This season’s University of Utah football team was stocked with stars en route to its historic run to a Pac-12 title and the school’s first-ever Rose Bowl appearance. But the heart and soul of the squad was found in an unlikely, undersized receiver-return specialist.
After a standout freshman season, Britain Covey, all 5 feet 8 inches and 170 pounds of him, served a mission to Chile for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and then returned to the Salt Lake City campus, where he proceeded to catch passes, juke tacklers and tally touchdowns to chants from fans of “Covey, Covey, Covey.”
But how did this 24-year-old Provo native — who dreamed of playing for Brigham Young University and whose famous grandfather, though a U. graduate himself, boasted deep BYU ties — end up on a championship team at a rival school, a place Britain himself once thought only a “bad person” would attend?
In these excerpts from The Salt Lake Tribune’s “Mormon Land” podcast, Covey talks about football, his family, his faith and his future.
Why did you choose to play for the U., instead of BYU?
I grew up two minutes away from LaVell Edwards Stadium, just a huge BYU fan. All of my siblings went to BYU. I have old pictures of me saying, “Friends don’t let friends go to the U. of U.” and things like that. But with football, especially, opportunity is everything. I realized that I’m already up against the odds with my size. And I needed a situation that really gave me every benefit possible. … What it came down to was Utah offered me [a position] before anyone and they basically made it seem like my size wasn’t even a consideration or a factor or something that was going to be a detriment to me. When BYU made an offer, the emphasis was on, “OK, we’re going to need to bulk you up a little bit. We know that you can’t play quarterback and, you know, you haven’t played receiver. We believe in you, but you’re really going to need to work on certain things because you’re smaller.” So I felt like the best fit for me was at Utah.
How did attending the U. serve your religious needs?
I’ve always felt like your circumstances don’t dictate who you are, how dedicated to something you choose to be, or what you choose to do. Whether you’re surrounded by people of your same faith doesn’t automatically mean you’re going to be this devout person, and when you’re surrounded by people who may not be of the same faith, that doesn’t mean you can’t be as devout and as Christ-like. At the same time, it’s comical when people pit the U. and BYU against each other on a religious front. I think to myself, you know, the U. had 15 to 20 returned missionaries on our team. There were many opportunities for me to exercise my faith while I was at the U., which was wonderful.
Was Utah’s Kyle Whittingham, a fellow Latter-day Saint, any kind of religious mentor for you as well as a coach?
He and Coach [Morgan] Scalley, especially, were great religious mentors to me. I feel like I know Coach Whitt probably better than any player who’s ever played for him. Part of the reason is I’ve been there so long. We have a kind of father/son- or uncle/nephew-type relationship.There was never any hesitancy from Coach Whitt or Coach Scalley about me going on a mission. They were pushing me to go, saying it’s the best thing you’ll ever do. Whereas, when I told a lot of schools that were recruiting me I was going on a mission, they would be like, “Oh, well, we’re not really interested in that.”
Was your religious affiliation ever an issue on the team?
It wasn’t. What’s really cool about the University of Utah is how diverse the team is in all senses — in religion and background and ethnicity. If you were to split the team into thirds, it would be one-third white, one-third Polynesian and one-third African American. That diversity alone builds this unique culture of being around people who have different backgrounds than you. I actually preferred [that] because it builds this culture of utmost respect. Of course, there are always jokes. “You’re Mormon. Are you Mormon-Mormon?” They say things like that, you know, or whenever you’re changing into your [Latter-day Saint undergarments] in the locker room, people will say certain things about it being, you know, your grandma or grandpa pajamas and things like that. But when it comes down to it, there’s a lot of respect. It opened the door for so many conversations, and I loved it.
Did playing high-level college football pose any challenges to your faith?
I don’t think more than anything [else]. My dad said that when he worked on Wall Street, there were challenges to his faith. But I’ve always found that the more dedicated I stayed to my faith, the more people actually respected it and gravitated towards it … and the more I just would explain how much I loved being a member of the church, the less they made fun of it, and the more they gravitated towards it, the more questions they asked.
Did you ever face anti-Mormon chants from opponents on the field?
I faced it a few times my sophomore year. After my mission, I remember one time I was playing against Washington and I fumbled. A big guy tackled me. I remember being on the ground and one of their teammates walked past me and he goes, “That’s what you get, Jesus boy.” I had a few of those things, and I was like, “I’d be happy to be called Jesus boy, that’s a compliment, you know.” But I think that happens with BYU players a lot more.”
My grandpa is by far the biggest influence on me and kind of who I want to be. I think part of that is because, you know, his teachings went to my dad and my dad passed them on to me, of course. My grandpa used to have these family devotionals and meetings, and there was nothing worse because they would last three hours. [I was] a 12-year-old kid and he’d want to talk about leadership. And you’re just like, “oh gosh.” .... Now I’ve read all of his books multiple times over. Most people see him as Stephen Covey, right? Respectful, just professional, brilliant. I knew him as the goofy grandpa who pulled pranks and would do crazy things. But because of the work that he left, I’ve been able to come to know him in a completely different way than I did when he was still alive. And his work has had a profound impact on me. I could write a book on all of the things that I have learned. … But I’d say above all, the principle of “seek first to understand, then to be understood” [stands out] because I feel like that’s kind of been my motto going to the U. and realizing that I really don’t know as much as I thought I knew. I can learn from people and I need to be humble about that.
Do you think returned Latter-day Saint missionaries have an influence on a team?
I definitely do. Missionaries bring maturity to the team that is unmatched. What happens on a mission can’t be replicated in life for a 20-year-old…[especially] when it comes down to the adversity part. Anyone who’s been on a mission has experienced moments when they really didn’t think they were going to make it through. That brings levelheadedness to a person. You know, this year was tough for us with what we went through. So I feel like that brought a lot of help.
What stands out about your Rose Bowl experience?
The best part about it was I got to bring my wife, Leah. The wives never get to travel to games, so that was a blast.… But man, what a game. I mean, I’m still not over at it completely. Even though we lost, just the historic game that it was, I’m going to be talking about that forever. And it’s cool because my very last touchdown was that kick return and my family was on the front row of that corner of the end zone. So I ran right to that corner and then I blew my wife a kiss, which got me a lot of Brownie points, which is great. And I ran right to my family for my very last touchdown, which was pretty storybook ending.
What about that 97-yard kickoff return?
It’s funny because I predicted it before the game to our team. I told our guys, “Their weak link is their kickoff unit. And so if you guys give me a chance and some good blocks, I promise we’re going to score.” People ask me all the time how I run, and honestly, I just say, “it’s fear.” You just run away from people to try and not get tackled, especially at my size. I used to play with my older brothers growing up and had to learn how to avoid much bigger men than me. And so that’s kind of where it came from.
Your dream is to play in the NFL, whose games are on Sunday. Does that give you any pause?
It doesn’t for two reasons. One, I always felt like part of the reason why I’ve been blessed in my life is because I’m supposed to represent what a good Latter-day Saint does. It’s kind of like that line from the “Chariots of Fire” guy. Every time I think about it, I cry. “I believe God made me for a purpose. But he also made me fast, and when I run, I feel his pleasure.” That’s kind of been my motto for sports my whole life. [God] also gives [everyone] gifts. And when you use those gifts, it reflects well on him. And when you try to represent him, it brings more people to him, which is what he wants ultimately. Football has given me a platform to really show that. Christ is the most important thing to me in my life by far. He has helped me and everything, and whether I return a 97-yard yard kickoff or never play another down, he will be my rock the rest of my life. And even though I have to play on Sundays, it increases that platform and you can bring more people to it. I’ve also felt like the Sabbath day is much more about what you should be doing on the Sabbath day than what you should not.
Do you have thoughts about a future beyond football?
One of my dreams is to coach at the college level. Certain coaches have made such an impact in my life that I would love to do the same. And other than that, I am not sure. I just want to... I need to do something with people.