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Gridiron coaches taught him lessons for life

Ute football team pays tribute to Elder Wirthlin

University of Utah football and Elder Joseph B. Wirthlin of the Quorum of the Twelve came together for a second time during ceremonies prior to the Utes' spring game Saturday, April 19, in Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City.

Elder Wirthlin, a running back for Utah from 1935-1937, was honored for his contributions to University of Utah football, the community and the Church, according to Rex Hogan, director of football operations. Elder Wirthlin was given a game jersey as the coaches and team gathered around him at midfield.

Elder M. Russell Ballard, who also participated in the ceremony, talked during a Church News interview about the connection between Elder Wirthlin and new Utah coach Urban Meyer. He said it was arranged for him to have lunch with Coach Meyer and he invited Elder Wirthlin to join them. Elder Ballard said, "As soon as Coach Meyer found out about Elder Wirthlin's background in University of Utah football, they really bonded. I was out of it after that."

Days after the on-field tribute, Elder Wirthlin talked fondly with the Church News of his football days. He reminisced about playing for two outstanding coaches, Mickey Oswald at Salt Lake City's East High School, and Ike Armstrong at Utah. In high school, he was a quarterback. After graduation, he chose to play for Utah, he said, because he lived near the campus and could work in the family business as time permitted.

In college he played running back since, as Elder Ballard noted from stories he has heard, in 100-yard sprints after practice each day, Elder Wirthlin always finished first.

Elder Wirthlin said, "We had a great coach who taught us fair play, integrity, diligence in keeping the standards, and, above all, doing the very, very best in whatever position we were given."

He continued, "I think we remember best the fundamental lessons we learn at an early age in our life, and football taught some of the great lessons that I learned."

Those lessons include setting goals and maintaining a desire to win and can be applied in the family, the Church and business, he said. "I applied those lessons in my wonderful years of being a bishop and member of a stake presidency and now as a member of the Twelve. All those lessons I learned early on have helped me through life."

There were also other lessons related to football, Elder Wirthlin said. One was his mother's decree that she would support him in football only if he kept his grades up in school. He said that her challenge to him to do well in the classroom as well as on the field gave him "the balance that many football players don't have."

After his third season, he had to make the choice of going on a mission or finishing his last year of football. "It was a very difficult decision to make," he said. "But my father said prophetically, 'If you do not go now, the possibility is you will not go on a mission.' That was true, because World War II came and I may possibly not have been able to go on a mission. It was a hard decision at the time, but I listened to my father and his counsel."

The decision led to a mission to Austria and Switzerland "during those difficult years when Hitler was threatening the whole world with war," he said. "It was at that time that I learned that the gospel brings peace to the hearts of everyone who would accept it regardless of threats of war."

Elder Wirthlin spoke to the Utah football team prior to the spring game, Elder Ballard said, noting, "He quoted the Scout Oath and told them the principles in the Scout Oath apply to those who want to excel in football."

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