Stories from the General Authorities: More Than a Half-Mile Victory


More Than a Half-Mile Victory

Many years ago I had the privilege of meeting a young man by the name of Jay. Jay was in a Sunday School class I had been invited to teach. When the bishop called me to this position, he said I was the fourth teacher in six weeks. He said the class had driven out the other three and that he would not let them drive me out. I told him I would take the class for as long as he wanted me. He referred me then to one of the officers in the ward who relayed the same message about the number of teachers. The officer then said:

“There is a young man in the class named Jay. He is an obnoxious kid and the real ringleader. If he gets out of line, you let me know; I will jerk him out of your class so fast his head will swim.”

I said, “Don’t worry about it. I’ll get along fine.”

“Well, you just let me know if there is any problem. We won’t have him drive you out of the class, too.”

I’ve always believed that if there is a discipline problem, it is the teacher’s fault and not the student’s. So I prepared well, and when I went to class Sunday morning, I was ready.

Jay was sitting on the end of one of the rows. He had a small radio in his pocket with one wire that went up and plugged in his ear and another wire that went over to the radiator. He sat through the entire lesson, tapped his foot on the floor, and seemed very interested in what was going on on the radio. He did not disturb me, and I felt I got through to the rest of the class that morning.

Each week I would prepare well and then go to the class. Each week something different came up, but Jay wasn’t offensive to me, and he didn’t disturb the rest of the class. So we got along fine.

About six weeks after I had been called to teach the class, the bishop met me as I went downstairs and said, “Would you please ask all of your class to be here 15 minutes early tonight for sacrament meeting as we are presenting individual awards.”

I told him yes. I went downstairs and told the class what the bishop had said, mentioned the fact that individual awards would be given and that all of my class would receive one, and would they please be there 15 minutes early.

Jay jumped up and said, “Do you know what I’m going to do with my individual award when I get it? I’m going to stand up right in front of the congregation and tear it in two.”

The class members gasped. I said, “Jay, why would you do that?”

He said, “Because I don’t need a piece of paper or an individual award or a certificate that tells me that I’m a good guy or a Christian. I come to church because I want to come. The piece of paper doesn’t make me different from what I really am inside.”

Well, I didn’t have an answer for Jay, and so I suggested that we might discuss this the last five minutes of the Sunday School period. I was stalling for time.

Five minutes before the class ended I said, “I believe now we are ready to attend to Jay’s question. Do you know, Jay is right. We should not have to have a piece of paper, a certificate, an individual award to get us to come to Church. An individual award is a crutch if that is the reason we come.

“Jay, individual awards aren’t for guys like you. They’re for guys like Vaughn Featherstone. When I was a deacon growing up, my mother wasn’t a member of the Church. My father was an alcoholic, and the first individual award I got I took home and put above my bed. I’ll never forget it. It made me someone. It seemed like for the first time in my life I really could be someone. I counted because here was a piece of paper that proved it. Now I know it was only a crutch. But tonight when they present individual awards and they pass you yours, would you just simply take it and go back to your seat and say, ‘Individual awards aren’t for guys like me. I don’t need them. They’re for guys like Vaughn Featherstone when he was growing up. He needed the crutch, and if it worked there, it’s all right.’”

Well, that afternoon came, and we all arrived about 15 minutes before sacrament meeting. I sat right behind the class, and they were called up to receive their individual awards one by one. Finally, Jay’s turn came. I believe the whole Sunday School class stopped breathing. He took the individual award, walked across the stand, and then back to his seat. I thought in my heart, “I’m getting through to this kid.”

The next week I found out he had tried out for the sophomore football team, and so I went over to his high school and watched the sophomores practice.

No one watches sophomores. They all go down and watch the varsity. So I stood there all alone watching the sophomores.

Jay went out for a pass; and as he came back in, he saw me and made a wide circle and came over. He said, “What are you doing here?”

I said, “I came to watch you play football, to practice, to find out if you are any good. I played football when I was in high school, and I think I can recognize if you are any good. I came to watch you.”

“Oh, you didn’t come to watch me. What are you here for?”

“No, Jay, I did come to watch you. I don’t know one other guy on the team.”

He went over to the huddle, and several times during the next 45 minutes I saw him look over to see if I was still there. I wanted to see him do something that I could talk about at Sunday School where I could talk about just him. So I went back a couple nights later and watched them practice again, and I had the information I needed.

When Sunday morning came, I stood before the class and said: “I went over to watch the sophomore team practice the other night, and I watched Jay. He’s terrific! He has great hands. If he gets within touching distance of a ball, he catches it. He has some great moves, and he’s fast as a deer. I’m sure if he continues with the talent he has as a sophomore, one day he’ll be all-state.”

Well, I don’t know if anyone else listened, but I want you to know that Jay was sitting on the edge of his chair, listening to every word I said.

I followed him the next year as he tried out for the track team. He hadn’t tried out as a sophomore but was doing so as a junior. When he went to the coach, the coach said, “I’m sorry, Jay. We have some good half-milers. We don’t need any more.” He mentioned one young man who had taken second place in the state the previous year and others who were very good, as well as some sophomores who had come up as juniors now, and he didn’t need Jay.

Jay said, “I guess you don’t own the track, do you?”

“No, but what do you mean by that?”

“Well, I guess I can come and run if I want.”

“I guess you can, but don’t get in our way.”

So Jay came down night after night, sometimes during the track practices, sometimes before, sometimes after—always running, running, and running. One night shortly after, they had a dual track meet, and I guess the track coach, softened by this kid’s terrible drive to be somebody, to accomplish something, came over and said to him:

“Jay, if you would like to run in this half-mile event, you can. If you can place, I’ll put you on the track team.”

Well, there wasn’t much of a chance. They had many good half-milers from both teams, but Jay got in the event.

The gun sounded to start them off; and when the tape had been broken, Jay had taken first place. I want you to know they had a new sweatsuit for him, and he was on the track team. He had a nice locker, and he became a permanent member of the track team. I don’t believe I missed one track meet during that season. I saw every one. I watched the papers and saw the times of other half-milers in other meets. Jay’s time was pretty good but was not as good as many other times across the state.

Finally came the BYU Invitational Tournament. I remember Saturday morning getting my wife up early, telling her that we were going down to BYU to watch the track meet. She said, “Well, it’s raining. They don’t hold track meets when it rains, do they?” “Yes, they hold the BYU Invitational.”

“What time does Jay run, and we’ll just go down and watch part of it.”

Well, I had deliberately not found out so that we could watch the whole track meet. So we bundled our three little boys up, and we got two or three blankets and drove down to BYU in our old ’37 Plymouth. I remember laying one blanket out across a bench about ten rows above Jay’s team. Then I put another blanket across our shoulders, and we sat there in the rain, knowing that eventually Jay would come over and check in with his track coach, and we would be able to talk to him.

In a few moments Jay came bouncing up and stood there in front of his coach. His coach threw him an orange, and as he peeled the orange, he happened to look up across the stands, and he saw me. Something happened when my eyes met his eyes. I can’t tell you what it was. I just know that something happened. He turned away, and in a few moments he came bouncing up the stairs, and he said, “What are you doing up here?”

“Jay, we came to see one of the greatest kids I know win the half-mile today.”

“Well, I’ll do my best.”

“Yes, and your best is winning. You don’t know anything else. You’re a great guy. You have an unconquerable heart, and you’ll win.”

He got just a little teary-eyed and then went back downstairs. Pretty soon it was first call for the half-milers, and second call, and third call. As they started to get ready, to take off their sweatsuits to prepare to run, I remember thinking about the other half-milers. There was one from Pocatello who was an excellent runner. I thought of another half-miler from Weber who had been running right around two minutes, and in those days that was a good time. So I just offered a little prayer: “Heavenly Father, put Jay in one heat, and put the boy from Pocatello and the boy from Weber in another heat. And then Jay can win. I can talk about him and build him up.”

Well, I watched Jay take off his suit. He was in the first heat. I looked around, and there was the boy from Pocatello taking off his sweatsuit. He was in the first heat. I looked a little farther and spotted the kid from Weber. He was taking off his sweatsuit. He was in the first heat. That’s the way the Lord answers my prayers sometimes.

Pretty soon they lined up, sprinted back and forth. Then I saw Jay look up once more, and he saw me. I was looking, watching. Something passed between us again, and then they were called to their marks.

The gun went off, and they took off around the corner. The boy from Pocatello and the boy from Weber stayed side by side way out ahead of everyone else as they rounded the first corner, and on around to the second corner, and down the straightaway to the 220. They were way out ahead of several—20 or 30 yards ahead of one, then two more, and another one, and then finally about 40 yards back was Jay. As they came around the 220, Jay was still way back there. They came around the far end of the 330 and around the first 440, and again Jay was way back, sixth or seventh in the race. I don’t know how far back.

Then as these two passed me, I was cheering for Jay at the top of my lungs.

“Get up there, Jay! Get up in there!” He couldn’t hear me. There were 10,000 people, it seemed, all around me, cheering and yelling for their runners.

As the boy from Pocatello and the boy from Weber got past the first 440, they were far ahead. Then the others came across the 440, and then Jay.

Then Jay did something I had never seen done before in a half mile. As he crossed the 440, he burst into a full sprint. He sprinted around one, around two more, and around another one, and another one; and then as they finished the 660, he had pulled up right in behind this boy from Pocatello and the boy from Weber. Then he started to slacken his pace; and as he did so, they picked up theirs. I thought, “Well, what a great run this kid has made today! What a great heart he has! He can’t stay in there now.”

But as they started to pick up the pace, he stayed with them; and as they came around the 330 on the second lap around the far end, I remember watching him with tears in my eyes as I thought of the great effort he was making. Then they came around the far corner, and both of these two men burst into a full sprint, straight down the last 100 yards. And as they burst down the straightaway, I thought, “Well, that’s it. Jay can’t possibly win now, but he’ll take third and what a great race.”

I saw them coming down the straightaway, and I thought my heart would stop. Jay began to move up in between these two fellows. The fellow on the right looked over his shoulder and could see Jay coming. With about 10 yards to go he dove for the finish line and slid across the finish line on his chest in the cinders. The fellow on the left looked over his shoulder and could see Jay about a half a stride behind. He threw his chest out and stumbled toward the tape with his chest out as far as he could push it to try to reach the tape before Jay got there. Jay burst between them and took first place. I stood up in the stands and tears streamed down my cheeks. I thought, “What a great kid he is—what a giant heart!”

Well, I had the privilege of graduating each year with that Sunday School class, 14 to 15, 15 to 16, 16 to 17, and then we moved out of the ward. A short time later Jay asked me if I would speak at his missionary farewell. After he was out in the mission field just a little under a year, he sent a letter to me and said:

“Dear Brother Featherstone, I thought I would like to let you be one of the first ones to know. I’ve been called to be an assistant to the president here in France.”

And I thought, “And someone once told me, ‘You let me know, and I’ll put him out of your class so fast his head will swim.’”

Something happened the other day in the temple that I’ll never forget. As I went through the temple with my three sons, I met Jay coming out of one of the rooms. As I talked with him, he said:

“I’ve been back to medical school on the east coast, and I’ve made contact with Russell Nelson. He has given me the privilege of being one of his assistants.”

And I thought, “Who is this Jay? We don’t know who he is yet. Russell Nelson has operated on our prophet and worked a miracle for the Lord, and Jay is going to work with him. Who is Jay?”

It doesn’t matter whether it’s Jay or John or who the boy might be. He may never be a track star or a doctor or an assistant to the president, but he is a person of worth because he is a child of God.

[illustrations] Illustrated by Ted Nagata