SALT LAKE CITY — Two days before the University of Utah hosted the No. 10-ranked Washington Huskies at Rice-Eccles Stadium, about half the team, coaches and staff sought shade along the practice field fence as they concluded their Thursday preparations.
Drenched in sweat, some players sat on coolers while others took a knee or sat on the grass.
"Chapel, chapel, chapel!" Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham called out. After a 30-second pause for a few latecomers, the coach continued. "OK, let's fire it up."
Team chaplain Pastor France A. Davis, a 72-year-old African-American dressed in a white shirt, red bow tie and black slacks, stepped forward. In his hands he held a leather Bible.
Pastor Davis opened his 5-minute sermon with a warning that the Huskies "were no pushover" and exhorted the Utes to give their best. He asked if anyone had any concerns about family members, friends or other special needs before bowing his head and leading the team in prayer.
Following the pastor's heavenly supplication, he opened his Bible to Psalms 62 and with a booming voice shared a spiritual thought about expectations and learning to "wait upon the Lord, trust in the Lord and desire God's will."
Closing again with prayer, players lined up to give Pastor Davis a friendly smile and grateful handshake before leaving the field. When it was quarterback Tyler Huntley's turn, the pastor couldn't resist offering him a bit of football advice.
"I told him to use his team more than himself. Don’t try to run all the plays yourself, that’s why you've got those running backs. Let them do the running and protect yourself," Pastor Davis said with a grin. "He said 'OK.' We’ll see what he does."
Pastor Davis, the retired University of Utah professor who marched with Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. during the civil right movement in the 1960s and leads the Calvary Baptist Church, is one of several chaplains who volunteer as spiritual mentors and advisers to college football teams in Utah.
James Slaughter's official title is assistant dean of student life, but he's responsible for helping all the non-Latter-day Saints students at Brigham Young University. That makes him a chaplain for the athletes.
Pastor Terry "Tojo" Fairman has officially handled Utah State's chaplain duties since 2008, and unofficially since about 1998.
Weber State University has co-chaplains: Mac Smith, of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, and Lt. Col. Zebulon E. Beck, a chaplain at Hill Air Force Base and former chaplain at the Air Force Academy.
Terry Baker, a former Army chaplain and retired Institute of Religion instructor of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, serves as an assistant chaplain to Pastor Davis at Utah.
"What we do is not about winning or losing," Pastor Davis said. "Our job is to try to guide the players and help them to be the best they can be."
Worth of a chaplain
In 2015, the Freedom From Religion Foundation sent letters of complaint to 25 public universities, including the University of Alabama, Clemson University, Louisiana State University and the University of Wisconsin, demanding that each program remove their chaplains, according to The Washington Post.
Despite those protests, team chaplains like Sister Jean Dolores-Schmidt, the 98-year-old nun who helped to inspire Loyola-Chicago's remarkable run last March in the NCAA Tournament, along with Texas Tech football chaplain Pastor Bobby Dagnel, have shined a positive light on the role of chaplains with college sports teams.
While chaplain duties vary from program to program, chaplains in Utah generally have access to the team where they share non-denominational Christian messages, offer prayers and give one-on-one counseling at the player's request. Some chaplains are invited to travel with the team on road trips and walk the sidelines during games.
At the University of Utah, Pastor Davis and Baker encourage players to find balance in all aspects of their lives.
"Coach Whittingham loves to keep a balance," Baker said. "He really cares about the complete player."
Pastor Davis often reminds players that a good car runs on four tires: the physical wheel, the educational wheel, the social wheel and the spiritual wheel.
"If any of the four is flat, then the car will have problems," Pastor Davis said.
Along with prayers and spiritual thoughts, chaplains offer a listening ear and a confidential relationship, Beck said.
"If they have something going on in their life and it's hard to go to a coach or school official, they can open up to us and say here's a dark place in my life," Beck said. "Whether it's pornography, drugs, anger, gambling, a chaplain is somebody you can talk to."
Smith has found that athletes respond to a chaplain's true life experiences and seasoned perspective.
"In working with college students for 20 years, I've shared my struggles," Smith said. "As I've been vulnerable and honest, I think it helps when they see we're human too. Chaplains don't have it all figured out. But we've found life and freedom in this way of following Jesus. We're here offering help."
Weber State head coach Jay Hill believes that regardless of faith or religion, a chaplain is one more positive influence in a player's life. His own father, Ferrell Hill, was a chaplain in the military. Hill's family is also especially grateful for the chaplain's prayers over the last few seasons.
"Every school I've been part of, even back when I played at Utah and in the NFL, had a chaplain. I've definitely seen the importance of it in my life and in others," Hill said. "For the last two years with my wife (battling cancer) I would mention her or one of the players would have her prayed for and I know she has felt those prayers."
Sporting a white shirt with the "U-State" logo and a silver 2013 Poinsettia Bowl championship ring, Pastor Fairman grinned as he recounted years of experiences as Utah State's team chaplain. Until last year, he also led the Logan Lighthouse Ministry's non-denominational Christian Church.
"I will tell you right off the bat that I'm probably one of the most unique chaplains you will ever run into," Pastor Fairman said. "I've gone to bat for my kids. I also chastise them to point them in the right direction. I don't waste words with these kids, but they know I love them. ... To me, those types of experiences are incredible."
Before the Aggies started winning bowl games in recent years, Pastor Fairman, a former player himself, recalled helping players like quarterback Leon Jackson III through some "lousy seasons." Pastor Fairman also uttered a last prayer with Brent Guy in the parking lot after the fired head coach's final game.
When former USU quarterback Jerod Walker appeared in court, Pastor Fairman, then a Channel 4 camera man, said several prayers with him. Prayer works in any situation, he said.
"Somebody's got to be there, bro," Pastor Fairman said. "Nothing is more calming than the peaceful sound of God's word."
When kicker Josh Thompson missed a potential game-winning field goal against Wisconsin in 2012, Pastor Fairman found the senior at the end of the bench and told him it wasn't the end of the world.
"Those are memories you try to forget about. I don't remember who I talked to, but I'm sure Tojo did come up and put his arm around me," said Thompson, who lives in Cache Valley and has a young family. "Whether it was good or bad, Tojo is always there for you."
When Chuckie Keeton suffered a season-ending injury against BYU in 2013, Fairman sat by the quarterback's mother in the hospital while her son was in surgery. The Fairman family also supported Keeton during his recovery by making sure he was always fed.
"He stuck with me and definitely encouraged me throughout the entire process," said Keeton, now a graduate assistant coach for the Aggies. "You only have to have one interaction with him and you can tell who he worships."
In 2009, Pastor Davis helped provide the resources for Utah's Antoine "Shaky" Smithson to bring his little brother Anthony from Baltimore to Salt Lake City to escape life in the 'hood for a better life.
Baptist at BYU
JJ Nwigwe described his first year at BYU as "weird."
As an African-American Baptist from Dallas, adjusting to college life in Provo didn't happen over night for the 6-foot-5, 260-pound tight end.
"Sometimes it's hard being one of the few non-LDS people on campus," Nwigwe said. "But Mr. Jim Slaughter, our chaplain, has made the adjustment easy. He's been a mentor and good friend to talk to."
Slaughter's job is to help all non-Latter-day Saint students at BYU. Each nonmember applicant meet with him to discuss the Honor Code and he signs their ecclesiastical endorsement each year. Slaughter also helps them find places in the community where they can worship and keeps his office door open to their questions and concerns.
He also makes time for the football team and players like Nwigwe.
"For a lot of young men like JJ, coming to BYU is kind of weird. The best thing I can do is listen and allow them to express how they are feeling, what they are seeing and experiencing," Slaughter said. "BYU is a unique place and it takes a bit of adjustment whether they are Latter-day Saints or not."
BYU head coach Kalani Sitake says many of his nonmember players were raised in religious homes and are strong members of their respective churches and congregations, which helps them to thrive at a faith-based school like BYU.2 comments on this story
"A lot of players choose BYU for different reasons. I feel like they come to BYU for a certain kind of experience. They feel they can be themselves," Sitake said. "I think Jim does a good job at balancing it all out for our young men."
Slaughter finds the most satisfaction in helping students like Nwigwe to envision their lives more than 10-15 years down the road. Sometimes this helps players who leave without graduating to come back and finish their degree.
"My role doesn't end once they finish their eligibility," Slaughter said. "We're concerned about them getting that degree, becoming what they want to become and making a difference."