Wirthlin used sports to explain faith to former Utes Coach Urban Meyer
Posted: 8:19 AM- (Readers note: This story originally ran in The Salt Lake Tribune in 2004)
Coming to Utah as University of Utah's football coach in 2003, Urban Meyer knew his popes but nothing about Mormonism. So Meyer read all he could, and then attended the LDS Church's April General Conference, where he posed questions to everyone. Meeting LDS apostle Joseph B. Wirthlin, Meyer thought he had finally found a real expert on the faith.
"I wanted to talk about LDS history and those types of things," the popular coach said this week. "All he wanted to talk about was Utah football."
For good reason.
Back in 1936, "Speedy" Wirthlin played halfback for the U. With a slight build and medium height, he was light on his feet and an all-around good athlete. At East High School in Salt Lake City, he played quarterback as well as competing in the 100-yard dash, low hurdles and basketball (he won the Intermountain Free Throw Contest). Wirthlin had to "run for his life," he jokes with his family. But into his 70s, he could still outsprint his son.
Now 87, Wirthlin's love of football has been energized by his new friendship with Meyer. He goes to nearly every U. home game, sitting behind Meyer's wife, Shelley, who high-fives him after each touchdown.
"The first time I did it, I almost knocked him down," Shelley Meyer says. "Now he braces himself with his cane."
Urban Meyer presented Wirthlin with a copy of his No. 4 jersey at last year's Red-and-White Spring Scrimmage and on Christmas Eve, the Meyers surprised Wirthlin at his home with a signed U. football helmet. The coach has invited the apostle to lunch with Ute players about 15 times, Meyer says, and taken several of them to LDS Church headquarters to meet with Wirthlin, who has been known to wear his letterman jacket there.
"His office has a lot of red in it now," Meyer says proudly.
For Wirthlin, football, and sports in general, has long been a topic of his sermons and a subtext to his life.
Success in sports is, after all, a lot about discipline, which Wirthlin learned as a young boy working in his father's wholesale meat business and grocery store. The store opened in 1917, the year of his birth, on the corner of 200 South and 800 East. (It was sold in 1986 and now houses an All-a-Dollar).
"How well I remember my father, the bishop of our ward, filling my small red wagon with food and clothing and then directing me -- as a deacon in the church -- to pull the wagon behind me and visit the homes of the needy in our ward," he said in one speech as an LDS general authority. "Those were the days of the Great Depression, and many families were suffering."
That work ethic has carried throughout his life.
"Growing up we never missed a father-and-son's outing," says his only son, Joseph B. Wirthlin, Jr. "But we never stayed overnight because our business started at 5 a.m."
From 5:30 a.m. until 1 p.m. was the busiest time for Wirthlin's business. He then came home for lunch, took a short nap, and returned to clean up before closing.
Sometimes Joseph Jr. would hide in his father's truck after lunch, and ride back to work with him.
"He'd give me a broom and say, 'Go sweep the sidewalk or wash a truck,' " Wirthlin Jr. says.
Even now, the elder Wirthlin arrives at church headquarters every day by 7:15 a.m. and usually shows up on Mondays, the apostles' day off.
"He has a hard time doing nothing," says grandson Matt Wirthlin. "Work is his only hobby."
Family man: Wirthlin met his wife, Elisa Young Rogers, a willowy beauty in his LDS Ward near the U. They married in 1941 after he returned from his two-year church mission to Germany and Austria and finished a degree in business administration. The couple have lived in the Bonneville LDS Stake for more than 60 years. That's where they raised one son and seven daughters.
There's a lot of give-and-take between husband and wife, says Wirthlin Jr., "allowing each to be their own person, but totally in sync when there had to be a decision made."
Though extremely busy with his responsibilities as an apostle, Wirthlin was an involved father and grandfather.
Despite an arduous travel schedule, "Grandad" attended the family members' games, recitals and school programs, Matt Wirthlin says. "His eight children and 40 plus grandchildren are his pride and joy."
When Matt Wirthlin's 8-month-old daughter died of a congenital heart defect, Wirthlin comforted the couple "not as an apostle but as a grandfather."
Wirthlin's business experience still compels him to "remember the little guy," says his son.
Whenever the apostle is visiting an area for a Mormon conference or dinner, he tries to find the custodian to thank him for taking care of the building or the cook and dishwashers.
"They are as important as bishops and stake presidents," Wirthlin Jr. says.
When he visits his Salt Lake City ward, the apostle stays after to shake everyone's hand, remembering small details of their lives, says member Blake Strong.
The Wirthlins are also active in the neighborhood, walking the tree-lined streets, greeting friends of every faith, Strong says. "They are aware of who lives around them. They know everyone's name and family."
Like all apostles, Wirthlin is revered by nearly 12 million Mormon faithful as one of only 15 men considered "prophets, seers and revelators." But, family members say, that responsibility has made him more humble, not more egotistical.
When Matt Wirthlin was dating his future wife, the couple double-dated with his grandparents. After ice cream, the foursome went to a Mormon Tabernacle Choir concert, only to find long lines at the Tabernacle on Temple Square.
Elisa Wirthlin, worried about her husband's sore back, urged him to go to the front of the line. But an usher refused them entrance and chastised the family for trying to cut in line. Elisa Wirthlin told the usher who her husband was and he apologized repeatedly.
Meanwhile, Wirthlin had turned around to go to the back of the line, Matt Wirthlin says. "You couldn't have preached a better sermon on humility than his example. He didn't think he had any special privilege."
Church work: Wirthlin Jr. cannot remember a time when his father was not in a Mormon leadership position in his local congregation. By 1975, he moved from full-time meat executive to more than full-time as an LDS general authority, first as an assistant to the Twelve Apostles, then 18 months later as a member of the First Quorum of Seventy. He served the church first as an area supervisor in Europe, then in the Southwest and the Caribbean, then in Brazil and finally, back to Europe.
In 1986, Wirthlin was named an apostle and became the first chairman of the church's new Humanitarian Service Committee, overseeing its global relief efforts. In 2001, Brigham Young University gave him an honorary doctorate for Christian Service.
In his sermons, Wirthlin returns again and again to the lessons of football.
His coach, Ike Armstrong, believed the game required "not only football prowess, but also courage, duty, dependability, perseverance, integrity and enthusiasm, which resulted in physical, emotional, and even spiritual conditioning at the highest level," Wirthlin said in a 1978 speech. "The end product was to be nothing less than character of the most solid kind."
These are the feelings Wirthlin now shares with his friends, Urban and Shelley Meyer, and the young Ute players.
"He obviously has a passion for his Mormon beliefs," Meyer says, "but he also has a passion for Utah football. He knows it and I know it and the players know it."