Anyone who tunes in to Monday’s BYU/Navy game without knowing the many faith and football connections between the two seemingly disparate schools probably deserves a pass.
The links are far from obvious.
One educational institution is, of course, privately owned and operated by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The other is a public military service academy.
One rests in the shadows of Utah’s Wasatch Range. One is built thousands of miles to the east at the confluence of the Severn River and Chesapeake Bay.
Even the two school’s formal “missions” appear unrelated, at least on the surface. BYU is charged with assisting students in their “quest for perfection and eternal life.” The Naval Academy graduates officers into the U.S Navy and U.S. Marine Corps with the potential “to assume the highest responsibilities of command, citizenship and government.”
And while BYU students are expected to follow the “Honor Code,” midshipmen at the Academy adhere to the “Honor Concept.”
But for Latter-day Saints tuning in Sept. 7, a few remarkable connections make [email protected] a “can’t miss” college football game.
Ken vs. Kalani: like-minded Latter-day Saints and rivals
Tens of thousands of Division 1 college football games have been played over the past century and beyond. But BYU and Navy’s 2020 season opener will be different than all the others — especially for Latter-day Saint viewers.
For the first time in a D1 football game, two returned missionaries will be presiding over the opposing sidelines. Both men fulfilled missions in California — and both still draw upon their experiences as young elders today as high-profile coaches and humble priesthood leaders.
Sitake serves in the bishopric in a BYU campus ward. Niumatalolo presides over the Annapolis Maryland Stake.
Sitake admits missionary work didn’t make him or Niumatalolo better athletes — but they are better coaches and men because of their missionary service.
“I played in a lot of football games here at BYU, but I don’t think about my career as a football player every day. I do think about my mission every day. Not a day goes by that I don’t think about my time in the Bay Area serving others.”
Meanwhile, lessons Niumatalolo learned on his mission decades ago still serve him well. Universal missionary principles such as prayer and scripture study remain a part of his daily routine, even during the time-deficit months defining a college football season.
He even utilized the language skills he learned on his mission a few years ago while serving as the high councilor assigned to Annapolis’ Spanish-language branch.
Polynesian Latter-day Saints will likely feel a bit of added emotion Monday when they spot the two head coaches on their respective sidelines. Sitake is the first coach of Tongan descent to lead a D1 football program. Niumatalolo is the first D1 head coach of Samoan descent.
The two men are not lifelong acquaintances. Born about a decade apart (Niumatalolo is 55, Sitake will turn 45 next month), they never competed against each other on the football field.
But the two have become friends over the years through the college football coaching community and at off-season camps.
Each is quick to salute the other.
“I admire what Ken does as a coach and, more than anything, I admire what he does as a person. … He is a good example to me,” said Sitake.
“I have great respect for Kalani,” added Niumatalolo. “He’s a good friend of mine.”
While Niumatalolo has never faced BYU as a head coach, he’s no stranger to Lavell Edwards Stadium in Provo, Utah.
A few years ago, whenever his Navy schedule allowed, Niumatalolo and his wife, Barbara, would sit among the Cougar faithful at Lavell Edwards Stadium to watch their eldest son, Va’a, play linebacker for BYU and Coach Sitake. (The Niumatalolo’s youngest son, Ali’i, played for the University of Utah.)
A BYU degree may hang on Va’a’s office wall — but he will be donning the Midshipmen’s Blue and Gold during Monday’s game. He was hired earlier this year as Navy’s assistant to the director of football operations.
Both Sitake and Niumatalolo also point to legendary BYU coach Lavell Edwards’ influence on their respective careers.
Sitake was Edwards’ starting fullback for several years at BYU. Edwards’ generous leadership and example helped prompt him and many others to pursue the coaching ranks.
Earlier this year, Sitake told the Church News that much of his personal and professional development, “can be attributed to Lavell Edwards and the way that he was as a head coach and the example that he set.”
Niumatalolo never played for Edwards — but when he was fired as offensive coordinator at — ironically — the Naval Academy in the late 1990s, it was Edwards who helped him land another coaching job at UNLV.
“If it wasn’t for Coach Edwards, I’d probably be back in Hawaii driving a tour bus or something,” he said, smiling.
Priesthood leaders/football coaches
Every Sunday morning during the academic year at the U.S. Naval Academy, a small group of sleepy Latter-day Saint midshipmen climb from their racks at Bancroft Hall and make their way to branch sacrament services held inside the sprawling building.
They are each greeted by their priesthood leader, President Joe DuPaix.
The branch president performs all the traditional ecclesiastical duties on Sunday — presiding over Church meetings, offering spiritual guidance and extending callings. But come Monday, President DuPaix swaps his jacket and tie for a Navy-branded ball cap and shorts to coach up the Academy’s slot backs.
DuPaix’s current stint with the Midshipmen is his second at the service academy. From 2008-10, he coached the Navy slot backs before joining the staff at (can you guess?) Brigham Young University.
He returned to Navy in 2018.
DuPaix’s connection to the Church school actually dates his association with the Naval Academy. His father, Roger DuPaix, played for BYU, and young Joe grew up watching the Cougars every Saturday during the fall season. His wife, Monica, also comes from a family of hard-core BYU fans.
DuPaix expects to see plenty of familiar faces on the Cougar sideline. It will feel a bit like gathering at the neighborhood park for a pick-up game with friends and family.
“I have so much respect for the BYU program and the coaching staff and all the players there,” he said. “It’s a game we have to be prepared for and put our best product out on the field. But there is a real sense of excitement in the air.
No compartmentalizing football and faith
A reporter recently tried to bait Elder Vai Sikahema into revealing if he will be rooting Monday for BYU or Navy. The savvy former football star and veteran sports journalist wouldn’t bite.
As the saying goes, it’s a bit like asking a father to choose his favorite child.
“I’ll be rooting for everyone that makes a great play,” he said, diplomatically. “I don’t have a dog in this fight, and I want them both to do well.”
Regardless of the game’s outcome, the Area Seventy expects to be left smiling and maybe even a little misty-eyed. As a rising young player at BYU in the 1980s, Sikahema could not have imagined playing in a nationally televised game featuring two Division 1 teams coached by Latter-day Saints of Polynesian heritage.
“In my limited mind, I could not have seen that. So it is amazing what those two men have done with their lives and careers.”
On the day it was announced that his alma mater would be opening their season in Annapolis, a short drive from his Philadelphia home, Elder Sikahema was tapping away on a three-way group text with Sitake and Niumatalolo.
“I told them both, ‘Boys, neither of you should take offense — but I’m going to be with the winning team at the end of the game,” he recalled, laughing.
Elder Sikahema is thrilled whenever his head coaching friends at Navy and BYU claim wins for their respective schools. But he’s more pleased that the two coach’s refuse to compartmentalize their gospel beliefs and their professional coaching pursuits.
“Neither man apologizes for their faith — it’s who they are,” said Elder Sikahema.
A few years ago, Elder Sikahema met a Midshipman player named Joe Cardona, who would go on to play for the NFL’s New England Patriots. He asked the Navy long snapper what key lessons he had learned from his head coach, Ken Niumatalolo.
Cardona’s reply is immediately familiar to Elder Sikahema and many other Latter-day Saints: First, return with honor. And second, choose the right.
Friendly rivalries renewed
While some of the most successful coaches in American football are famously caustic and aloof, Niumatalolo and Sitake are known widely for their soft-spoken approachability. But don’t be fooled. Each man likely hates losing even more than they love winning.
“Kenny is such a competitor,” said Jack Damuni, a former BYU defensive back and Sitake’s current executive coordinator of on-campus recruiting and community/player relations.
Niumatalolo still calls Damuni “my best friend” — but that doesn’t mean the Navy coach is cool with losing to his childhood pal from their home state of Hawaii..
Damuni fights back laughs when he retells the story of hitting a shot at the buzzer from half-court to beat Niumatalolo’s ward in a Church basketball game.
“They gave me a cake after the game for being the MVP,” said Damuri. “Kenny was so upset about losing the game that he wouldn’t accept a piece of the cake. He turned around, walked away, got in his car and drove home.”
But later that night, the two buddies were back palling around their North Shore neighborhood.
Earlier this week, Niumatalolo’s face brightened recalling experiences with Damuni at the Polynesian Cultural Center, organizing pick-up games and finding a bit of playful neighborhood mischief. Now he finds himself competing for high school recruits with his childhood buddy, Jack.
“As young guys,” he said, “we did everything together… So it will be exciting to see Jack on the BYU sidelines”
Damuni agrees everyone involved in Monday’s BYU-Navy game will be doing everything allowed within the rules to win. But when the final horn sounds, the game will be over and the friendships and connections will remain.
Some relationships, he said, are simply larger than football.
“As soon as that clock hits zero, we will all congratulate each other and talk. … It will be another great memory and another priceless experience.”