Latter-day Saint is `back-up mom' to university team

Gridiron athletes at the University of Southern California look up to Anita Desatoff. In fact, to many of these young men - including 6-foot-6-inch quarterbacks and hulking linemen - she's somewhat of a second mom.

All 5 feet 4 inches of her.For some 25 seasons now, Sister Desatoff of the Santa Gertrudes Ward, Whittier California Stake, has been pursuing what she calls her "fun job" in game management for the Trojan football team. A real estate broker by trade, she can be found at every home game at the Los Angeles Coliseum fulfilling what you might call a public relations role. Since she joined team management in the early 1970s, she has risen from ushering to her current assignment in the "Scholarship Club," the section of the Coliseum below the press box where scholarship donors sit. With her smile and kindly voice, she offers personal assistance and answers questions.

She's also a pure Trojan fan and most important a fan of the players - "Anita's sons," as they are often called.

"I love my team," she declared. "When I see those boys come out of the locker rooms, and I know many of their families can't be there, my heart goes out to them. There's no one to tell them they're wonderful.

"When the game is over," she continued, "I go down and wait for the boys and give them `rah, rahs.' Over the years, you get to know them quite well. These boys are a lot of fun."

Knowing that living away from home brings unusual pressure and temptation to young athletes, Sister Desatoff said she aims to be a booster at the games and a back-up mom on the sidelines.

"So many of my one-on-one conversations are focused on having them have faith in themselves and not doubt the abilities and talents they were blessed with. You naturally get chances to share the gospel or comfort the players who are searching for understanding at these critical times in their lives."

In fact, to one player she once asked before kick-off: "Do you think about praying? Don't you think you can play better with the Lord than without?"

Sister Desatoff is known for taking freshmen under her wing - if they could fit. She recalled a pre-game pep rally once where she noticed a freshman standing alone in the bleachers, looking shy and intimidated. "I walked up the steps. We talked, and sensing his emotions, I encouraged him to get out there and give it everything he had. He looked at me and with a firm resolve said, `I will.' "

The player went on to be one of the best USC linebackers ever, and is now playing for the New Orleans Saints. "In his rookie year with the Saints, he has come out as one of the top four in contention for rookie-of-the-year in his position. I was touched when . . . he wrote me a personal note thanking me for my love and support in his four years with the USC team."

Sister Desatoff related: "Over the years some of the players have come to my home for dinner, birthday parties, Thanksgiving or other holidays and events. For some, it is their only away-from-home family support. When we spend an evening together, I also invite my own children and grandchildren to interact and enjoy this time with the players. These occasions give me great pleasure."

She also speaks with warm remembrance of the friendships she's developed with some of the players' parents. She got to know many if them while assigned to the parents' section, before being transferred to the Scholarship Club. One mother in particular was Martha Pace of Duarte, Calif.

"She has a wonderful smile, and I told her that. She said nobody had ever told her that. So every game she would come and want to talk. She said there was something different about me."

Then, in 1994, Sister Desatoff accepted a full-time mission call to the Texas Fort Worth Mission. Just before leaving, she visited Martha and gave her a copy of the Book of Mormon.

"She called me two months later and said, `You're not going to believe this. Two missionaries came to my door. Never have the missionaries come to my door. I saw that little book in their hands and I let them in. I'm going to be baptized.'

"We're still very close friends, and she has remained faithful in the Church. She's a very good member."

Sister Desatoff completed her mission in 1995 and quickly returned to her Trojan role.

Today, she continues to be "back-up mom" to young football players - most recently quarterback Brad Otton, a member of the Church who has been drafted by the Washington Redskins and who led the Trojans to a 1996 Rose Bowl victory.

"Brad is a blessing and a bright spot in my life," she readily admitted. "His high standards will become an example to thousands. People will come to learn of his warm and friendly ways and how he values the principles he has learned as a member of Heavenly Father's Church."

She expressed pride in Brad and his wife, Deana, whom he recently married in the temple.

Brad stands 6 feet, 6 inches. "He'd probably be 6-7 if he stood up straight," she added, with a chuckle. "He hunches his shoulders."

Sounds like a mom.

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