One by one, the players ambled into the auditorium at the Utah football complex, some still dressed in their red-and-black spandex Under Armor, others in jeans and T-shirts. One player had an ice pack taped to his shoulder and a couple had towels wrapped around their waists.
Welcome to one of the more unusual institute of religion classes you'll ever see.
It's Monday, late afternoon, about 15 minutes after the end of practice where approximately 50 Utah football players and coaches have filled up the north half of the large room at the Dee Glen Smith Football Center.
Terry Baker, a Salt Lake University Institute of Religion instructor and Ute football player back in the 1960s, is teaching a class he calls Book of Mormon for Our Times.
As class gets under way, Baker, a former quarterback, passes out small-size copies of the Book of Mormon and shows off his arm by
heaving one to the back row. He wouldn't try this in a regular institute class, but he has confidence that defensive back RJ Rice has the good hands to snag the book before it hits head coach Kyle Whittingham on the row right behind him.
Baker has been teaching an institute class to Utah football players for four years, ever since Whittingham, a Latter-day Saint, became coach in 2005.
After a couple of Ute players expressed interest in such a class, Morgan Scalley, a former player and graduate assistant at the time, helped get it started with Whittingham's blessing.
"The players have a hard time getting up to take a regular class because they're so busy, so we bring it down here," Baker said. "It's a Book of Mormon class, although I modify it to meet their football needs. They get credit for it. We don't have as much time as we do in a regular institute class, but we do the best we can with what we have."
Under former Utah coach Urban Meyer, players used to meet once a week for "chapel" under the direction of Ute booster Phil Thompson. They still gather on Wednesdays for a few minutes after practice for a message from Thompson with several of the LDS athletes joining in the nondenominational group.
The current Ute football team has 55 players and five coaches who are LDS. The Monday evening class is open to everyone on the team, LDS or not, and those who aren't LDS Church members often show up.
"We started off with six or seven, then we had a dozen, then last year about 20," Baker said. "This year, for whatever reason, it more than doubled. We have 45 on the rolls and the (LDS) coaches come most of the time. These guys are sharp as the day is long."
Scalley suggested switching it from Thursday to Monday nights to tie it into family home evening, and the turnout increased.
"It has gained momentum," Scalley said. "The players are encouraged to come but don't have to be there."
On this particular day, Scalley and fellow assistants Kalani Sitake and Jay Hill joined Whittingham and more than 40 players for the class.
Baker doesn't mind if the players are half-dressed or still sweaty from practice. As long as they are there to learn and listen to his message, anyone is welcome.
"They are not the typical institute class," Baker said. "They come dressed any way they want to. JJ Williams (now on a mission in the West Indies) used to always come without a shirt on."
Baker has anywhere from 15 minutes to a half-hour for the class because some players have regular night classes to get to and most have to study.
"There's so much demand on our athletes' time, there's not a lot of opportunity for our players to take institute classes," Scalley said. "It's been a very popular addition to our routine."
"It does two things," Hill said. "It adds to team unity in a different light and gives you those 15 minutes that are important to your spiritual side as coaches and players."
The class begins with prayer and a recitation of the class motto, which comes from 2 Timothy 1:7: "For God hath not given us the spirit of fear: but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind."
Baker talks about a sound mind and tells the players they "can think more quickly" and "know what things to do" through the power of the Holy Ghost. He quotes from First Nephi, chapter 3, and tells the players not to be afraid of hard work.
"Laman and Lemuel wouldn't have wanted to run wind sprints and work hard in the offseason," he said.
Baker also talks about overcoming fear and relates some of his experiences in Vietnam when he worked as an Army chaplain and was blessed under trying circumstances.
"A sound mind is the optimism that comes from faith," he tells the players and coaches.
Most of the players shake Baker's hand on their way out the door, and five minutes after class ends, one returns to ask for a particular scripture reference from the lesson.
"It's been good for them to get some spiritual time outside of football," Scalley said. "There's so much other stuff that consumes your life."
The players are all grateful for the opportunity to have the class come to them.
"It's awesome to have Brother Baker come down every Monday to give us a spiritual lesson," said Mike Wright, the starting middle linebacker, who served a mission in Bolivia. "Any time you get a chance to get something spiritual in your life on top of football and class, it's great."
Whittingham rarely misses a class, despite the demands on his time as coach of an undefeated football team. "There's no question the players need balance in their lives," he said, and he believes the weekly class is one way to do that.
He points out that the University of Utah has the largest institute of religion in the world and that his team has thrived with LDS athletes in recent years. Of the 55 LDS players on the team, about 35 have served missions and another dozen are currently on missions
"There's an abundance of LDS athletes in the state of Utah, and we feel we have a great environment for them," Whittingham said. "We've done very well with the LDS athletes. We have a lot to offer."
Although it's not the main purpose, the Monday institute class serves as a missionary tool for both nonmembers and less-active members.
"We've had a lot of activations," Baker said. "I don't want to put numbers on it, but there have been quite a few. We've also had at least three players decide to go on missions who weren't going to go. ... This is a great setting for players to see the religious side of their teammates."
Scalley said all-America kicker Louie Sakoda has come to a few classes, as have several other players who are not LDS Church members.
"Everybody on the team is encouraged to come," said Colt Sampson, a tight end from American Fork, who served a mission to Madagascar. "There's a lot of people on the team who aren't too familiar with the church, so it's great if they have questions we can answer. I think it's great to have this direction during the season."
Baker said besides the weekly class, he takes his football class to general conference every year. Normally it's a Sunday session, but because Utah had a bye this year, they went to the Saturday night priesthood session together.
"Sometimes you can get lost in the football mind-set and school," defensive tackle Greg Newman said. "So it's nice to get time for the spiritual side."