Growing Beyond the Field

BYU is a private religious institution with the mission to help those who attend grow both academically and spiritually. However, the unique environment BYU has to offer doesn't just affect the LDS student body enrolled at the university; it's also become a nurturing place for many religious athletes outside the LDS faith.

The headline of an ESPN article written after Coach Mendenhall became BYU's head coach read, "Can Bronco Mendenhall return BYU football to glory and still honor the school's mission?" Given that Coach Mendenhall has won at least 10 games each season since after his first year, it would appear he has. However, while most in the arena of football will judge Mendenhall's success based on wins and losses, some people closer to him feel he's helped them win in ways that can't be tallied on any stat sheet.

"I've become more religious since coming out here, definitely," J.J. Di Luigi said with a smile. "I've become a better person since being out here and just I love it out here. You know, we don't just have LDS members on this team. We have Baptists, Methodists and Catholics and all different sorts of people who want to be here and have the BYU experience. It's really a neat thing and it's great.

"Me and all the non-LDS players meet once a week," Di Luigi continued. "We have Coach Weber's pastor, Pastor Scott, meet with us once a week and he's teaching a Bible study for us. Pastor Scott loves us and he loves BYU. He says we're going to be great and he comes to all of the games. He's always following how we do and he'll text us and show us support and things like that."

Like Coach Weber, Di Luigi holds fast to his Catholic faith, and that faith has grown more in Provo, Utah. Being here at BYU- the academic Mecca of Mormonism - it might seem a bit odd for a Catholic to grow stronger within his own faith, but for Di Luigi, that's exactly what has happened.

"I've grown so much," Di Luigi said. "Coach Mendenhall will come to our meetings and he'll talk to us. It's great to know that the guy you follow behind and is your head coach and like a fatherly figure when you're out here is helping to lead you to be better in your own faith even though you come from different backgrounds. He cares that we are growing in that aspect, because obviously all the LDS members are going to grow here. He wants us, especially us as non-LDS members, to grow in our own faith. It's very important to him and faith comes first. Well, that and family. It doesn't matter if you're LDS or not - he wants us to grow and it's great to know that he's there to support us."

Like Di Luigi, senior Cougar cornerback Brian Logan is another member of the BYU football team that feels he's benefited and grown in his faith by being at BYU.

"I've talked to J.J. about that and we say the same things," said Logan. "We've become better Christians since being here. I attend a nondenominational church but I've been to church my whole life since I was five years old. Looking back as a kid and seeing my mom, being a single mother, taking me to church every Sunday, I remember she would go to Bible study every night and I would go to the nursery and play with the kids. Even when I got in high school she would make me go to church youth groups, so now that I'm in college it's great to have that support from Coach Mendenhall and the rest of the staff here at BYU."

Coach Mendenhall isn't the only one that supports BYU's non-LDS athletes.

"Coach Doman will come in to our Bible meetings along with some of the players like Riley Nelson and other LDS members of the football team," Di Luigi said. "They'll come in and will talk to us about the Bible too and show us that they also believe in it and support us. They'll give us their thoughts on it and it's great. It really helps everyone to grow in their individual faiths."

"Once again it's just another subject that's hard to explain with words," said Logan. "Coach Mendenhall is a special head coach. I always joke around with Corby [Eason] that Coach Mendenhall is like this prophet because he has this glow about him. He really is a spiritual person and the thing I liked is he has never, never, ever thrown or pushed his faith on me. I know this goes for the rest of the guys as well. He's always tried to help me out to become stronger in my faith and my personal relationship with God."

Prior to coming to BYU, Eason played at Erie Community College in Buffalo, New York, and admits there was a time he lost focus on the things his mother taught him while growing up.

"Well as a little child, I was raised as a Southern Baptist in Georgia," said Eason. "My mom was a secretary in the church, so I was there basically seven days a week since I was five years old. Before I came out here I kind of got away from God a little bit, but when I came out here I just got closer and closer to my Heavenly Father. Being here has really helped me grow spiritually. It really is a wonderful place because it's really helped me get back to what's important and grow closer to God."

Although he belongs to a different religion than his head coach, Logan recalls a personal spiritual experience he shared with Bronco Mendenhall that helped him grow.

"I remember at the bowl game, he wanted me to speak at the rally," Logan recalled. "I asked him, 'Why did you pick me?' He said, 'Because you're next year's leader.' It really hit me, because I remember I was reading my Bible and I closed my eyes and said a prayer while running my thumb over its pages. I would just do this randomly while telling God that whatever he wants me to say, I will say.

"When I stopped and opened my eyes, I noticed I had stopped on First Timothy where it talks about how Paul was writing to Timothy about being a leader in the gospel. Just to compare what I was going through at that time, I was being asked to be a leader on the field. For Coach Mendenhall to say that the reason why he chose me to speak was because he wanted me to be a leader really stood out to me. I explained this to him and he gave me a couple more scriptures in the Bible about leadership. I then went back and looked those up. I really think that experience helped me out with what I was being asked to do, and it's an example of how Coach Mendenhall had helped me to grow in my faith."

Eason has seen how BYU's head coach has helped him to grown as a Baptist, and has made sure those who are not of the LDS faith take part in religious firesides where they are able to share their testimony.

"It's wonderful because Coach Mendenhall wants everyone to be involved in the firesides," said Eason. "Those are not just for members of the LDS faith, but for us too. I plan on talking at one of the firesides, as well as Brian Logan. Coach Mendenhall wants us to share our experiences about how we are disciples of Christ, and that's going to be wonderful. I can't wait to have that experience."

During the spring, there was a period when Logan was going through some person struggles. He met with Coach Mendenhall for some personal council.

"After talking to Coach Mendenhall, I remember I went to Pastor Scott, who is our pastor out here, and he gave me the exact same advice, but he used scripture," said Logan.

"The next day I came back and talked to Coach Mendenhall and told him, 'My mind is clear now and I'm fine. I spoke to Pastor Scott and he told me the same things you told me, but he backed it up with scripture,'" Logan continued while looking down and speaking with a reverent voice. "After that me and Coach Mendenhall shared something that I'll take with me for the rest of my life. Coach Mendenhall then gave me more advice and then backed it up with scripture. Then I would share something with him and back it up with scripture. This went on for a while until it got to the point where we would finish each other's verses. That experience is something I'll take with me for the rest of my life and was very special to me.

"You know, football is big in my life, but for Coach Mendenhall to put God, religion and the spiritual aspect of religion into football and tie it all in [while] backing it up with scripture was something special to me. My mind has now turned to the perspective that I am now playing for something bigger. I think at that moment I really understood [and] made an emphasis to say that when I step out onto the football field, 'God, I'm playing for you.' Until then, I never looked at this kid's games in that aspect in my entire life. Coach Mendenhall really helped me with that, and now football is more meaningful to me and bigger than just a kid's game. I feel like now God is going to help me use my abilities to glorify his name instead of glorifying the guy wearing number seven. It's bigger than me."

During the recruiting process the BYU coaching staff evaluates prospects based on more than just their abilities on the field. The process is much deeper than that.

"You know, I think the coaching staff wants a specific type of athlete to come here, win football games and become a better person in their faith," Di Luigi said. "You have your religion and then you have football. Those are the things that come in common to you and that's why I hate it when the season ends. I love it when the season starts getting close, but at the same time I'm anxious because it's not quite here. I mean, I'm in heaven right now and this is great for me. It's about football right now and I have Sundays off to go to church. It's just great for me."

"You know, with most coaches it's about the X's and the O's, and not about the game of life," said Eason. "With Coach Mendenhall, his first priority is the game of life and he wants you to become a better father, a better brother and to help you grow as a better human being as well as a football player. I really appreciate that because we're learning the X's and O's of success on and off the field. Football will only last for a couple of years, but being a better father, brother or person will last forever."

Di Luigi agrees with Eason's comments.

"Really what it's really all about is becoming a better person and growing in your faith," Di Luigi said. "That's what it's all about here and there is nobody that wants that more for us than Coach Mendenhall. I just love it."

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