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Learning from LaVell: Life's lessons far from a football field

From halfway around the world, a former BYU All-American quarterback mourned the passing of his football coach and life mentor, LaVell Edwards, with the reflections of memories and impact helping melt away the four decades of time passed and the 7,000-plus miles of distance between New Zealand and Utah.

Elder S. Gifford Nielsen, a General Authority Seventy for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and a member of the church’s Pacific Area presidency, took pause from his assignments to speak of Edwards, who passed away Thursday in Provo at age 86.

Elder Nielsen, a Provo native and local standout athlete who starred in the mid-1970s at BYU under Edwards, spoke by cellphone in the shadow of the Hamilton New Zealand Temple on a warm summer morning Friday.

“This is a tender time for those of us who knew and loved Coach LaVell Edwards. The lessons we learned from him extended far beyond a football field. He taught us how to succeed in football and, more importantly, how to become leaders in our families, communities and, for many of us, in our church service,” Elder Nielsen said.

“There would be no legendary LaVell Edwards without his amazing eternal companion, Patti. LaVell and Patti Edwards are powerful examples of integrity, service, love and leadership.”

Elder Nielsen grew up in Provo, attending the same local schools as the three Edwards children — Ann, John and Jimmy — so he was familiar with the Edwards family at an early age. The coach-player relationship began when Edwards started recruiting the star Provo High quarterback, who also shined on the basketball court and for two seasons played both sports at BYU.

Following the 1973 and 1974 seasons of Cougar standout QB Gary Sheide, Elder Nielsen came in as a sophomore signal-caller four games into the 1975 season to help BYU eke out its first win of the year, against New Mexico in a Friday evening game over LDS Conference weekend.

He remembers being invited by Edwards to ride with him to Salt Lake City the next morning for the taping of the coach’s weekly television show and being told along the way that he would start the next week versus Air Force for the homecoming game in BYU’s Centennial celebration.

“I’m going against the public opinion of the other coaches,” Elder Nielsen remembers Edwards telling him, “but I’m going with you.”

And the young QB responded, leading BYU to a 28-14 victory over Air Force in his first start en route to becoming the first of seven quarterbacks under Edwards to earn All-American honors.

“The genius of LaVell Edwards is that he made a commitment to throw the ball, to be a passing team and finding the right people to bring in the passing game and to change the course of college football,” said Elder Nielsen, who watched the Cougar coach bring in the right assistants over the years, allowing them to develop programs and make decisions.

“That shows you the humility of Coach Edwards. He wasn’t about taking the credit for anything,” he said, adding “he oversaw the program and made sure we were taking care of our own responsibilities — that’s how that translated to success.”

Besides his being named a starter in 1975, Elder Nielsen recalled a key away game the following season, as BYU visited perennial Western Athletic Conference powerhouse Arizona. On a muddy, rain-soaked field any hope for a win came down to the Cougars needing to cover 43 yards for a final-play, game-winning touchdown.

Recalling the conversations during the final timeout on the BYU sideline, Elder Neilsen said quarterbacks coach Doug Scovill clicked off the mechanics of the called play — do this, do this, do this and then throw to Cougar receiver George Harris for the score. The quarterback glanced over at Edwards before returning to the field.

“LaVell looked at me confidently and said, ‘We’re going to win,’” he recalled, remembering that the wet and heavy football felt more like a medicine ball and then feeling the ball slip a little as he released the throw. Worried the ball was headed out of bounds, he watched it make what seemed to be a mid-air course correction before being snagged by Harris, who scored on the play and BYU won 23-16.

“I went back to LaVell, and he looked at me like that’s the way it was supposed to happen, and here I was trying to be a believer,” Elder Nielsen recalled.

The junior QB ended the 1976 season breaking 13 school and conference records, completing 56.7 percent of his passes for 3,401 yards and 30 TDs. Honors included the WAC Offensive Player of the Year, the aforementioned All-American honors and a sixth-place finish in the Heisman Trophy voting.

The 1977 season picked up right where ’76 had left off — the high-octane offense posted lopsided wins against Kansas State and Utah State to open the season before a road game at Oregon State. The senior QB racked up 1,167 yards, 16 TDs and a 62 percent completion percentage — along with early season Heisman consideration — before suffering a season-ending knee injury in an eventual loss to the Beavers.

Elder Nielsen recalled being surrounded in the stadium’s equipment room by Edwards, BYU athletics director Glen Tuckett, team surgeon Robert Metcalf and trainer Marv Roberson, as Metcalf detailed the damage to the left knee and announced the quarterback’s season and college career as being over. Physically and emotionally hurting, the quarterback requested the four present to give him an LDS priesthood blessing.

“There’s not any other place where you can ask your head coach and the athletic director to give you a blessing,” said Elder Nielsen, adding that it gave him comfort and reassurance. And the knee healed strong enough for him to survive six seasons of pro football with the NFL’s Houston Oilers.

In Elder Nielsen’s Auckland office, he has two framed photos placed in key locations, both showing the former quarterback in conversations with two of his former head coaches — one with the Oilers’ Bum Phillips, the other with him in a chair listening to Edwards.

“I walk into my office every day looking at that photo. The power of his influence in life is immeasurable,” said Elder Nielsen, who said he had tried to visit his college coach as often as he could when in Utah, the last time being for the LDS Church’s October general conference.

“And I’m usually the one really listening to him because of how wise and profound his comments are — and have always been,” he said.

“He taught me so much — the life lessons he’s taught me the past two to three years are greater than any football game or any athletic contest I’ve ever played in. He never stopped teaching — it got deeper as the years go by, and I’ll truly miss him.”