One of the unique aspects of covering the BYU football program has been attending firesides that the team has held on the night before games for the past ten-plus years.
No, I didn’t attend all of them, but I was there for quite a few — from Seattle, Washington to Hartford, Connecticut, and many places in between.
It was a tradition started by former coach Bronco Mendenhall as a way to share the gospel. And huge crowds showed up, filling seats that stretched all the way to the back of cultural halls. They’ve been so popular that some meetinghouses showed the firesides on closed circuit TV to other meetinghouses in the area to accommodate the crowds.
“Some folks come from two or three states away just for the fireside,” Mendenhall once said. “They don’t have tickets to the game, they just want this connection, which is really special.”
Almost as amazing as the big crowds that would turn out for the firesides — the large contingent of players would always attend. Consider that fireside attendance was voluntary, not mandatory. Both LDS and non-LDS players, dressed in jackets and ties, would go and participate. Players would prepare talks on being a disciple of Jesus Christ and they would sing uplifting hymns and songs like “We’ll Bring The World His Truth.”
I happened to be at the fireside in Seattle in 2008 when Mendenhall first publicly explained his priorities as the head coach of BYU’s football program. He said that the outcome of the game against the Washington Huskies wasn’t the most important part of the weekend for him.
“It might be fourth or fifth,” Mendenhall said, adding that being a part of the fireside and the opportunity to spend time with his wife, his children and his parents rank higher on his list than a football game. “I won’t back down from that,” he said.
Fans in attendance didn’t know quite what to make of that comment.
When you win, people will go along with such comments and the Cougars won the next day. But as time went on and, when BYU lost, Mendenhall drew considerable criticism for holding firesides the night before games.
But Mendenhall understood that the firesides made a lot of sense for the BYU football program.
“I think it is possible to integrate the spirit with football. It’s not only possible, but it’s necessary and desirable at BYU,” he once said. “If not, what are we doing having a team? I want to win more than any of you. You might want to argue with me and I’ll stay right here until you all go away. No one wants to win more than me, because of what it can do for those who are looking for more than just football. Maybe you came here tonight for a pep rally. But this is first and foremost about developing ourselves spiritually.”
One of the most memorable firesides I attended was at the Utah State Prison in September, 2014. Surrounded by inmates, players and coaches delivered a message of love and compassion that resonated with them. It was an unforgettable experience for both the team and the inmates.
On the eve of the 2015 season-opener at Nebraska, last September, I sat among the large throng at a stake center near Lincoln. The building was filled to capacity for the team’s first-ever visit to the Cornhusker State.
During the question-and-answer portion of the fireside, when a microphone was passed to those in the congregation, one fan asked quarterback Taysom Hill how he was able to overcome a season-ending leg injury the previous season.
Hill was about play in his first game in almost one year.
“During my freshman year I went through an injury and again last year. I don’t know what’s going on,” Hill said. “Maybe I didn’t learn the lesson last time or what. Hopefully, I won’t have to go through that again. It’s very difficult. As you can imagine, you play football hoping to fulfill some lifelong goals you have as a little kid and then to have that taken from you was really difficult.
“As difficult as it was to rehab the physical part of it — broken leg and torn ligaments in my ankle — the hardest part for me was handling the emotional and mental side of it. One minute, I was playing with all these guys, which means a lot to me. Having that taken away from me was very difficult. A few things that I did was, I relied on the Lord to open up other opportunities for me. My wife was a really big help in giving me great perspective on the whole perspective, as well as my teammates and coaches. I had a lot of support. Then I turned my focus elsewhere. I studied as hard as I could and I did other things that added value to myself. Through those things, I was able to progress. Looking back, I learned a lot from it. During fall camp, I didn’t take anything for granted. It was a privilege to be out there with my team. I’m very excited to be able to play with them again.”
Little did anyone know, Hill would suffer yet another season-ending injury, to his foot, less than 24 hours later, in the first half against Nebraska. He’s attempting yet another comeback this fall.
At the end of that fireside, wide receiver Devon Blackmon, who is not LDS, was invited to offer the closing prayer.
Blackmon stepped to the pulpit. “Bow your heads,” he humbly told the congregation. Then, he prayed: “Dear Heavenly Father, we just want to thank you for being here tonight with the team and everybody you came. Thank you for the flight and the food on the flight and everything and the experiences we’re having. Help us to have a good night’s rest and that we’ll be ready to beat Nebraska.”
Folks in attendance didn’t know whether to laugh or say “Amen.”
As it turned out, BYU defeated the Cornhuskers, 33–28, in miraculous fashion, as backup freshman quarterback Tanner Mangum — who replaced the injured Hill and was just a few months removed from a mission and playing in his first college game — heaved a 42-yard Hail Mary touchdown pass to Mitch Mathews on the game’s final play, capping an amazing weekend.
When Mendenhall left for Virginia at the end of last season, many people wondered if his successor would continue to put on firesides.
The answer is yes, but not in the same way.
First-year BYU coach Kalani Sitake has decided to hold firesides during the offseason in areas where his team will play in the fall. That way, his team can focus on football during the season.
“It’s one of those things where the players see the positive things, especially being returned missionaries, of what firesides do for the program and what they do for others as well,” Sitake said. “They also know it’s difficult to do them the night before the game.”
The tentative plan is for BYU to continue doing firesides the night before games but they’ll be done by alums rather than current players.
Sitake praised Mendenhall for implementing the firesides and said he’ll continue it in his own way.
“We feel like this is one thing where we have the best of both worlds — we get to do the firesides at a different time and be able to play the game and not do it the night before,” Sitake said. “It will be a good change.”
That’s probably true. But the era of the team holding firesides the night before games by the team has come to an end. It was a unique event put on by a unique institution that created lifelong memories for those who attended.