanksgiving.

“We had so many people that helped us through our hard times. There is no way to pay back everyone,” Mahe said. “We figured we’d pay it forward by setting up a foundation where we can help people and reach out to people, help them financially and lift some burdens the way people did for us.”

Mahe grew up in a home where giving to others was a way of life. He remembers coming home one day and asking his dad why the truck was gone. He had given it away to a stranger walking down the road.

“That’s the way I was brought up,” Mahe said.

The past year, he’s been on the receiving end of an outpouring of love and support. For example, someone who owns a blind company replaced the corded blinds in the Mahes' home with non-corded blinds for free.

“To have so many people give to you — I cry more about that than I did with my daughter’s passing — just the love of people out there,” he said. “It was a humbling experience. I piggyback off my wife to pay it forward. We can’t repay everyone who was there for us. This foundation can help us pay it forward and give back to the community.”

BYU linebackers coach Steve Kaufusi admires the way the Mahes have responded to the tragedy.

“We’re never in someone else’s shoes and know how they really feel, but he’s just inspired me to enjoy my time with my family, to do good,” Kaufusi said. “To see the way he and Sunny have handled that whole situation has been amazing. The faith that they have is strong. The belief they have is strong. I don’t know how I would handle it. I haven’t crossed that bridge. I can’t imagine losing one of my kids. I’ve been really impressed with him and his family. He’s got great support from his neighbors, in the community and here at work. I’m proud of him. The thing that keeps him going is his faith and his family.”

While it’s been a difficult year on the field for BYU, adversity is a relative term.

“It’s been a tough season but when you’re with the family,” he said, “it just puts everything in perspective.”

For more information about the Mahes’ foundation, and to donate, go to www.miraclesfromelsie.org.

BYU (3-9) at Hawaii (3-8)

Saturday, 7 p.m. MST Aloha Stadium

TV: CBS Sports TV

Radio: 1160 AM, 102.7 FM