Faith and Football: Lessons Learned on the Field by a Modern-Day Apostle

Football season is back! Like most college towns, Aggieland is full of excitement and anticipation to see how our team will fair as the season progresses. Watching some great early-season matchups over the past few weeks, I’ve reflected some on the many life-lessons we can take from this great sport. Many of those lessons can be found in stories related by the late Elder Joseph B. Wirthlin, running back for the University of Utah during the late 1930s and apostle of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Below are just a few of my favorites.

Keep your eye on the ball!

I’ll never forget one high school football game against a rival school. I played the wingback position, and my assignment was to either block the linebacker or try to get open so the quarterback could throw me the ball. The reason I remember this particular game so well is because the fellow on the other side of the line—the man I was supposed to block—was a giant…. The more I thought about it, the more I came to a sobering realization: if I ever let him catch me, I could be cheering for my team the rest of the season from a hospital bed. Lucky for me, I was fast. And for the better part of the first half, I managed to avoid him. Except for one play. Our quarterback dropped back to pass. I was open. He threw the ball, and it sailed towards me. The only problem was that I could hear a lumbering gallop behind me…. I reached out, and—at the last instant—I looked up. And there he was. I remember the ball hitting my hands. I remember struggling to hang on to it. I remember the sound of the ball falling to the turf. After that, I’m not exactly sure what happened, because the giant hit me so hard I wasn’t sure what planet I was on….

That day, during his half-time speech, Coach Oswald reminded the whole team about the pass I had dropped. Then he pointed right at me and said, “How could you do that?” He wasn’t speaking with his inside voice. “I want to know what made you drop that pass.” I stammered for a moment and then finally decided to tell the truth. “I took my eye off the ball,” I said. The coach looked at me and said, “That’s right; you took your eye off the ball. Don’t ever do that again. That kind of mistake loses ball games.”…

We headed back onto the field and started the second half. It was a close game, and even though my team had played well, we were behind by four points late in the fourth quarter. The quarterback called my number on the next play. I went out again, and again I was open. The ball headed towards me. But this time, the giant was in front of me and in perfect position to intercept the pass. He reached up, but the ball sailed through his hands. I jumped high, never taking my eye off the ball; stabbed at it; and pulled it down for the game-winning touchdown. I don’t remember much about the celebration after, but I do remember the look on Coach Oswald’s face. “Way to keep your eye on the ball,” he said. I think I smiled for a week.

I have known many great men and women. Although they have different backgrounds, talents, and perspectives, they all have this in common: they work diligently and persistently towards achieving their goals. It’s easy to get distracted and lose focus on the things that are most important in life. I’ve tried to remember the lessons I learned from Coach Oswald and prioritize values that are important to me so that I can keep my eye focused on things that really matter.

Do what is right, no matter the consequence!

[One] lesson I learned on the football field was at the bottom of a pile of 10 other players. It was the Rocky Mountain Conference championship game, and the play called for me to run the ball up the middle to score the go-ahead touchdown. I took the handoff and plunged into the line. I knew I was close to the goal line, but I didn’t know how close. Although I was pinned at the bottom of the pile, I reached my fingers forward a couple of inches and I could feel it. The goal line was two inches away. At that moment I was tempted to push the ball forward. I could have done it. And when the refs finally pulled the players off the pile, I would have been a hero. No one would have ever known. I had dreamed of this moment from the time I was a boy. And it was right there within my reach. But then I remembered the words of my mother. “Joseph,” she had often said to me, “do what is right, no matter the consequence. Do what is right and things will turn out OK.”

I wanted so desperately to score that touchdown. But more than being a hero in the eyes of my friends, I wanted to be a hero in the eyes of my mother. And so I left the ball where it was—two inches from the goal line. I didn’t know it at the time, but this was a defining experience. Had I moved the ball, I could have been a champion for a moment, but the reward of temporary glory would have carried with it too steep and too lasting a price. It would have engraved upon my conscience a scar that would have stayed with me the remainder of my life. I knew I must do what is right.

Never compromise ideals or effort!

As a youth I found the utmost exhilaration in playing football at the university under Coach Armstrong…. Coach Armstrong taught basic, fundamental, hard football. He emphasized the fact that if each play were perfectly executed, it would result in a touchdown. But achieving that perfect play, he stressed, was only possible if each player performed his responsibility and assignment perfectly. This meant that each lineman and backfield man would have to do a perfect job of blocking out his opponent, that the center would have to pass the ball to the quarterback with bull’s-eye accuracy and timing, and that the ball carrier would have to execute the play as called.

I can assure you that it didn’t always work this way, anymore than life itself can be directed or lived without some trial and error. However, if ultimate success is to be achieved in either football or life, there can be no compromising of the ideals or the effort. And, as in all things, it is frequently necessary to pick up the pieces, reevaluate the resources and the goals, never tiring of making the second effort.

As Elder Wirthlin stated, referring to his former football coach at the University of Utah, “football not only provided a vehicle for the development of skills, ideals, and leadership, it personified life—and life at its best.” May we all seek that kind of inspiration as we enjoy the great games of the 2015-2016 season!


Joseph Harrison is the proud father of an adorable little girl and the husband of an incredible and accomplished wife. He has a bachelor's degree in business administration and worked for several years in management consulting before coming to Texas A&M, where he is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in strategic management. His passions include his family, the scriptures, serving others, teaching, and college football. His favorite teams include Clemson and Texas A&M -- Go Tigers & Gig 'em Ags!

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Sources:
“In Football or in Life”, November 1978, https://www.lds.org/new-era/1978/11/in-football-or-in-life?lang=eng

Photo Credits:
(1) University of Utah Magazine, Spring 2009: http://continuum.utah.edu/back_issues/2009spring/alumni_profile.html
(3) BYU News Release, December 2008: http://news.byu.edu/archive08-Dec-wirthlin.aspx

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