PROVO — The Heisman Trophy candidate loved the play call, a long bomb to his best wide receiver that might give BYU the lead. What wasn't to like?
After all, Gifford Nielsen was the Mormon Rifle, the nation's leading passer. He threw the ball so well so often that he was on pace to break the college record for career passing yards. If the Cougars won this game, Sports Illustrated planned to put him on the magazine's next cover. He was building BYU's brand as Quarterback U. ahead of Marc Wilson, Jim McMahon, Steve Young and Robbie Bosco.
It all fell apart at the end of a seven-step drop.
"Where do you turn when life gets hard?" he asked Tuesday, 40 years after that fateful play, during a BYU campus devotional. Most of the students among the 2,673 who gathered at the Marriott Center knew him only as Elder S. Gifford Nielsen, a General Authority Seventy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, not as a member of the College Football Hall of Fame.
When he finished that dropback in the fall of 1977, his blocking collapsed. An Oregon State defensive end and one of his own offensive linemen crashed into his left knee. He heard a loud pop. Two plays later, a blitzing linebacker hit the same knee again. Another loud pop.
Those two plays ended his college playing career and threatened his hopes for a pro career. As the team returned to Provo that night, he said worries, anxiety and fear consumed him. Doctors began surgery at 2 a.m. to reattach his medial collateral ligament to his knee.
He'd gone from the top of the football world to the top of an operating room table.
"We know the doctrine," he said during the devotional, "but do we keep our focus where it should be when life gets hard?"
The morning after the surgery, Elder Nielsen turned to his scriptures, where he had written a list of priorities before the season began: "First, the Savior and our eternal family. Second, the church and building the kingdom. Third, my education at this great university. Fourth, my football team and athletic goals. As I looked at life from an eternal perspective, I realized that in reality, very little had changed."
He quickly learned another lesson as Wilson took over the team and picked up right where Nielsen had left off: It wasn't about him. It was one of several lessons he learned from life and from others that he related to BYU's fight song, "The Cougar Song," better known as "Rise and Shout."
"It was a blessing to learn so young that the 'vict’ry story' was never mine alone," he said of watching from the sidelines on crutches. "'The trail to fame and glory' has nothing to do with our worldly ego and requires keeping our eyes fixed on eternal truths."
Late College Football Hall of Fame coach LaVell Edwards gave Elder Nielsen a blessing before his knee surgery. Edwards and his wife, Patti, became examples of integrity, obedience, loyalty and a strong marriage to Elder Nielsen and hundreds of other players.
Marriages "require time, effort, hard work, constant communication and a deep spiritual foundation," Elder Nielsen said. "The Edwardses knew this and did many things to improve their relationship. They spent Friday mornings before home games in the temple to make sure they kept life in perspective. Through their actions, they taught us the importance of being in the Lord’s house and keeping sacred covenants."
Elder Nielsen guaranteed the students that "somebody somewhere watches you and wants to be like you," and asked them to "humbly follow the Lord and be righteous mentors as we hope to influence (our) 'Alma Mater’s sons and daughters.'"
A number of BYU students said they attended the devotional simply because they always do. Some knew Elder Nielsen from his 2013 general conference talk, "Hastening the Lord's Game Plan."
One student who did know about Elder Nielsen's football career was one of the school's current crop of quarterbacks, Joe Critchlow.
"He's an excellent example of someone who excelled at sports at a young age," Critchlow said, "but had the spirit and drive to go on and become a great leader."
Elder Nielsen said he couldn't think of anyone who exemplifies the entire BYU fight song more than new LDS Church President Russell M. Nelson. "President Nelson admonishes us to be walking, living epistles of God in all we do," he said.
The BYU fight song teaches additional lessons.
"We can rise to greater heights, improving day by day," Elder Nielsen said. "We can work day or night through rain or snow to challenge whatever foe threatens our eternal peace and happiness as we are loyal, brave and true in everything we do. We can join in song, be cheerful and united as we spring into action realizing, that while it’s not about us — it is up to us to become living epistles, sending positive messages to those we encounter."