Justin Bean was in the middle of helping the Utah State basketball team hold off a second-half rally by San Diego State on Jan. 26 when he collided with a teammate and came away with a swollen purple eye.
After the Aggies won the game, 75-57, the senior forward posted photos of his discolored, bulging right eye as if it were a badge of honor.
“No stitches needed baby,” he said in one tweet after the game.
“Worth it,” he wrote in another tweet the next day.
One of Bean’s ancestors would be especially proud.
“Are you related to Willard?” is a question Justin Bean has been asked many times.
“I am in fact,” the USU hoop star said. “A lot of people have said I look like him. We love him and Rebecca’s story and have read the books, watched the film, and love them. It’s been really cool to learn about their story and share that heritage.”
In 1907, the Joseph Smith farmhouse and surrounding land was purchased by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. In 1915, President Joseph F. Smith called Willard Bean, a middleweight boxing champion, and his wife, Rebecca, to serve as caretakers of the farm near Palmyra, New York, in a community full of negative feelings towards the Latter-day Saint faith.
Their five-year mission lasted 24 years, one of the longest missions in church history. Along the way, they persevered through much opposition, won over the community and were instrumental in the church acquiring a number of historic properties in the area.
At times, Willard Bean relied on his fists and professional boxing skills to stand up to local hostility and demonstrate that he would not be deterred from his mission.
Justin Bean remembers going with his family to visit Palmyra when he was 9 or 10 years old. As they toured church history sites and walked the temple grounds, people quickly recognized and honored the Bean name.
“That’s a pretty popular name around (Palmyra),” Justin Bean said. “We realized it was a pretty big deal.”
Justin Bean soon got his hands on a copy of author Rand Packer’s biography “A Lion and a Lamb,” and read with great interest about the missionary adventures of Willard and Rebecca Bean. (The story is also told in “Willard Bean: The Fighting Parson,” by Vicki Bean Topliff.)
Justin Bean is a fan of the movie, “The Fighting Preacher,” which featured some of his favorite stories about Willard, Rebecca and their family.
“It definitely showed his aggression and passion for sharing the gospel, as well as standing up for what he believed in,” Justin Bean said. “He was courageous and didn’t fear anybody. He certainly didn’t fear any of the protesters or persecutors. He stood firm and was even willing to use his physical skills and fighting tactics to defend himself. It’s definitely no coincidence that he was chosen for that assignment.”
Justin Bean served a Latter-day Saint mission of his own in Reno, Nevada, from 2015-2017. Was the 6-foot-7 college basketball player ever tempted to punch someone or get in a fight on his mission like his ancestor?
“There were a couple of crazy people in downtown Reno that I felt like could use some sense knocked into them for saying some pretty rude things,” he said. “But at the end of the day, I didn’t have any boxing gloves on hand and I knew it wasn’t the right thing to do. So I tried to use my words instead.”
Bean did receive a pair of boxing gloves from a friend at Christmas and has laced them up to go a few rounds with a punching bag. He has no immediate plans to take up boxing but does appreciate the value of a fighter’s resilient mentality on the basketball court.
“My coaches have said this and I’ve tried to apply it — be able to take punches, not so much give them,” he said. “How many punches can you take and keep going? That’s been a pretty accurate description of my career. I’ve taken a lot of punches.”
Some of those haymakers include a serious knee injury in high school, being under-recruited and walking on at Utah State. He also weathered the stress of three coaching changes while at USU.
“I took a few punches there physically and mentally,” he said. “A lot of adversity, but also a lot of opportunities, from being able to withstand those and keep moving forward.”
Willard Bean’s father, George Washington Bean, is also a notable figure in Utah history. He came west with Latter-day Saint pioneers as a teenager and helped settle Provo. He served as an interpreter, fostering relations with the Native American tribes, and later as a judge in Utah County, according to his obituary.
Knowing about his family heritage and legacy has made a positive difference in Bean’s life.
“It brings an added sense of responsibility in how I live my life, and also a sense of pride, knowing I come from such a respected family,” he said. “More than anything I want to live my life in a way that will honor my family.”
Utah State plays at Nevada this Saturday, Jan. 29, at 8 p.m.