It was many years ago when a talented BYU football player informed me and thereby the world that he would forgo playing in the NFL to teach math at a high school. Next thing, the Los Angeles Times and Boston Globe, among others, were contacting him to get his story.
He was a top prospect, a 6-foot-7, 330-pound offensive tackle who had been a high draft pick, selected despite previously sending letters to NFL clubs saying he would decline any invitation.
And the millions of dollars that came with it. Would have come with it.
It wasn’t so much that he loved algebra or geometry or trigonometry or the confines of the classroom.
It was that he didn’t want to play on Sundays.
He was a fervent believer, a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who had made a habit of scripture study and, in this particular case, he was following with strict interpretation and adherence to what he had read.
Right there in Exodus 20:8 — “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.”
Study and stare as he might, he could not rearrange the scripture, not in his mind, to a more suitable, bendable — “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy … unless you can pile up enough stacks of cash in pro football to buy a mansion with a pool surrounded by a mote and five acres of manicured lawn, and a garage filled with a fleet of Ferraris.”
He just could not see it.
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He talked further about the blessings from heaven promised in other scriptural passages to those who remembered well, eternal blessings that would blow away earthly monetary gain.
I’ll never forget the reaction to that news when my column was published in The Salt Lake Tribune back in the mid-1990s. It was explosive. Some readers couldn’t believe what the mountain of a man was doing. Listeners phoning in on sports-talk radio shows were fired up. They thought he was a moron, a moron who was married with a wife and a small child who was squandering talents given from God, turning down all that economic opportunity for himself and his young family.
Some thought that was a sin.
How could he do it?
Other Latter-day Saint athletes had prospered in their sports and been praised far and wide for playing on Sundays. A few high-profile ones had whispered that they had received approval by top church leaders to do so.
They could be good, famous examples and missionaries for their church, stirring interest in matters of faith while suiting up and knocking the snot out of opponents on the Sabbath.
On the other hand, some readers and responders applauded his commitment to his beliefs, considering that commitment nothing short of inspiring.
The divide was an indicator of other varying positions at the time and diverging positions that would come in later years among faithful Latter-day Saints. Maybe it had always been that way — an ongoing span of conclusions drawn by believers who within the context of a growing church sported different attitudes, disagreeing on how to properly interpret teachings and practice their faith.
The upside to this specific story was the manner in which the player went about his business.
He didn’t beat anybody over the head with his own personal, strident brand of righteousness, his “higher standard.” There was no sanctimony in his decision. And no judgment of others, no condemnation of those who had a broader view. He was happy for other athletes who chose to go ahead and play on Sundays — for their success, for their utilization of size and strength and speed and skill.
The closest he ever came to preachment was when he said: “Anybody who claims to be a Christian has to have some thought about the Ten Commandments. Everyone makes their own decisions based on what they think is right. I’ve thought about this a lot. For years. There were times when I decided to play pro ball. I’d like to be wealthy as much as the next guy. But I always came back to the feeling that I shouldn’t. The scriptures speak a lot about the importance of the Sabbath day, the promises to those who obey that commandment are real and powerful. That had a strong impact on me.”
Not on everyone.
As far as I can tell, the LDS Church has left the specifics of “keeping the Sabbath day holy” undefined, somewhat vague. While one family might avoid watching television, another might see gathering around the TV — for a movie or a sporting event or any other kind of entertainment — as a fine family activity. Same with going for a walk, or not going for a walk. Is a walk around the neighborhood OK, but a hike in the mountains not OK? Can one spiritually dip his or her toes in a pool while talking with friends, but not slip in for a swim?
A little thing called agency
I had a seminary teacher once who informed everyone in attendance that turning on a sprinkler to water the lawn on the Sabbath was sinful. Some students laughed out loud at that. The instructor did not laugh.
Doing business on Sunday is frowned upon, and the influences of that can be seen all around Utah, where many stores, restaurants and services are either closed or limited.
In one church manual, targeted toward young people, which appeared to be official, it read as follows:
“Sunday is not a day for shopping, recreation or athletic events. Do not seek entertainment or make purchases on this day. Let others know what your standards are so they can support you. When seeking a job, share with your potential employer your desire to attend your Sunday meetings and keep the Sabbath day holy. Whenever possible, choose a job that does not require you to work on Sundays.”
But what if a faithful believer has to work, whether it’s for an essential service — doctors, nurses, police officers, air traffic controllers, firefighters, etc. — or not, if it simply keeps food on the table and the mortgage paid, what is an employee supposed to do?
Quit that job? Find other work?
Like most things in religion, like most things should be in religion, it’s left up to the individual to decide, a little thing called agency, and it’s left up to everyone else to withhold negative judgment.
Sometimes, that judgment is not withheld.
Five years after that football player made his own decision, I visited him in his classroom, where he was teaching a bunch of 16- and 17-year-olds the finer points of algebra. It was intriguing, seeing that huge human, his arms spilling out of his shirt like branches out of the trunk of a tree, a man built to play football, in front of his students, scratching out numbers and equations on the board like any other Ms. Fuddpucker or Mr. Offerblach, asking Billy and Suzy questions about some basic formula.
His students seemed happy. He seemed happy, though strapped a bit for cash.
Don’t know whatever happened to him, where he is all these years later, and I don’t really care.
He made his choice — for himself, for his family, for his life, for nobody else. All others make their own choices, according to their personal inspiration.
The way God intended it to be.
The way it should be.
GORDON MONSON hosts “The Big Show” with Jake Scott weekdays from 2 to 7 p.m. on 97.5 FM and 1280 AM The Zone.