Menu
In the News

Watch for Latter-day Saint Utes to play key roles in Saturday’s historic Rose Bowl game


On the roster of the University of Utah’s first football team, in the late 1800s, was a handsome right guard who would make a name for himself far beyond the college gridiron — David O. McKay, who would become the Church’s ninth president.

Since that maiden season when a young David McKay shored up the offensive line, Utah’s football squad and the Church have enjoyed a rich history — stretching right up to the 2021 Ute squad preparing to play in the Rose Bowl, “The Granddaddy of Them All,” on New Year’s Day.

The University of Utah football team with David O. McKay, who is on the top row, second from the left. Church President David O. McKay was a player on the football team in the 1890s.

The University of Utah football team with David O. McKay, who is on the top row, second from the left. Church President David O. McKay was a player on the football team in the 1890s.

Credit: University of Utah, Marriott Library, Special Collections

Many of the Pac-12 champion Utes competing Saturday afternoon vs. Ohio State are Latter-day Saints — including approximately two dozen returned missionaries. Several of Utah’s most celebrated players — including Mika Tafua, Britain Covey and Junior Tafuna — interrupted their playing careers to serve missions.

Meanwhile, the team’s sideline leader, Pac-12 Coach of the Year Kyle Whittingham, is a Church member, along with several others on the coaching staff — including defensive coordinator Morgan Scalley and Sione Po’uha, a former NFL lineman and bishop.

It’s a certainty that at some point in the fast-approaching Rose Bowl, someone from the ESPN broadcast crew will reference the Church and missionary service.

A legacy of Latter-day Saint Utes

President McKay is not the only latter-day Apostle who played for the university that was founded in 1850 by Brigham Young. Elder Joseph B. Wirthlin, a late member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, was a Ute halfback as a young man and a lifelong supporter of the school’s football program.

Prior to his death in 2008, Elder Wirthlin frequently met with the team, cheered at games alongside his wife, Sister Elisa Wirthlin, and even watched the Utes’ annual spring scrimmage from the team bench.

The Church News talked Utah football with Elder Wirthlin in 2003 when the Apostle was a guest at a Utah football kickoff party sponsored by the Latter-day Saints Student Association.

Then-Elder M. Russell Ballard and Elder Joseph B. Wirthlin speak with the University of Utah football team prior to the red/white scrimmage, April 19, 2003. Elder Wirthlin was presented with a game jersey.

Then-Elder M. Russell Ballard and Elder Joseph B. Wirthlin speak with the University of Utah football team prior to the red/white scrimmage, April 19, 2003. Elder Wirthlin was presented with a game jersey.

Credit: Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

“This has been a wonderful evening for me,” said Elder Wirthlin, who played at Utah from 1935 to 1937. “It’s brought back many, many memories of when I was here many years ago.”

The Apostle said his tenure at the U. added much to his life. “It’s where I learned the rudiments of football, which has helped me in business, in my Church assignment or whatever I had to do.”

At Elder Wirthlin’s Dec. 5, 2008, funeral service, President Thomas S. Monson said his friend earned the moniker “Speedy Wirthlin” darting about on the Utah football field.

Shortly after Elder Wirthlin’s death, the university’s athletic department announced plans to establish an endowed scholarship in Elder Wirthlin’s name to benefit the Utah football program. Initial contributors to the endowment included Coach Whittingham and his predecessor, Urban Meyer.

The school paid further tribute to Elder Wirthlin by placing a decal with his initials “JBW” on the back of the Utes’ crimson helmets prior to the team’s unforgettable win against Alabama in the 2009 Sugar Bowl.

The late President James E. Faust of the First Presidency also enjoyed a family connection to the University of Utah football team. His brother, Gus Faust, played fullback in the early 1940s.

Counted among the tens of thousands of Ute fans expected to fill the Rose Bowl on New Year’s Day will be the school’s new president, Taylor R. Randall.

A Latter-day Saint and returned missionary himself, Randall spoke to the Church News in September about the historic link connecting the University of Utah and the Church that continues to this day.

University of Utah President Taylor Randall, center, makes a “U” sign while posing for a photo with presidential interns at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City on Friday, Aug. 20, 2021. Sanila Math is on the left and Jaina Lee is on the right.

University of Utah President Taylor Randall, center, makes a “U” sign while posing for a photo with presidential interns at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City on Friday, Aug. 20, 2021. Sanila Math is on the left and Jaina Lee is on the right.

Credit: Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

“We serve a large base of [Church] members, and I think this is a fantastic environment for them. You have the ability to get a diversity of experiences and explore your discipline of interest in a very deep way. Yet at the same time, you can get a very rich spiritual experience by attending some of the wards and participating in institute.”

2021: A ‘rose’-colored season

If Nephi from the Book of Mormon had played American football, he likely would have been a linebacker. The ancient prophet possessed the same traits valued in today’s linebackers: toughness, persistence and vision. Plus, he was “large in stature” (1 Nephi 2:16).

So maybe it is apropos that one of Utah’s most skilled linebackers is another Nephi — aka Pac-12 All-Conference player Nephi Sewell.

Besides Sewell, several other Latter-day Saints have enjoyed outstanding 2021 seasons culminating in the school’s first Pac-12 championship and Rose Bowl invitation — including defensive end Mika Tafua, who was named the Pac-12’s top defensive lineman, and Junior Tafuna, the Pac-12 freshman defensive player of the year. 

Tafua and Tafuna served missions in Tacoma, Washington, and Cape Verde, respectively.

Two of the Utes’ most memorable touchdowns in 2021 featured a pair of other returned missionaries.

On Oct. 9, Devaughn Vele, who served his mission in Samoa, caught a 37-yard touchdown pass against the University of Southern California that many say helped turn the 2021 season into a success.

Utah wide receiver Devaughn Vele (17) celebrates his touchdown catch with fellow returned missionary Britain Covey (18) during the first half of the team’s NCAA college football game against Southern California on Saturday, Oct. 9, 2021, in Los Angeles.

Utah wide receiver Devaughn Vele (17) celebrates his touchdown catch with fellow returned missionary Britain Covey (18) during the first half of the team’s NCAA college football game against Southern California on Saturday, Oct. 9, 2021, in Los Angeles.

Credit: Marcio Jose Sanchez, Associated Press

“But as great as that moment was, I just kept reminding myself of what got me there. All thanks to the Lord, because I would not have been there without Him,” Vele told the Church News after the USC game.

Then on Nov. 20, Vele’s fellow receiver and returned missionary Britain Covey returned a punt 78 yards to score a spectacular touchdown against rival Oregon.

Covey’s backstory is well-known to college football fans. Following a terrific freshman season in 2015, he stepped away from the game to serve a mission to Chile. 

“We spent all day, every day, looking to serve people. … Our main priority was to teach the gospel of Jesus Christ,” Covey said of his missionary service in a Pac-12 Network story. “You have to forget about yourself and think about other people — and that’s when you really find yourself.”

Since returning from Chile, Covey has reestablished himself as one of the top returners in college football.

In a devotional last year at the university’s Institute of Religion, Covey spoke of the power of spiritual training. God, he testified, is the ultimate “weight trainer.”

“He knows you need to get stronger. … But the thing is, He starts with where you’re at.”

Utah Ute receiver Britain Covey works outs in Salt Lake City on April 23, 2019.

Utah Ute receiver Britain Covey works outs in Salt Lake City on April 23, 2019.

Credit: Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

If Utah hopes to defeat the No. 6-ranked Buckeyes and claim its first Rose Bowl trophy, it is likely going to have to depend upon a few big plays from Covey, Tafua, Tafuna, Sewell and other Latter-day Saint players.

Newsletters
Subscribe for free and get daily or weekly updates straight to your inbox
The three things you need to know everyday
Highlights from the last week to keep you informed