BYU and Boise State players made a striking image Friday night as they held each others’ hands and knelt together on the blue turf of Boise’s Albertsons Stadium after a game between two nationally ranked football teams.
Pastor Mark Thornton stood in their midst and prayed over them as some players bowed heads and others lifted faces heavenward. Virtually every player from both teams participated. The massive huddle between what normally are on-field rivals covered the logo at midfield and sprawled for 15 yards.
That’s rare, Thornton said.
A photo made the rounds on social media, but some context was missing. How did the unusual prayer happen? Why were players from a public university in Idaho praying with those from a private Utah school of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints? And what did it mean to the players and coaches?
Prayer is a major part of both programs, according to interviews with BYU players Gunner Romney and Isaac Rex, and Boise State’s Avery Williams. BYU’s postgame prayer usually happens in the locker room and Boise State holds one at midfield each week.
“We’re kind of like this: We started with prayer, we’re going to end with prayer, and we’re going to give the glory to God,” said Thornton, who is the team’s chaplain.
He usually reaches out to the other school’s team chaplain before a game to invite the opponents to join the Broncos for prayer at midfield afterward, but he didn’t know BYU had a team chaplain. That’s why BYU’s players began filing off the blue turf on Friday night after the Cougars, then ranked ninth in the country, battered 21st-ranked Boise State, 51-17.
Then Thornton found BYU head coach Kalani Sitake.
“Hey, we’re getting ready to pray,” he said.
“Can we join you guys?” Sitake asked. Then he called his players back to the 50-yard line.
“I am appreciative for BYU’s coaches,” Thornton said this week. “We play against some teams who don’t have a chaplain. We play against other teams who didn’t let their players stay and pray, even though the players from the other team wanted to join us in prayer.”
Boise State co-captain Avery Williams was stunned when virtually the entire BYU team joined the prayer circle.
“I don’t know if an entire whole team has joined us before in the years that I’ve been here. That means a lot,” he said.
Sitake said he wouldn’t have missed it.
“We’re not going to turn that down, when a team invites our team to kneel down and praise God for the opportunity we had to play,” he said. “What a great invite from them. I was really impressed with them the entire game, just a great program with wonderful sportsmanship and you know, hopefully we can be able to have that type of impact on other programs as well when we play them.”
Friday’s prayer had additional meaning because it happened in a budding regional rivalry. The schools have played each other for nine straight years and have games scheduled in 13 of the next 14 seasons.
A couple of players said praying with their opponents was grounding.
“Football’s a competitive game, so you’re competing, you’re talking trash, you’re fighting people on the field, but at the end of the day it’s, you know, it’s just a sport. There might be hard feelings on the field but once you get off the field, they’re your brothers. You gotta love them up a little bit,” said BYU’s Romney, a junior ranked 10th in the nation in receiving yards with 648.
“The fact that it’s such a big rivalry and we can be really physical with each other, compete really hard with each other and then drop our pride, drop our egos, drop what just happened for two to three hours and give thanks to God, that says something about both schools,” added Boise State’s Williams, a speed demon who is the reigning Mountain West Conference special teams player of the year with six career touchdowns on kick and punt returns.
While they are rivals, many of the players know each other, which added another layer of meaning to the experience.
Boise State linebacker and co-captain Riley Wimpey and BYU’s Rex are friends who attended the same Latter-day Saint ward and the same high school growing up together in San Clemente, California.
“I was kneeling next to him after the game and we prayed together with the whole team. It was a really cool experience and something I’ll never forget,” said Rex, a tight end who caught two touchdown passes in the game and is now tied for 10th in the nation with six touchdown catches.
Thornton loved that aspect of praying with the teams.
“It’s a small world, you know?” he said. “We have Utah and California guys whose friends play at BYU. You’re enemies, rivals during the game, but afterward it’s like, “Hey, you know what? I’m going to see you at Christmastime,’ or ‘I’m going to see in the summertime.’ So, it’s neat to have them bring it back all together after competition.”
Thornton said he gave thanks for the opportunity to play the game. Both teams have had their schedules upended by the pandemic. BYU is unbeaten and now ranked No. 8 in the nation. Boise State dropped out of the top 25 but is 2-1 and still in control of its destiny in the Mountain West Conference championship race.
“We prayed for the guys who got hurt on both sides of the field, just for a quick recovery for them,” Thornton said. “We blessed BYU and just prayed that they would continue to have a great season, and that we would continue to have a great season, as well.”
While BYU is a private religious institution and Boise State is a state school, the role of faith in their two football programs is strikingly similar.
Thornton leads Boise State players in chapel the night before each game and joins a player-led prayer with 95% of the team in a huddle after pregame warmups. He said 15 to 25 players usually ask him to pray with them individually before the game starts.
Thornton estimated that 60% of Boise State’s players are evangelical Christians and about 30% are Latter-day Saints. Others are Catholic or “seekers” or agnostics, he said.
Boise’s coaches emphasize the mind, body, soul and spirit, he added. Williams said the Bronco coaches are men of God who join the team at chapel, but the senior defensive back said none of the coaches or players pressure anyone to pray or join chapel meetings. Still, 85% to 90% show up.
Whimpey, the Latter-day Saint linebacker and co-captain, is usually on the front row for chapel, said Thornton. Denominational differences take a back seat to a common belief in the crucified Jesus Christ, he added.
“Faith really unifies us,” Williams said. “We have this relationship with God, and we realize there’s something much bigger than ourselves that we all are all in for.”
Thornton, a Bronco player in 1984-85, plays a role in guiding Boise State’s believers through the seasons of life.
“There’s just all kinds of emotions, all kinds of anxiety and things that go on that the game doesn’t necessarily speak to,” he said. “The coaches make a big deal out of allowing us to have chapel and encouraging the prayer time and the Bible study time.”
Prayer and scripture study is part of the BYU experience. Classes begin with a prayer, as does every campus event, including games. Students are required to take religion courses as part of their general education.
“We pray before meetings every single day,” Romney said. “In practice all throughout the week we open up with a prayer, and before games we all get together and say a prayer, and then after games, we give our gratitude to God. That’s one thing that’s really cool, and I think it’s brought us together pretty close as a team.”
Holding hands with an opponent, even one that just beat his team badly, is natural for Boise State’s Williams.
“That’s pretty much a no-brainer for me,” he said. “We all understand that our faith is much bigger than football. At some point players are going to have to hang up the cleats and we’re not gonna be playing at some point, but faith continues and faith goes on and everyone realizes that. That that’s why it’s not, ‘Oh, am I gonna hold my teammate’s hand?’ or ‘Am I gonna really hold an opposing player’s hand?’ It’s a no-brainer. Faith is much bigger than this sport.”