How trusting God allows Utah receiver and returned missionary Devaughn Vele to find success on the gridiron, and beyond

After recently watching him snag a spectacular, game-changing touchdown, anyone unfamiliar with University of Utah wide receiver Devaughn Vele’s backstory might have made a few false (albeit, understandable) assumptions.

First, to reset the “snag”:

On Oct. 9, with seconds remaining in the first half at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, the Utes were clinging to a narrow lead over conference rival University of Southern California. On fourth down, Utah quarterback Cam Rising threw a 37-yard touchdown pass to Vele, a lanky, uberathletic Latter-day Saint.

And with that, the Utes were rolling — ultimately defeating USC 42-26. Some have suggested Vele’s surprise touchdown altered Utah’s season; the Utes are nationally ranked and preparing to host one of the college football’s top teams, Oregon, on Saturday, Nov. 20.

Now, back to would-be false assumptions about Vele:

A redshirt freshman wide receiver who was trusted by his coaches and teammates at such a critical moment in a key conference game surely had to have followed a heralded path to college football competition. 

Not so.

As the affable Vele told the Church News, his football route to Salt Lake City — beginning in San Diego and winding through Samoa — was rarely clear and never simple. He has traveled on his ongoing path with equal measures of patience and humility.

 And, he said, he can trace the Lord’s hand with each step.

Humbly trusting in God

The son of Afagaila and Efaraima Vele, young Devaughn grew up in a fairly typical Latter-day Saint home — participating in youth activities, attending seminary and enjoying the connections of his rich Polynesian heritage. He was also a gifted athlete.

He had planned to continue his football career immediately after graduating from San Diego’s Rancho Bernardo High School. A mission was not included in those plans. 

“I wasn’t really fully engaged in Church … I was just kind of going through the motions,” he said of his teen years.

On the high school gridiron, he was an all-league receiver and even completed a 45-yard touchdown pass. Smart, fast and standing well over 6 feet, Vele seemed to check all the boxes that Division 1 football recruiters look for in a receiver. 

University of Utah wide receiver Devaughn Vele served a mission in Samoa before beginning his college football career.
University of Utah wide receiver Devaughn Vele served a mission in Samoa before beginning his college football career. Credit: University of Utah

“But I didn’t really have that many offers,” he said. “That really humbled me to where I had to turn to the Lord. That was when I received an answer that I needed to serve a mission. … I’m so grateful that I did, because my mission helped me grow my testimony of the Church.

“I’m no longer just leaning on the testimonies of my parents.”

Serving in his ancestral homeland of Samoa was a blessed thrill.

“When I got the envelope containing my mission call, I remember thinking, ‘Please, let it be Samoa,’” he said, laughing. “I was ecstatic and tried to give my whole heart to the Lord when I served in Samoa.”

Vele spoke a few words of Samoan, but he still had to study the language and continually practice to effectively teach and build relationships with his investigators and the local members. 

He even taught and baptized a relative in Samoa. “That,” he said, “was an amazing experience.”

Sharing the gospel in Samoa and running wide receiver routes in college football might appear to be diametrically opposed activities — but Vele can spot links. “There are countless lessons I learned as a missionary that are applicable to what I’m doing now as a football player.”

A mission, he said, helped him mature and become more independent and self-motivated. It also taught him to always be humble, be prepared and to trust in the Lord.

Vele’s priesthood leader, Bishop Alexander Salima of the Salt Lake YSA 1st Ward, calls the young football player “a fine young man who deserves all of the blessings he is receiving.“

The bishop added that Vele’s respectful nature toward his family and others makes him an example to all, regardless of whether they are football fans.

Enduring difficulties — on and off the gridiron

After returning home from his mission, he walked on at the University of Utah. The school was a good fit for Vele. He had plenty of relatives in the area, and his cousin Isaac Asiata had been a star offensive lineman for the Utes. There were also many Latter-day Saint connections at the Salt Lake City school.

Still, as a walk-on, he had no promise of a scholarship or playing time. No guarantees. “But I knew my time was coming. I learned in my mission to trust in the Lord and His processes.” Vele’s potential and athleticism were quickly evident to coaches and teammates during practice. He also committed to always being coachable. He studied film, learned the various positions and prepared for those moments when he was needed most.

The Utes struggled to open the 2021 season, dropping two of their first three games. But the team has rallied, won six of its last seven games and is back in the national rankings. Vele, meanwhile, is second on the team in receiving yards, averaging 18 yards per catch.

University of 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 college football game against the University of Southern California on Saturday, Oct. 9, 2021, in Los Angeles.
University of 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 college football game against the University of Southern California on Saturday, Oct. 9, 2021, in Los Angeles. Credit: Marcio Jose Sanchez, Associated Press

“The emergence of Devaughn Vele has been a big positive for us,” Utah coach Kyle Whittingham recently told the Deseret News.

Ups and downs typically define a college football season. There are wins. There are losses. There are highlight touchdown catches that go viral. There are dropped passes. But Vele and his teammates have had to face challenges far beyond league standings and statistics.

Last year, Utah’s star running back, Ty Jordan, died from an accidental shooting. Then on Sept. 26, defensive back Aaron Lowe was shot and killed. Alongside his fellow Utes, Vele grieves the loss of his teammates and friends.

“Those tragedies have brought us all together,” said Vele. “We are dedicating this season to our fallen brothers. We have become a tightly knit group. … We all make sure we are taking care of each other.”

When the Church News caught up with Vele, his focus was all about prepping for the Oregon game. A touchdown catch (or two, maybe?) against the Ducks would be huge. But he was happy to once again, for a brief moment, relive that USC touchdown.

“It was amazing, especially for a California kid. … 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.”