Mormons Britain Covey and Chase Hansen find a football and spiritual home at BYU’s rival school, Utah, a campus they once disdained

(Tribune file photos) Chase Hansen, left, and Britain Covey, right.

His grandfather is listed in the University of Utah football media guide among the school's distinguished alumni, but Britain Covey once believed anyone who enrolled there was “a bad person.” Chase Hansen attended a Ute football game as a high school player, looked around the rowdy Rice-Eccles Stadium and thought to himself, “No way I'm coming here.”

Yet here they are, two of the Utes' most prominent players, former high school quarterbacks and returned missionaries of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who have thrived on the campus and strongly endorse their experiences in Salt Lake City.

The Utah County natives have proved — to themselves, as much as anyone — that they could prepare for missions and find spiritual fulfillment in an environment other than Brigham Young University, the school that geography, church and family ties once dictated that they attend.

Hansen, Utah's senior linebacker and co-captain, grew up in American Fork as a son of a former BYU linebacker. Covey, a sophomore receiver, is from a BYU-oriented household in Provo. Each spent one season at Utah before leaving on missions to Australia (Hansen) and Chile (Covey). They were teammates in 2015 and have been reunited this year.

“A lot of times there was a stigma that if you go somewhere other than maybe a church school, you can’t have that experience,” Hansen said. “But you can have that experience, whether it be spiritual or whatever journey you might be on. Even with just the diversity on the team, I’ve had such a unique experience, meeting guys from all sorts of different backgrounds, and it’s helped me in a lot of ways, more than just football.”

Sports Illustrated once described Utah as the most diverse program in college football. The Utes’ roster, in general terms, is a third white, a third Pacific Islander and a third black, with varied religious affiliations. The coaching staff also reflects that diversity.

“You can’t really grow until you experience and meet people from all different backgrounds and cultures, which I feel like is a huge part of me,” Hansen said. “I’ve had an incredible experience here.”

Hansen laughs about how it all started — when “the crowd was so crazy” at a football game that he wondered how he would fit in at Utah.

As a child, Covey didn’t even knew that his grandfather, the late author and management consultant Stephen R. Covey, had graduated from Utah. The thought of playing for the Utes never occurred to Covey. He grew up following BYU sports. His uncle Sean once was a starting quarterback for the Cougars.

“I thought if you went to Utah, you were a bad person, basically,” Britain Covey said. “That was my preconceived idea. You start learning more and getting more open-minded as you grow.”

Covey played for Utah coach Kyle Whittingham’s brother Cary at Timpview High School, a recruiting source for the Utes. When he enrolled at Utah in 2015, he attended a Latter-day Saint Institute of Religion class at the U. and was surprised to find about 20 teammates, mostly returned missionaries.

“I loved it,” he said, “and I felt a real close bond with them.”

Having returned from Chile this year, Covey said, “I’ve been able to kind of take what I learned in the mission, and it’s opened my eyes to all the opportunities around me. … I just think this campus offers you a great deal of things that can keep you spiritually in tune.”

Amid the demands of football and academics, he teaches a gospel doctrine class in his student ward, or congregation. That meant waking up soon after the team arrived home from a night game at Northern Illinois in September, a Ute victory that, to that point, marked the best receiving performance of Covey’s college career. Teaching is partly for his own benefit. “It’s good, because it keeps me grounded,” Covey said, “and reminds me constantly what’s most important.”

A reminder that comes at, of all places, Utah.