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Mixing football and faith: A look at the church service of LaVell Edwards

In November 1984, amidst his team’s pursuit of a national championship, LaVell Edwards was interviewed by the New York Times regarding the evolution of BYU’s football program.

“There were a lot of people who thought that the church and football shouldn’t mix,” Edwards said.

But Edwards, who was raised in an LDS family, seemed to seamlessly combine football and church service in his own life. In the day since his passing, former players have spoken of his administering a priesthood blessing or noting the spiritual books on shelves in his office.

Edwards' faith and church service has been noted not only in the wake of his passing, but throughout his career.

During his time coaching at BYU, Edwards also served a student ward bishop for six years.

"I was an LDS bishop on campus for six years and that was a special time for me. I really enjoyed working with the students and helping them grow and overcome challenges. I pretty much did the same things as the head football coach," Edwards said in the book "What It Means To Be A Cougar." "I always had a lot of personal interviews with the players to make sure they were OK. I knew what we were trying to accomplish with football, and I let the coaches do their jobs. I would try to observe the players and talk with them if it seemed like they were struggling."

While the coach is remembered for his composed nature on the sideline, Edwards confessed that he felt “real pressure” when he delivered a general conference address in October 1984, just a few games into his Cougars’ championship season. Edwards was one of several public figures who spoke in general conference during the 1980s. In his talk, he encouraged young men to serve missions, regardless of their athletic ambitions.

“If I could draw one general conclusion, it would be that if an athlete could play well before he went on a mission, he will definitely play well when he returns; and, if an athlete could not play well before his mission, he probably won’t play well when he returns,” Edwards said during the priesthood session. “However, his chances of playing well are perhaps better if he goes because he will return with a greater understanding of himself, greater leadership capabilities, better work habits and a better knowledge of what it takes to be successful. It really depends on the young man’s desire, commitment, work habits and how important it is to him when he returns.”

Elder Dallin H. Oaks of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, also a former BYU president, explained that the number of returned missionaries significantly increased during Edwards' time as head coach.

“We knew he was a sound tactician. He knew the game. … He also believed in the mission of Brigham Young University,” Elder Oaks said. “He believed right off the bat that returned missionaries could play football. Before LaVell, we had no more than two or three returned missionaries on the team. After a couple of years under Coach Edwards, those numbers shot up significantly. That was a good thing for the university and the team.”

Edwards coached a team with 52 returned missionaries to a national championship in 1984.

Still, Edwards hadn’t served a mission himself. But he and his wife, Patti, made up their minds that when his time at BYU came to an end, they would serve a mission. In 2002, the Edwards decided to devote their undivided attention to serving the Lord. They were assigned to serve in New York City as public affairs missionaries.

“Public affairs is kind of a broad spectrum of things. You work with different political and religious leaders. We worked with the people at the United Nations and just basically did bridge building and worked somewhat with the press, but not a great deal, just basically trying to create a good image for the church,” Edwards said, according to the Logan Herald Journal. “We got an additional assignment from the area president to travel throughout the Northeast and train stake public affairs directors. It was unique in the sense that we were in New York on the mission, but we had an assignment and traveled around quite a bit throughout the Northeast.”

But even in New York City, thousands of miles away from the stadium that bears his name, football found LaVell Edwards — through home teaching.

Robert Sheppard had been recruited to play for the first high school football team in Harlem in more than 62 years when he mentioned to his coach, Duke Fergerson, that his home teacher was a former football coach who might be able to help their team. LDS Church News reported the following conversation:

"Who is your home teacher, Rob, and just how long has it been since he has coached a game?"

"His name is LaVell Edwards and I think it's been a couple of years since he's coached."

"LaVell Edwards?" repeated Fergerson in disbelief. "Did you say your whatever-you-called-him is LaVell Edwards?"

"Yes, he and his wife, Patti, come to our home every month."

"So LaVell Edwards, the BYU coach who other coaches come to for help, comes to your home every month?"

"Yes, he does," repeated Rob.

"Well, get him over here, Rob. We need him!" said the coach.

Edwards worked with the team until he returned home from his mission.

"You know, frankly, I'd never been to Harlem,” Edwards told KSL’s Carole Mikita upon his return to Utah. “Meeting the people, that was probably one of the real highlights of our whole mission."

In the time since his passing, much discussion has been had about LaVell Edwards the person, rather than the football coach.

“Coach Edwards was always an example of what you would want your football players to observe, then emulate,” said Elder Jeffrey R. Holland of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. “One of LaVell’s many admirable characteristics is his constancy, his stability. If we won, he was happy, but his delight was always modest. And if we lost, life was still good because he had Patti and his children, he had his players, and he had his faith.”

During that general conference address in 1984, Edwards said that "all that has happened to me in my chosen profession is a mere drop in the bucket compared to the truly important things in my life.

"The testimony of the gospel of Jesus Christ that I have, along with my wife and my family, are my most important possessions.”