PROVO — He’s a former All-American quarterback at BYU, a six-year NFL veteran, a member of the College Football Hall of Fame, and for decades worked as a sports anchor for KHOU in Houston.
These days, Elder S. Gifford Nielsen, a General Authority Seventy, is busily engaged in assignments for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
“I’m not able to follow BYU football very closely but I keep an eye on it,” he said in a phone interview last week. “I love that football program. I love our athletic programs at BYU. I do follow it enough to stay very interested. I don’t get a chance to see very many of the games because of our assignments on the weekends. But I really care about our teams and these young men.”
Elder Nielsen is aware of BYU’s current quarterback situation.
Senior Tanner Mangum and freshman Zach Wilson were vying for the starting job before Mangum was named the starter for the opener Saturday at Arizona. Meanwhile, other talented QBs, like sophomore Joe Critchlow and freshman Jaren Hall, are also on the roster.
What advice would Elder Nielsen offer this current group of quarterbacks?
“I would tell a BYU quarterback what an honor it is to be at that university, playing with the history that we’ve had and the tradition that’s been built. I would say to any quarterback, ‘Just be yourself.’ A quarterback always needs to know his limitations,” he said. “But if you get caught up in trying to overcome the statistics of a Marc Wilson or a Jim McMahon or a Steve Young or get wrapped up into, ‘Oh my goodness, I don’t know if I can play because those guys were so great,’ then you’re probably in the wrong position. Any quarterback that goes to BYU and puts on that uniform, of course, you want to know that you’re part of a long history of pretty amazing players. But you always have to play within yourself.”
From the mid-1970s through the mid-1980s, BYU produced a string of All-American quarterbacks, including Elder Nielsen. That success created lofty expectations for the QBs that followed them. But he doesn’t believe current BYU quarterbacks should worry about that.
“Everybody makes a big deal about the extra pressure of playing quarterback at BYU. I don’t agree with that,” Elder Nielsen said. “I think you honor the history but then create your own history. Every quarterback that’s played there, we’re cheering this new crop of quarterbacks on. We’re not asking them to compare to us. We’re asking them to do what they can do. They have come to BYU to represent the university and the program. If they decide that they want to put more pressure on themselves by being the quarterback at BYU, they probably shouldn’t be the quarterback at BYU. Establish your own career. Just know that we all care.”
Every day, I had to be prepared for practice and games because the competition was so challenging. It made me a better player to have those behind me pushing me. – Elder S. Gifford Nielsen
BYU is coming off a 4-9 season, its first losing campaign since 2004.
Elder Nielsen knows coach Kalani Sitake well and he’s hopeful that the Cougars can turn things around in 2018.
“I really like Kalani. I am hoping and praying for his success. I want this team to play better and represent things better than they have,” he said. “Kalani has the ability to make that happen and lead this thing in the right way. I honestly believe that.”
During the offseason, Sitake hired an almost entirely new offensive coaching staff.
“I really like the hiring of (offensive coordinator) Jeff Grimes. With the assistant coaches that he has brought in, they have a chance to play better football and be competitive in every game," Elder Nielsen said. "They have a hard schedule. They’ve got to be prepared. I believe this coaching staff can get these players ready to play and play hard. That’s what you’re really asking for. You want these players to be able to utilize the athletic ability that they’ve been given. These coaches are there to put these players in positions to make great plays.”
Elder Nielsen recalled how his mentors at BYU, like legendary head coach LaVell Edwards and offensive coordinator Doug Scovil, prepared him and his teammates to win.
“I think back on my years with LaVell and Doug Scovil. Doug had me prepared to make plays, totally understanding my abilities. Then he had Marc Wilson and Jim McMahon and did the same thing. We’re all different quarterbacks, right? We all had different abilities. But one thing we had in common was, we all wanted to win. We wanted to do what we needed to do to win. Great preparation to win.”
Elder Nielsen said he is impressed with, and has confidence in, the current BYU quarterbacks.
“I think we have some amazing athletes at the quarterback position right now," he said. "One will emerge and take the reins and go."
Before the coaches named a starting QB, Elder Nielsen was asked if they should go with Mangum's experience or Wilson's potential.
“The coaches are going to go with the guy that is going to give them the best chance to win. That’s up to the coaches to decide that. Of course, with Tanner’s experience and knowing the intensity of the college game, he might have a little bit of an advantage," Elder Nielsen said. "I don’t know a whole lot about Zach Wilson although I understand that he’s a really fine player and can be a great player before his career is over with. Joe Critchlow has a lot of ability. You’ve got to have a stable of quarterbacks. If Joe Critchlow’s thinking he’s out of the mix, you’re never out of the mix. You keep yourself prepared because you never know when your time’s going to come to play. That’s the case in every position. The nice thing about this is, you’ve got some wonderful options. You’ve got guys who can flat-out throw the ball.”
I know what this football program did for me in my life. It taught me how to compete at a high level. It taught me the ups and downs of life. – Elder S. Gifford Nielsen
Competition at quarterback is what helped Elder Nielsen reach his potential at BYU.
“I had to work every day as hard as I could because I had Marc Wilson behind me,” he said. “And I had a freshman named Jim McMahon that wanted to take all of the reps. Every day, I had to be prepared for practice and games because the competition was so challenging. It made me a better player to have those behind me pushing me.”
In 1977, Elder Nielsen joined his BYU teammates in a trip to Japan for a goodwill tour. Because he was injured, he couldn't play against the Japanese All-Star teams on that trip but he did participate in Church firesides there. A decade later, the Cougars played a regular-season game against Colorado State in Melbourne, Australia.
Elder Nielsen would like to see BYU play international games again if the opportunity presents itself.
“Yeah, why not? We’re an international university and an international Church. Anytime we can expand our sphere of influence, I think it’s a great thing. Because of being independent, we could lead the country doing that,” he said. “We’re more than just a football program at BYU. We’re a major part of this missionary force. As (Church) President (Russell M.) Nelson is saying, we’re all here to gather Israel, right?
"This is a great opportunity for our football team if we were able to schedule some international games for people to come and participate and bring their friends and see what we’re all about. As players, being taught and coached by LaVell, we wanted to be excellent at what we did so people would recognize us for what we are. As players, we’ve always considered the football program being a wonderful tool to define ourselves and let others know who we are and know our standards and to understand that we are centered on Christ-like principles. Anytime we can travel and anytime we can have any kind of influence on others, it was always a top priority to us.
“We’re representing our beliefs in Jesus Christ. All of the principles that we learn and understand, we always felt like we were an instrument, literally, in the Lord’s hands to create awareness,” Elder Nielsen continued. “It just so happened that at that time, in the mid-1970s, we started to get our name out and build this rich tradition in college football that’s unprecedented. When you think of the All-American quarterbacks that came one right after the other, the success of the football program, ultimately winning the national championship, having the television agreement with ESPN that we’ve had over the years — you look at the way everything kind of fell into place, it’s pretty significant what this program can do and the reputation it has built over the years. I want to make sure everyone understands that we didn’t do it to be holier-than-thou. We never, ever thought about that. All we wanted to do was use our football team and our tradition to define who we are, to let people know who we follow and our standards and what we stand for.”
Elder Nielsen said the lessons and experiences he had at BYU prepared him for future endeavors.
“I know what this football program did for me in my life. It taught me how to compete at a high level. It taught me the ups and downs of life. I am thoroughly convinced that through my associations at BYU and my preparations to move on to professional football, I was being prepared at that time for something I didn’t realize.
"I didn’t know then but I do know now. I really care about all of these athletes, that they are making the right kinds of choices because they are the leaders of tomorrow. Sometimes you have to get knocked around and get your nose bloodied a little bit to know that you can come back from that and be better than before. They’re in a great preparatory period of their life to be great leaders in the Church, in their communities and leaders of families in the future. We really care about them.”