How Chaplains for Utah College Football Teams Are Helping Athletes to 'Be the Best They Can Be'

By Toone, Trent | Deseret News (Salt Lake City), September 27, 2018 | Go to article overview

How Chaplains for Utah College Football Teams Are Helping Athletes to 'Be the Best They Can Be'


Toone, Trent, Deseret News (Salt Lake City)


SALT LAKE CITY — Two days before the University of Utah hosted the No. 10-ranked Washington Huskies at Rice-Eccles Stadium, about half the team, coaches and staff sought shade along the practice field fence as they concluded their Thursday preparations.

Drenched in sweat, some players sat on coolers while others took a knee or sat on the grass.

"Chapel, chapel, chapel!" Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham called out. After a 30-second pause for a few latecomers, the coach continued. "OK, let's fire it up."

Team chaplain Pastor France A. Davis, a 72-year-old African-American dressed in a white shirt, red bow tie and black slacks, stepped forward. In his hands he held a leather Bible.

Pastor Davis opened his 5-minute sermon with a warning that the Huskies "were no pushover" and exhorted the Utes to give their best. He asked if anyone had any concerns about family members, friends or other special needs before bowing his head and leading the team in prayer.

Following the pastor's heavenly supplication, he opened his Bible to Psalms 62 and with a booming voice shared a spiritual thought about expectations and learning to "wait upon the Lord, trust in the Lord and desire God's will."

Closing again with prayer, players lined up to give Pastor Davis a friendly smile and grateful handshake before leaving the field. When it was quarterback Tyler Huntley's turn, the pastor couldn't resist offering him a bit of football advice.

"I told him to use his team more than himself. Don’t try to run all the plays yourself, that’s why you've got those running backs. Let them do the running and protect yourself," Pastor Davis said with a grin. "He said 'OK.' We’ll see what he does."

Pastor Davis, the retired University of Utah professor who marched with Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. during the civil right movement in the 1960s and leads the Calvary Baptist Church, is one of several chaplains who volunteer as spiritual mentors and advisers to college football teams in Utah.

James Slaughter's official title is assistant dean of student life, but he's responsible for helping all the non-Latter-day Saints students at Brigham Young University. That makes him a chaplain for the athletes.

Pastor Terry "Tojo" Fairman has officially handled Utah State's chaplain duties since 2008, and unofficially since about 1998.

Weber State University has co-chaplains: Mac Smith, of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, and Lt. Col. Zebulon E. Beck, a chaplain at Hill Air Force Base and former chaplain at the Air Force Academy.

Terry Baker, a former Army chaplain and retired institute instructor of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, serves as an assistant chaplain to Pastor Davis at Utah.

"What we do is not about winning or losing," Pastor Davis said. "Our job is to try to guide the players and help them to be the best they can be."

Worth of a chaplain

In 2015, the Freedom From Religion Foundation sent letters of complaint to 25 public universities, including the University of Alabama, Clemson University, Louisiana State University and the University of Wisconsin, demanding that each program remove their chaplains, according to The Washington Post.

Despite those protests, team chaplains like Sister Jean Dolores-Schmidt, the 98-year-old nun who helped to inspire Loyola-Chicago's remarkable run last March in the NCAA Tournament, along with Texas Tech football chaplain Pastor Bobby Dagnel, have shined a positive light on the role of chaplains with college sports teams.

While chaplain duties vary from program to program, chaplains in Utah generally have access to the team where they share non-denominational Christian messages, offer prayers and give one-on-one counseling at the player's request. Some chaplains are invited to travel with the team on road trips and walk the sidelines during games.

At the University of Utah, Pastor Davis and Baker encourage players to find balance in all aspects of their lives. …

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