When you think of University of Utah football, you think of family. Throughout the 126-year history of the Utah football program, family has always been a major aspect of how things run. There is a special bond between players that is evident on and off the field — a bond that not many programs in the country have, and this bond continues long after the shoulder pads and helmets are hung up for the last time.
“The Utah football family is a culture that starts at the top with Coach Whittingham and is embraced by everyone on the team,” said former Utah kicker Andy Phillips. “It goes beyond football and really deepens the lives of everyone involved.”
Joining this family and brotherhood happens the moment a player commits to play for Utah. It doesn’t matter if you are an All-American or a player who supports from the sideline. If you are part of the brotherhood, you are taken in as family.
Current wide receiver for the Utes Britain Covey explained that the culture is different from a lot of places. Although it’s difficult to maintain, as players buy into the Utah family, great things happen.
“The vast majority of your teammates won’t play a ton in college,” Covey said. “But they are just as important as everyone that does play. Getting to know these guys and building these relationships is when you find that happiness.”
Social media has played a large role in helping the “Utah Football Family” mantra seep into the public eye, but for Utah football players, it is hardly a recent lifestyle.
Current NFL safety Eric Weddle, who played for the Utes from 2003-2006, touched on this point when he said, “The importance of family and the importance of doing things right on and off the field really made an impact on me while I was at Utah. It is during that time that getting good grades, treating people with respect and holding yourself to the highest value and accountability really takes shape.”
Utah football and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have had rich histories that continuously cross paths. A common belief that bonds the two together is the importance of family. Many of the boys in red and white at the Rice-Eccles Stadium have a background in the church. This background has helped strengthen their lives on and off the football field.
A major belief of the Latter-day Saint faith is the importance of family values and relationships. This includes families being together forever and the importance of family history. The church also believes in God being our loving Heavenly Father.
“I grew up with values and the importance of living right, my parents did a great job of making sure of that.” Weddle said, “When I got to the U, I had a bunch of success, but it felt like something was still missing. I didn’t have to make any dramatic change in my life, but seeing the example of my teammates, and then getting baptized going into my sophomore year stressed that importance of what life is all about for me.”
When asked about which teammate helped them to grow spiritually during their time at the U, a variety of answers flooded in with the common themes of example and leadership, which the faith and Utah football have in common.
Phillips and Covey both mentioned that cornerbacks coach and special teams coordinator Sharrieff Shah is someone who leads with love. They also spoke about Shah’s willingness to listen and give advice that was always impactful to the players he coaches.
Covey expounded on Shah’s impact on him as he said, “He personifies everything that I want to be.” Covey continued, “The way he treats people and the way he holds people to a high standard with love has helped strengthen my testimony of what it means to be Christlike.”
Weddle talked about being roommates with current Utah Defensive Coordinator Morgan Scalley. He went on to speak about how Scalley’s example inspired him to want to be better. Weddle said that he and Scalley would pray and read scriptures together which helped him gain his testimony. He also mentioned Coach Whittingham and his loyalty while Weddle was being recruited and throughout his time at Utah. Lastly, Weddle spoke highly of former Utah tight end Justin Hansen, who baptized Weddle before the 2004 football season.
Scalley’s impact on and off the field is still prevalent for current Utes. Covey also mentioned how Scalley’s example and love of Jesus Christ strengthen him and others on the team.
Some Utes have had their testimonies strengthened as they’ve seen their “brothers” accept the gospel while at Utah.
Former All-Conference Captain Steve Tate talked about being at Weddle’s baptism. He continued by saying that he gained strength from Weddle’s transformation and example. Tate said that seeing Weddle accept and grow with the gospel was a significant point during his college experience.
The most common definition of family includes being related by blood or through other means such as adoption. Family can also be formed by close-knit relationships with those around you.
Some Utah football players remain close even years after they finished donning the red, white and black on game day.
Weddle, Tate and Hansen still spend time together and were recently pictured together at the 2019 NFL Pro Bowl. Phillips and Tom Hackett are the main voices behind the popular podcast “Special Forces Gang.” They also invite other members of the Utah football family to join them on air from time to time.
Another way to build strong family-like relationships comes from serving a mission.
A mission is something many youths in the Church of Jesus Christ choose to do. Young men can begin serving at 18 years old, and young women are able to serve at 19.
A mission consists of receiving a “call to serve” to a state or country anywhere in the world. For 18 months to two years, missionaries will spend their time proselyting, teaching and serving others. Church members believe that this call comes from God himself through a modern-day prophet.
Many Utes have taken two years away from their playing careers to answer the “call” and focus on serving Christ. They eventually come back to the gridiron upon returning from their missions.
“The mission was incredible,” Tate said. “The things you learn on your mission paves the way for your lives. You learn to have compassion for other people. I still have friends I speak Spanish with from Argentina and one day I would love to go back there.”
Many missionaries will come home with an added love for the people that they serve. Relationships built and lessons learned don’t stop there though. Missionaries will bring different ideas home in hopes to be a strength to themselves and their future family.
“I learned a lot of interpersonal lessons when I was in Chile,” Covey said. “Although I don’t know everything and I don’t know all the answers, I feel like I know the process of how to do things and the process of how to gain those answers.”
Members of the church have a firm belief that families can be together forever. This is done through a marriage ceremony called a sealing in the holy temples. This sealing binds husband and wife for time and all eternity. Some Utah players who have experienced this shared what it means to them to have their families be together forever.
“It means the world to me, and it’s something that keeps me going,” Phillips said. “That temple blessing is something that brings joy to my heart and is the motivation for everything that I do.”
“That’s one of the main reasons I got baptized quite honestly,” Weddle said. “To know that my wife and kids are sealed to me for time and all eternity is very calming and reassuring.”
“It’s helped my family get through a lot,” Tate said. “I have zero doubt that heaven is close, and our loved ones are close. That knowledge for me is huge.”
Family and faith have always played a big part in Tate’s life. The belief that families can be together forever brought Tate’s family strength when life seemed to be at its lowest. Tate’s son Hayes lost his year-long battle with brain cancer at 20 months old.
“Tender mercies from God made themselves absolutely known during that time. Without them, I would’ve never been able to hear my son say, ‘I love you.’ He wasn’t even old enough to verbalize that, and yet we were able to get that from him.” Tate went on to say, “Knowing that heaven is real and that my family can be together forever is something that keeps me going. Being able to look back and have that knowledge that we’ll see him again is what helps me in my tough days.”
Utah football and the Church of Jesus Christ share their belief in the importance of family. Family can be there during the highest points of life, along with strengthening us when we feel like we have hit our lows. Some may not have people they consider family by blood relation or lawful bonds, but close-knit relationships that are formed such as the Utah football family can be just as beneficial. From the moment you are born to the moment you die, family, whether by blood or by choice, can be a strength to you.
So, before you head out into this football field of life, always remember what family can mean to you. As Coach Whittingham famously says, “Lets go! Family on three! One, two, three FAMILY!”
This article is part of the Poynter College Media Project. Click here for more stories and information on the topic “Are U Mormon?”