A crowd of over one thousand from all over the Houston area filled the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on Bering Drive in Houston Friday night to hear and meet some thirty members of the BYU football team, in town for Saturday’s game against the University of Houston, marking the first-ever meeting of the two Cougar clubs.
Houston enjoyed the tradition originally begun by BYU head coach Bronco Mendenhall 9 years ago, as a way to give back to communities and share a message of hope, substance, and motivation. The night before each away game, team members volunteer to hold an inspirational meeting in the community where they are playing. For home games, they take this so called “fireside” to the state prison, mental health facility, youth detention facility, places that are eager for messages of hope and inspiration.
The event featured BYU head coach Bronco Mendenhall and singing by members of the BYU football squad. Also featured in the program was #45, senior inside linebacker Tyler Beck, who served a mission for the LDS church in the Houston area. “We volunteer to speak, and as soon as I saw we were going to Houston I said sign me up. It takes me back…just seeing familiar faces, it’s like WOW.” Beck shared a message of overcoming adversity and of learning to give 100% to achieve a goal.
Holding these firesides before each game is not the only thing unique to the BYU program. As many as 40 players on the team are married, 70 are returned from missions, and they all commit to follow an Honor Code requiring integrity and strict levels of personal discipline.
Mendenhall describing the Honor Code said, “You get to aspire to the best version of yourself. We don’t think alcohol is good for you, we don’t believe that tobacco is good for you. We think the law of chastity and being moral in your relationship with young ladies is essential and we ask you to commit to no pre-marital sex while you’re here. There aren’t any drugs. We ask you to be honest. Hair, dress and groom standards above the ear, off the collar, no ear rings (for men)”.
“It’s the greatest thing we could ever have”, Mendenhall continued. “We believe in the power of choice. It is completely OK if young people don’t want that, yet to me they are guidelines to be the best version of you”.
Eathyn Manumaleuna, #55, senior defensive tackle from Anchorage, Alaska, is married with a 1year old, and currently in the middle of midterms. “The honor code has a huge impact. It promotes a healthy lifestyle that they want us to live by so we can reach our full potential to be successful in life. It is a grind each day to balance my life, so many things- it’s tough. That’s the challenge lots of people face. It has rewards. It’s worth living for,” said Manumaleuna.
Balance is important in the Mendenhall coaching style, for which he has borne criticism. Manumaleuna said, “God comes first, family comes second, then school and then football. That is coach’s priorities too.” Mendenhall added, “I do want to show that you can have a completely balanced life through academics, through social conduct, through spirituality through service and be great at what you do.”
Mendenhall continued, “To me, all sports are and all they should be for us is to teach the most valuable lessons. The intent that I hold myself to is winning a national championship. I don’t want anything less than that. And that is to substantiate to the world the other values and hierarchies. Winning adds credibility.”
Not being in a conference for football has allowed BYU to play in front of more people in different places and different venues. “Out of 125+ Division I programs, only 8 have been seen more by national audiences…If you include BYU TV, no one has been seen more in the world than BYU,” said Mendenhall.
The thrill of the evening was summed up by Ben Simiskey, native Houstonian, business owner and president of the BYU Management Society in Houston. “Having grown up here in Houston, it’s beyond exciting to have BYU coming”. Simiskey continued, “When they (BYU) decided to go independent part of their vision was…getting around the country, and it’s phenomenal the night before a big game having a meeting like this.”
Saturday’s game was epic. The four hour and seven minute marathon was played in the NFL Reliant Stadium, home of the Houston Texans. Several records were set including most offensive plays and most first downs in a game in BYU Cougar history. Houston finished the day with eight sacks – a season-high, and Houston’s 38 points (on 38 plays) is the most BYU has allowed in the first half since 2003. In the end BYU outlasted the previously undefeated University of Houston Cougars by a score of 47 to 46.