“Is It Raining?” The Conversion of a Quarterback

In family rooms Brigham Young University football fans paced the floors and smashed their fists against the nearest walls. In department stores they threw their hands into the air and muttered. In apartments they roared like wounded animals. In plush living rooms some sank into their easy chairs and calmly waited for the kill.

Fifty thousand TV sets eyed them coldly. Deluxe console models showed the brilliant red and gold of Arizona State linebackers blowing through the blue and white of BYU in an explosive blitz. Ancient models with snowstorms and horizontal lines revealed a wave of black and white rushing in upon retreating quarterback Gary Sheide, who saw that his wide receiver was covered. Plastic portables flickered as the relentless wave descended and the quarterback disappeared.

One hundred thousand BYU fans groaned. A stadium full of spectators in Tempe, Arizona, sprang—screaming—to their feet. Some in the crowd clapped their hands against their heads. Others clenched their teeth and closed their eyes that bleak November afternoon.

The play had begun late in the game with BYU deep in its own territory and the score BYU Cougars 14, Arizona State Sun Devils 18. Now it would be third down and a day’s journey to the line of scrimmage.

Suddenly the groaning stopped. Hands dropped. Fists unclenched. And mouths plopped open. Bellows of pain burst into shouts of unbelieving joy. True, Gary Sheide was on the ground under a surf of Sun Devils, but the football was in the air. A split second later, running back Jeff Blanc gathered it in for the first down, and BYU was on its way to a touchdown and a victory that kept alive its hopes for a 1974 Western Athletic Conference championship.

It was an impossible pass. There was no time to get rid of the ball and no way to see the receiver over the onrushing wall of bodies. Cougar football coach LaVell Edwards was later to refer to the play as one of the pivotal moments of the season, but it was the sort of thing the young quarterback from Antioch, California, did as a matter of course.

Gary staked a claim to future athletic success early. As an all-league basketball player at Antioch High School he led the area in scoring with a 22 point average, hit .436 as shortstop on the baseball team, and completed 60 percent of his passes as quarterback on the football team.

After high school Gary was offered scholarships in all three sports. He was probably best in basketball, but baseball was his first love, and he intended to make it his career. So friends and teachers were surprised when Gary went off to Diablo Junior College to play football. He did it partly out of friendship. A former high school coach had called three days before DJC’s first game and said, “Hey, Gary, how about coming over to play for Diablo? All three of my quarterbacks are injured, and I’ve got nobody to start.”

Gary had gone, but he had time for only three practices before the game. “We had some good breaks,” he recalls, “and we ‘creamed’ the other team.”

In spite of this brilliant beginning, Gary was repeatedly ambushed by injuries and was able to play in less than half the games during his two years at Diablo.

In January 1973 he enrolled at Brigham Young University. “It’s amazing how it happened,” Gary recalls. “I’d never considered going to the Y until my last month at Diablo when I was benched with an injury. While I was resting a bone in my wrist, BYU invited me to fly out for a three-day visit. I thought, ‘Why not?’ But what seemed like a nice diversion was really the Lord’s way of turning my life in a new direction.

“After seeing BYU I knew there was no better university in the world for me. I still know that.”

Back in California Gary talked a friend, John Ryan, into driving up with him to enroll at BYU. They were just unpacking their suitcases after arriving at BYU when a knock came at the door. The 6-foot-2-inch, 195-pound Cougar quarterback ambled over and opened the door.

“Two guys about my age were standing outside,” Gary recalls. “They said they were missionaries and asked if we’d like to learn about the church.

“‘What church?’ I asked, not yet knowing that ‘the church’ meant THE Church.

“‘The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints,’ they chorused.

“‘The Mormon Church,’ one of them added helpfully.

“The fact was that John and I didn’t want to learn about the Mormon Church. We wanted to unpack, get cleaned up, and go eat.

“Less than a week later, two more guys stood outside our door wearing the happiest faces I’ve ever seen. ‘Hi!’ they grinned. ‘We’re your home teachers!’

“‘Oh yeah?’ I said quizzically, and before I knew it, they were inside the door. These two were a lot like the first two. They asked about the same questions and got the same answer, ‘No.’

“I guess I was a stubborn case. But, you know, I wasn’t some lost, lonely person searching for a better world. I’d been brought up in the most wonderful home a person could hope for. I’d had lots of opportunities, friends, a good life—and I didn’t want to change anything.

“‘That’s okay.’ They smiled with the same down-to-earth friendliness that had first attracted me to BYU. When they left, they said, ‘Now, if you ever need any help, let us know.’

“‘Sure. Thanks,’ I said, but it didn’t seem quite enough. ‘And … uh … if you ever need help, just let me know.’”

Meanwhile Gary focused his attention on football. His wrist, sprained during a preseason scrimmage, kept him from starting the first game of his junior year. Then someone else earned the starting quarterback position, and for the first time in his life, Gary, fit and ready, sat on the bench. That was a discouraging time for him, but he quietly worked, watched, and waited for his chance to play. Nearly halfway through the season, the chance came.

“We were behind by seven, with one minute and three seconds left to play, 70 yards to go, and a 40-mile-an-hour wind in our faces,” Gary recalls. “But things clicked, and we almost won that game. We were on the three-yard line when time ran out.”

The game had ended, but the Sheide era at BYU had begun. In less than two seasons Gary broke records that it had taken other WAC athletes three years to set. During his brief career Gary threw 595 times and completed 358 passes for 60.3 percent, 4,524 yards, and 45 touchdown passes. He set a conference record for completed passes (32) and touchdown passes (6) in one game. He also set a WAC record for completion percentage. United Press International twice named him National Back of the Week, and the Associated Press named him National Player of the Week. He was on the All-WAC first team, was the United Press Most Valuable Player in the WAC, and was eighth in the Heisman Trophy voting. He was second in the nation in passing for two years running. He led BYU to a Western Athletic Conference championship and the right to play in the nationally televised Fiesta Bowl.

Coach LaVell Edwards says of Gary’s success, “He has one of the strongest arms I’ve seen in a long time, but even more important, he has a sense of timing. He knows when to release the ball, when to really throw it hard, and when to ease up and drop it over the linebacker’s head. He has a quick release, and he can throw a lot of different kinds of passes. He can throw long, or he can throw intermediate or short. He can lay it out soft or he can throw it hard, and he always knows which to do.”

Sportswriters credited Sheide with leading the BYU Cougars to their first bowl game ever, but Gary tells it differently: “We had some great coaches. LaVell Edwards was like a father to me. But you’d have to have been in our Tuesday night meetings to understand what made champions of a team that lost its first three games. The coaches would talk to us, and then they’d leave. And there was just the team. We’d sit there for a while, and any one of us could stand up and say whatever he wanted. Often you’d hear something like, ‘I’m so grateful to know each of you. And you mean so much to me that I’m going to do all I can out there for you.’ ‘I’m so glad to be part of this team, I’m going to give it all my strength and effort.’ ‘Somehow, I’m going to see that you get the extra seconds that might make the difference.’ ‘I’m going to be in there playing 150 percent.’

“You know,” says Gary, “those guys had a couple of important things going for them—character and commitment. There were times in those meetings when you wanted to cry, and you knew somehow you’d do better than your best.”

Gary has three suggestions for aspiring quarterbacks:

1. Learn to concentrate. You can’t be thinking about girls or schoolwork when you’re on the playing field.

2. Keep calm.

3. Don’t dwell on your mistakes or the mistakes of your teammates. You have to be able to forgive yourself and others.

As Gary grew in football know-how, he was undergoing a spiritual transformation also. A few months after turning away the two missionaries, he happened to be in Salt Lake City, and curiosity drew him onto Temple Square just as a tour was about to begin at the Seagull Monument. “I decided to take a quick, crash course in Mormonism, find out what it was all about, and put the matter to rest,” Gary admits. “But it didn’t happen that way. Afterward, my head buzzed with questions, new ideas, and names like Moroni, Cumorah, Joseph Smith. I left there puzzled and confused, with the weight of seven dispensations on my shoulders.

“But no way was I going to ask for formal lessons. So I might not have been converted had it not been for friends who knew the gospel. ‘How come this is so?’ I’d ask on the spur of the moment. ‘Well, it’s because of that,’ they’d answer. ‘But why did that happen?’ I’d challenge. ‘Well, because of this,’ they’d explain. And so it went. Dozens of casual conversations over a year’s time. And finally, the last week of school, I went back to Temple Square. This time a friend stood at my elbow, answering my questions. I signed up for the missionaries right there at Temple Square and then went home for the summer.

“I thought it would take three weeks or so to process my name, but a couple of days after I got home, I looked out the window and saw two guys coming up the walk. As I opened the door I said, ‘Yeah, I know, you’re Mormon missionaries. Come in.’

“We were on the third lesson when my older brother Gregg decided to join the group, so we started over. Lots of times as many as six of my friends would come to listen. We were real doubters. We’d ask every possible question, and the missionaries would answer us out of the scriptures.

“Before I knew it, I was converted. But I kept praying night and day for a special manifestation. Others knew for sure that the Church was true, and before I would agree to be baptized, I had to know too. So I kept praying and studying and praying some more.

“And then one day things focused, and that’s a jubilant feeling. I thought: Gary, how come you keep praying over and over, ‘Lord, please tell me if the Church is true.’ Because look, Gary, you know the Church is true, and you know that you know. It’s like you’ve been standing out in the rain. And you see the water falling down and watch it making everything green and hear it patter on the pavement and feel the cool, wet rain in your face and know you’re getting drenched through and through by the sure, steady rain, but you look up and say, ‘Lord, is it raining—please, I’ve got to know for sure.’ The Church is true, Gary. What are you waiting for, a bolt of lightning?”

On July 13, 1974, Gary and Gregg were baptized. It caused quite a stir in Antioch.

“How come you did that, Gary?” his friends would ask.

“Because I know the Mormon Church is God’s church,” he would reply. “I’ve studied and prayed about it. And I know. And if you’ll study and pray, you can know too.”

“Uh … sure, Gary, if you say so.”

There was never any argument. Over the years Gary and Gregg Sheide had earned the respect of a wide circle of friends. They’d been leaders, and if they said Mormonism was true, there must be something to it.

Some five months later, on a blustery December day at the Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe, Arizona, Gary stood bareheaded as the national anthem was played and savored the finest moment of his football career. The chance to play in a bowl game was a dream come true, and he could feel in his bones that the Cougars would win. The stadium was packed, banners waved, bands played, and he felt good. The whole team felt good. They all knew there were pro scouts in the stands, and they all knew that the young man they had come to see had a number 12 on his back.

A few minutes into the ball game, an elderly man picked up his cane and slowly walked out. As he left the stadium he was heard to say “I paid 20 dollars to see this game, and I didn’t even care who won or lost. I just came to see that fine young man play football. And now I’m going home.”

Others sat through the game in shocked disappointment. After 12 minutes of play, Gary was helped from the field with a separated shoulder. He would not be able to return to the game, nor would he play in the Hawaiian Hula Bowl to which he’d been invited.

The last time the Cougar quarterback left the football field, his fans did not cheer or applaud. They watched in disbelief. Although the pro scouts didn’t get to see much of Gary that day, his record was so impressive that the Cincinnati Bengals later made him their third-round draft choice. That day in the Fiesta Bowl, however, turned into one of gloom for Gary and the Cougars.

“I’d be less than honest if I didn’t admit I was as discouraged as a person could be when I walked off that field,” Gary says. “My hopes were crunched. Down in the locker room, the doctor examined my injured shoulder. Then I pulled on my sweatshirt and listened—with another kind of hurt—as BYU lost the game. All the while I was asking the question that we all ask at one time or another: Why?

“But the old cliché is true. Time is a great healer. My shoulder is mended. BYU is headed for another great football season. And I’m looking forward to playing pro ball.

“I guess you can always draw a lesson out of experiences like the one I had at the Fiesta Bowl. Sometimes, just when things are looking good for us, we get knocked down. And we get up stunned and hurt and angry. Now at those times we can sit and sulk and hold our wound for awhile, and most of us do, but the only way we can really get back on our feet is to get down on our knees and try to sort out what the important things in life are.”

Gary Sheide has some definite ideas about what’s important. “Before I was a member of the Church, I’d never heard about eternal marriage,” he says softly. “I love to think that families can be together in heaven. That makes our family even more important in this life. I want to be married in the temple to a girl who will put the Lord and her family first—the way my mother did.

“I hope I’m always able to have a good job that will provide enough money so my wife won’t have to work outside the home. I want to be happy in my work—pro ball or coaching or whatever—but more important, I want to give my time to my wife and my children the way my dad did. I want to teach my children how to throw a ball and love one another and enjoy life.”

That’s what Gary Sheide wants to do. And the folks who know him best won’t be a bit surprised if that’s exactly what he does.

[photos] Photos by Douglas Martin