Elder S. Gifford Nielsen: “Good Choices Equal Happiness”
By Ryan Morgenegg, Church News staff writer
If there is a scripture that Elder S. Gifford Nielsen has tried to pattern his life after, it is Matthew 5:14–16. “Ye are the light of the world. … Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven.” Elder Nielsen said, “The Lord opens His arms to us. We love Him by living the gospel.”
Elder Nielsen was called to serve in the First Quorum of the Seventy in the 183rd Annual General Conference on April 6.
Born of “goodly parents,” Stan and Lois Nielsen, in Provo, Utah, Elder Nielsen was taught a strong concept of right and wrong. Those teachings became a blessing in his life and instilled in him a strong system of values and the importance of family, all of which “served as a powerful foundation that has guided me throughout my life,” said Elder Nielsen. As he grew up, he developed a great love of sports and the outdoors. His father played basketball at BYU and taught his children to enjoy athletics. “If you could hit it, throw it, kick it, catch it, or shoot it, we did,” said Elder Nielsen. Playing sports in high school and continuing on to college as quarterback for the BYU Cougars, Elder Nielsen was blessed with great athletic success. It was at BYU that he married his wife, Wendy Kay Olson, in the Provo Utah Temple in April of 1975.
Even though he loved sports, Elder Nielsen realized they were not the most important thing in his life. “One of the greatest lessons I have learned occurred during my senior year in college,” he said. “I was coming off an All-American year. BYU’s football program was lighting it up and there were rumblings that I might be the Heisman trophy winner. I had everything in the palm of my hand.”
At a game early in the 1976 football season against Oregon State, he suffered a serious knee injury. “Dr. Robert Metcalfe examined my knee and looked grim,” said Elder Nielsen. “He told me, ‘Giff, your college football playing days are over.’ I was suddenly faced with reality. How would I go from tremendous success, giving weekly firesides and gaining national attention to lying in a hospital bed with a cast up to my waist? Going through an experience like that and be forced to work through the physical, emotional, and spiritual aspects of it helps define your life,” said Elder Nielsen. “If football had been the most important thing in my world, I would have been devastated.”
Eventually his knee healed, he graduated from college, and in 1978 he was drafted by the Houston Oilers to play quarterback in the NFL. He played for a total of six years. The NFL had its share of ups and downs. “The first three years were awesome,” said Elder Nielsen. “The success was incredible. Then things just fell apart. I received two shoulder injuries. We went 2 and 14 my final season in the league, and I was the target of the fans’ disappointment. I was called names, had beer poured on my head, got knocked around, and didn’t even want to leave my house.”
During this challenging period, he did a lot of self-evaluation. “Through life’s experiences we are molded to become something,” said Elder Nielsen. “I learned that the Lord never leaves you and what it takes to get back up when you get knocked down. These experiences reaffirm what has lasting value.” While employed by the NFL, he had an inspiring experience with the law of tithing. It was during the 1982 NFL strike. “In the NFL, players get paid after every game but received nothing during a strike.” With finances extremely tight, he and his wife attended tithing settlement. “He was hesitant to write out a check when he had no idea how to pay all the bills,” said Sister Nielsen. “I was raised in a family that just paid it no matter what.” Encouraged by his wife, he reluctantly signed the check. The strike soon ended with only two games left in the season. In order to make enough to pay the year’s bills after tithing, he needed to play almost all of the last two games to receive a much-needed bonus, but quarterback Archie Manning was the starter. “Archie suffered a minor injury at the end of the first quarter of our first game back, and I was put in. I played that game and the entire next game, fulfilling the requirements of my contract to get paid extra money. It was remarkable, but I found out you can never out-give the Lord.”
After his NFL career, Elder Nielsen went to work as sports director for KHOU television in Houston. He retired in 2009 and became a partner in a local bank. In the community he has served with the Boy Scouts, Ronald McDonald House, and United Way and in the creation of the Won Heart Foundation with his wife and children.
One of the highlights of his Church service was as a bishop working with a group of more than 90 mostly active youth. Sister Nielsen said he wanted to help the young people realize how blessed they would be if they lived the gospel, so he taught them a catchphrase: “Good choices equal happiness ... eternally.” Sister Nielsen said, “Some of them repeat it back to him to this day.”
Raising six children, the Nielsens feel strongly about the importance of family. Sister Nielsen said, “Eternal families create places of security and love. Regardless of our circumstances we are never alone in the family of God. There is safety in the Lord’s kingdom.”
Elder Nielsen added, “There is power in the family. Love your children! Listen to them and teach them to obey. Stick together and help each other no matter what! Sometimes people get down on their luck and bail on the very thing that will help them, the gospel of Jesus Christ. Sadly, we know some who have decided to dive out instead of diving in when facing life’s obstacles. Work through your issues. Husbands and wives need to be strong. We are all trying to overcome the challenges of this world.”