Why were sports banned in Hildale, Utah? A look behind our story about its first football game.

The Salt Lake Tribune breaks down its reporting on the first football team in a town that was once a stronghold of the FLDS.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Team captains for Water Canyon High School line up for the coin toss, before facing Grand County in Hildale on Friday, Aug. 12, 2022. From left are Dylan Horsley, Nick Timpson, Lester Barlow, and Johnny Timpson.

For years, sports had been banned in the little Utah town of Hildale.

But now, the community that was once a stronghold of polygamous Fundamentalist Latter-Day Saints has formed its first football team. The high school boys played their first game last month.

Here’s a look inside our story — you can read the full report here — and how the town got there.

Why is this unusual for the town?

The town of Hildale in southern Utah and its sister community of Colorado City across the border of Arizona together form what’s called “Short Creek.”

The area was settled by members of the FLDS faith in the early 1900s. They came down there as a place to get away and practice their beliefs freely.

The group splintered from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints when leaders there agreed to ban polygamy to appease the United States government.

FLDS believers saw polygamy as a founding and important principle of their faith, decreed by church founder Joseph Smith. And they didn’t want to abandon it.

For years, they practiced plural marriage and followed their own leaders.

In 2002, Warren Jeffs became the new prophet over the FLDS community. And he made a strict faith even stricter. He banned most “modern” things, including sports, the internet, public education, books, music and television.

Because of those edicts, there were no school or community sport teams, with the majority of the town following his direction.

But over time — and especially after Jeffs was jailed in 2011, where he remains today — many in Hildale have left the FLDS faith.

The town has slowly become more secular. In 2014, the first public high school in more than a decade opened there. In 2015, they held their first basketball game. And in 2017, Hildale officially elected its first non-FLDS mayor, meaning the area was led for the first time by someone outside the faith.

That brings us to this year and the biggest sporting event ever held in Hildale: the football game at Water Canyon High School on Aug. 12.

Many of the boys on the team have families that left the FLDS faith, and they said it’s a big and welcome change for them to be able to compete on the gridiron for the first time.

Would anyone show up? Could they win?

Before the game, Coach Heber Horsley was nervous. Few in the town had ever seen a football game, and he didn’t know if they’d know how to react. Years before, with the first basketball game, the parents in the crowd were silent.

And most of the boys on the team have never played football before now.

Who’s on the roster?

Many in Hildale are related and share the same last name. On the football team of 36 players, nine have the surname of Barlow and three of Jessop — the most common name in this town.

Here’s the full roster of all the boys on the inaugural team.

What was it like to be there?

Reporter Courtney Tanner and photographer Trent Nelson went down to Hildale to watch the first game.

Nelson has been covering the area for more than 20 years and has witnessed its changes firsthand.

It was Tanner’s first time there, and she loved seeing the excitement. The community welcomed both of us and many were happy to talk about their hope for the team.

It was a marvel to see the stadium lights shine on the field, with sod planted in the red dirt and the scraggly buttes outlined behind the stands. It’s an image we won’t forget any time soon.