Character and Substance

By J. Kenneth Doty

(This is actually a combination of two talks. One, given in Stake Conference when I had been recently called as a counselor to the Stake President, and the other at the dedication of the new gymnasium building at Reynolds High School while serving as the chairman of the Reynolds School Board. I used much of the same material in both addresses and so have combined them into one for the purposes of The Talks I Wish I Had Given.)

It happened in the closing seconds of the basketball game. The score was tied, and possession of the ball was the key to victory. There was a careless pass and an alert defending guard made a dramatic steal, starting a fast break, which could win the game. Half of the partisan fans were screaming that a foul had been committed when the ball was stolen. Urged by the screaming fans, the victimized player sped to overtake his opponent, to prevent the score, and get some revenge. Both players went into the air under the basket. Collision was inevitable. Whistles blew. A foul was called. Anger, frustration, fatigue, and crowd noise all combined to allow the melee that followed. Fists flew and players were ejected. Fans began to pour onto the floor. Referees were abused verbally and physically. They attempted to leave the floor to escape, but one official caught a hard right hook to the jaw. He fell unconscious to the floor.

Does that sound like something from the NBA? Perhaps. But it happened in the Deseret Gym in Salt Lake City at an all-church tournament.

Elder Marion D. Hanks, a member of the presidency of the Quorum of the Seventy, was just a young lad when he was in attendance at that game. It was something that remained vividly in his memory throughout his life. When his assignments included the supervision of the Church athletic program, this memory led him to push for greater spirituality and sportsmanship. It was an effort to help people to control emotions and prevent such displays that have no place in Church events.

As an M-Man (we call them young adults today) he was captain and star player on a team that won the all-church championship. In that championship game, some of the same conditions began to set the stage for a recurrence. A foul was called on one of Elder Hanks’ teammates. That player started for the official. Elder Hanks quickly blocked his path.

“Get out of my way,” the player growled through clenched teeth. “This isn’t just another game, you know!”

Elder Hanks took a firm, even painful, grip on his teammate’s elbow and spoke, slowly enunciating every word. “Yes. It is just another game! Let the officials do their job and we’ll do ours and we’ll win!”

He did. And they won.

What an example of self-control, sportsmanship, and spirituality.

Another general authority of days gone by, Elder Antoine R. Ivins said in one of his conference speeches: “IF you fail to gain absolute self-control, you have failed in the greatest victory in life.” Many years ago General Robert E. Lee was asked what one piece of advice could be given to a young person to guide them through life. His suggestion was, “Have them learn to deny themselves.”

Some years ago, like 1952, I was employed by radio station KPOW in Powell, Wyoming as a sports announcer. During that time I observed a unique demonstration of commitment to principle by Dean L. Larsen, who later became a member of the Quorum of the Seventy.

Brother Larsen had signed a contract to teach English at the high school in Lovell, Wyoming, predominantly a community of Latter-day Saints. As basketball season approached, the basketball coach received an offer to play professional basketball and leave the school. Brother Larsen had been an excellent player at BYU, so the school administrators persuaded him to assume the coaching duties.

This was to be Lovell’s big year. The school had never won a state basketball championship. But this year the community felt that they had everything going for them. Three returning seniors each with three years of varsity experience who had won “all-state” honors their junior years. How could they miss going all the way this year?

As coach, Brother Larsen insisted that his players make commitments to condition and training rules. Unfortunately, these “stars” would not accept them. They felt they were just too good to need to train, work the coach’s plays, or meet conditioning requirements. So, as coach, he kicked them off the team.

Talk about sportsmanship! Talk about support of the coach! The “Latter-day Saint” community, almost en masse, began demanding that the coach be fired. Never mind the rules, the standards. Winning that championship was what was important. At the coach’s home there were anonymous, threatening, and obscene phone calls at all hours of the day and night. Signs were posted in his yard calling for him to quit. He was even hanged in effigy several times.

The first standings of the season had the Lovell Bulldogs in last place, the cellar. But as the season progressed, they began to win some games. At season’s end they were sixth in their district. Then at the district tournament they were placed third. That qualified them for a berth in the state tournament. There were not any “tall” men on their team. There were no exceptional individual stars. They just believed in their coach and in themselves and what he had trained them to do. Most importantly, they believed in what the coach stood for – his standards. Over the season they had achieved exceptional physical conditioning. They conditioned themselves to run! And run they did! They ran their opponents into the ground.

At the tournament, where I was announcing the play-by-play action in every game, I watched these little Bulldogs squeak by game after game, winning by one or two points, often in overtime sessions. The night of the semi-finals, I was seated in the bleachers with my broadcast equipment, surrounded by the faithful supporters of Worland High School. Worland had already won their semi-final game and so they were in the championship game slated for the next night. All that had to be decided was their opponent. We watched as the Bulldogs won their semi-final game, this time in double overtime. Well, the people from Worland began to celebrate. They had every reason to do so. They had 10 men taller than Lovell’s tallest man. They had beaten Lovell in three games during the season. They felt the championship was theirs. That game tomorrow night was only a formality. I turned to the few who would listen to me and quietly suggested that Lovell did not know that.

The next night, the championship game, was an experience that participants cherish for a lifetime. The score was tied at the end of regulation. It was tied again the end of the first overtime. The Bulldogs were still running like it was their first game instead of their last one. And Worland was tired. The second overtime ended in a tie, but a foul had been called against Worland at the buzzer. A little 5’9″ guard stepped to the line. He hesitated only long enough to look at his coach, who gave him a smile of confidence. That smile was immediately repeated on the face of the shooter. The crowd was in pandemonium. The whole building seemed to be shaking. As the ball arched upward toward the basket, it seemed as if everyone held their breath. Then the ball swished through the net.

Lovell had won their championship.

Well, you can imagine the celebration that took place. But the significant sight was of those ten little Lovell Bulldogs lifting their coach upon their shoulders and parading him clear around the court.

The excitement carried over to the bus that carried them home. The coach, especially, was hoping for some rest. Eventually the motion of the bus began to lull the weary passengers toward sleep, and the bus became silent. Each player was reflecting on the events of the night. And then the silence was broken by the voice of the little 5’9″ free throw shooter, whose shot had won the game. “Hey, Coach,” he called. “I think we were supposed to win that game.”

“Why do you say that?” the coach asked.

“Because we paid the price.”

Yes, they had paid the price! They had made payments with their commitment to the standard of excellence, of conditioning, of training, and, above all, the price of obedience to their coach. They had paid the price of self-discipline.

It is important to note that brother Larsen was named “Coach of the Year” in the state of Wyoming that year and that he was offered a contract to coach again the following year. He declined to coach again. He decided instead to become a seminary teacher for the Church. This moved him to Byron, Wyoming where he became bishop of that ward. My dad served as one of his counselors. When he moved from Byron, my father succeeded him as bishop. Of course, Brother Larsen ultimately became a general authority as a member of the 1st Quorum of the Seventy.

Elder Larsen told me many years later that every one of the boys on that championship team became men of substance and character. In contrast, the three “stars” who refused to pay the price have been lost in a wilderness of permissiveness.

Every life is like a game. We try, we fail, we try again, we succeed. We run out of time, we tire too son, a teammate lets us down. But each experience is part of our learning in this game of life.

Let me share with you another basketball story. This came to me second-hand from a man by the name of Kenneth McFarland. He tells of working as a professor of a small junior college in Coffey, Kansas. He was assigned by the college president to work with the surrounding communities to gain support for the college. His efforts paid off when he helped to recruit an outstanding basketball player by the name of Tommy McReynolds from the small town of Deering, Kansas.

During the time that Tommy McReynolds played for that school their team was undefeated and brought great and enthusiastic support from little towns from all around the area. They ended up winning the conference championship and Tommy was the undisputed star of it all. At every game, Tommy’s father, called “Papa McReynolds” by all who knew him, would rush up to the professor and throw his arms around him and yell, “Wasn’t that something?”

Then, only a couple days after the championship was won, Professor McFarland received a phone call to tell him that Tommy McReynolds had been killed in an automobile accident. The professor went directly to Tommy’s home. He didn’t know what to say but felt that he must do what he could to offer comfort to the family. He was met at the door by Papa McReynolds. Condolences were expressed and Papa led the professor upstairs to Tommy’s room. There, Tommy’s closet was opened, displaying all of his trophies, letterman jackets, etc. The professor suggested that these things should be out where they could be seen. Then Papa McReynolds said, “We have a saying among our people that when your young one dies, you hang your dreams in a closet.”

Professor McFarland said, “I know your loss and that you are hurting from it, but I also know that is wrong.” Then he said he looked down and noticed a little boy about ten years old, blonde hair, with the look of a Viking in his eye – much like his older brother. He said to him, “You aren’t going to hang your dreams in a closet are you?”

The boy said, “No sir. Thank you sir.”

Well, the professor left them and shortly took a job some distance away. About ten years later, he was brought back to the college as its president. The highlight of his first week back was the championship basketball game. It was one of those barn burners that went into overtime and was finally won by his college team. In all the commotion at the end of the game, he was most surprised to find him once again in the embrace of Papa McReynolds. He was yelling again, “Wasn’t that something, Professor?” And then he added, in a more subdued voice, “You were right, professor. We should never hang our dreams in a closet.” Then the Professor learned that the College Conference Scoring record, held all these years by Tommy McReynolds, had been broken. The new record holder was a young, blonde-headed boy with the look of a Viking in his eyes by the name of Lance McReynolds.

Dreams, self-discipline, commitments; these are the things success is made of.

Our Prophet, Spencer W. Kimball, spoke to the BYU student body at one time and said, “Like some of the very sophisticated stereo equipment I hear coming from your rooms on this campus, we not only need fidelity, we need high fidelity. We need great faith on your part, for we live in a time of temptation and opposition. Allegiance to the strait and narrow path of Christ is crucial, and it has implications far beyond a dress and grooming code and a stated paragraph of moral behavior. We live in a day when our allegiance is being sorely tested. Satan is succeeding too well in many places, and he succeeds when he entices any person to excuse himself in wrongdoing. Almost all dishonesty owes its existence and growth to that inward distortion we call self-justification. It is the first, the worst, and most insidious form of cheating. We are cheating ourselves.

“When Jesus appeared to Paul on the road to Damascus as he fought against the truth, the resurrected Savior made this telling observation. To Paul, he said, ‘It is hard for thee to kick against the pricks.’ Note who is hurt. Not the principles, not even the Christians who were in opposition. Finally, ultimately, it was Paul being hurt. ‘This is hard for thee, Paul’ (Acts 9:15).

“In a latter-day revelation the Lord explains that the same thing is true of us whenever we ‘undertake to cover our sins or gratify our pride, or our vain ambition.’ Then the ‘heavens withdraw themselves, and the spirit of the Lord is grieved.’ Before we are aware, we, too, are left to ‘kick against the pricks, to persecute the saints, to fight against God.’ And, like Paul, unless we repent, it will be we who are left damaged and bruised by the failure to conform. It will be hard on any of us when we do battle against the truth.”

The Lord has challenged us to be “a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people. We cannot do that by emulating the behavior of the world in any way. We must dare to be different, condition ourselves to be different, train ourselves to be different. We must commit ourselves to self-discipline. Then we will have paid the price and the glory will be ours.

Heaven is not reached in a single bound,
But we climb to its glories round by round.

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