A Saving Tackle


A Saving Tackle

The old car barely ran anymore. The engine stalled just as I pulled into the parking lot. There were few other cars around; it was just the beginning of August, and school didn’t start for another month. The dormitory was a long rectangle of orange-brown brick. It looked rather like a warehouse with lots of windows. I coasted to a space with a clear downhill run in front of it, so I wouldn’t have to get someone to push-start me when I had to leave. I set the parking brake and let out a big sigh. It had been more than two years.

I staggered up the steps with all my worldly possessions balanced precariously in my arms. Luckily someone had the door wedged open with a folded welcome mat. I plopped all of my things down in front of the table in the lobby where Coach Reese was passing out room keys.

“Marchant, David C.,” I said.

“Marchant …” he repeated as he sorted through his box of keys. He found one with my name on it and handed it to me. “Don’t we have to call you Pastor, or Father, or something like that now?”

“Coach, I explained all of that before I left,” I said with pretended impatience, “but if you’ve forgotten, I suppose I could spare an hour or two right now. Could you call for some pizza?”

“Always a wise guy,” he said, shaking his head. “I just hope you still remember how to play football after two years in South America.”

“Me too,” I called back as I started down the hallway with my pile of bags.

I could hear the music even before I got close to my room. Obviously my future roommate had already arrived, and he liked playing music loud enough to rattle our door. I carefully let my things fall to the floor of the hallway and listened. It definitely wasn’t the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. The doorknob buzzed my fingertips as I turned it and stepped inside. Dorm rooms are comfortably furnished, about on par with your average state prison cell; they contain a couple of desks with chairs, two closets, and a pair of beds about six inches shorter than most football players. One of the beds in my room was occupied by a large young man casually flipping through the pages of a magazine. He had already staked claim to one side of the room; it was covered with posters, a pyramid of beer cans, and a giant stereo box that looked detailed enough to control a manned space flight. He hadn’t noticed me as I hadn’t yet made any noise over a hundred decibels, so I leaned in front of him and waved. He looked up with a start, stood up, and turned down the music. I’m six-foot-four, and he was a little taller than me, and looked generally like the kind of guy you like to have on your side if a fight ever breaks out.

“Mike Webster,” he said, grabbing my outstretched hand. “Freshman tight end.”

“Dave Marchant,” I said. “Sophomore linebacker.” I nodded my head toward the bare side of the room. “I’ll take this bed.”

Training camp is football’s version of the Missionary Training Center. For a month you’re cut off from the outside world. You do nothing but eat, sleep, and practice football, and your body soon feels like the losing entry in a demolition derby. The passage of time is eased somewhat by the wonderful company you keep; one hundred bruisers whose demeanor would give Miss Manners a terminal migraine. Actually, by the end of the month quite a brotherhood develops among teammates under such trying circumstances.

That first night all we had was an orientation meeting, and after it was over I went straight back to the room and got ready for bed. Mike came in a couple of minutes later.

“Man,” he said, “those coaches treated me like a king when they came to my high school in the spring.” He sat down on his bed and started examining the playbook they’d just given us. “Now they act like I’m some Marine recruit or something!”

I laughed a little, remembering my freshman year. “They tend to take things a little serious during camp,” I said, “but don’t let it get to you.” Out of habit I turned back the covers on my bed and knelt down to say my prayers. Even before I got started, I had a strange feeling that someone was watching me.

I turned around, and sure enough, Mike was staring at me like I’d just pulled a rabbit out of a hat.

“What are you doing?” he asked in a concerned voice. I wasn’t sure what to say. I got up and sat down on my bed for a second. I hadn’t thought about how I was going to act in situations like this. Before my mission it was easy being the only member of the Church on the team; I was just a Mormon incognito. I kept the gospel tucked carefully under a bushel, ensuring that no one could make life miserable for me. Remembering how I used to act was starting to make me feel guilty; here I was a returned missionary, and the guy who would be my roommate for a whole month didn’t even know I was a member of the Church.

“I believe in God and I’m saying my prayers,” I explained in my best door-approach-type voice. “I’ll be doing this every night and every morning.

You can basically ignore me, but I would appreciate it if there was no music playing during that time, if that’s possible.” His eyes were still as big as golf balls.

“Oh,” he said nervously. His eyes were searching as if he were looking for a possible escape route. “Fine. Fine. That’s uh … That’s just fine.” I turned back to my prayers. After I finished I stayed on my knees a while, thinking about what my duty as a missionary was in this situation. I should get up and tell Mike I’m Mormon, I thought. I should ask him what he knows about the Church and if he’d like to know more. Then I’ll challenge him to take the discussions. I reconsidered when I thought about how he reacted to my prayer. He’d freak out, I concluded to myself. He’d grab his stereo box and go sleep on a couch in the lobby tonight and ask coach for a room change first thing in the morning.

Then I remembered something my mission president had told me in my last interview with him, not two months before.

“Missionary work involves both planting and harvesting,” he counseled. “You have seen a lot of harvesting the past two years. Now go home and do some planting.”

For the first time, what President Bender had told me started to make sense. It was no longer my calling to teach Mike the discussions and challenge him to be baptized. My job now was to let the light of the gospel plant the seeds inside of him. I knew what to do. I’d throw away that candle-snuffing bushel, and I’d start acting more like a candlestick.

I climbed in bed and got ready to read my scriptures. I took out a blue missionary copy of the Book of Mormon and placed it in plain view on the edge of my desk. I opened the New Testament to Matthew, chapter 5, where the Savior talks about this whole candlestick and bushel thing. I glanced over at Mike, who was unsuccessfully trying to act nonchalant and ignore me. I was obviously the first praying and Bible-reading linebacker he’d met.

The next day during the afternoon practice, the linebackers, tight ends, and running backs met for tackling drill. This is a very sophisticated variation of running into a brick wall on purpose. Two players line up ten yards apart and run full speed into each other, smashing themselves senseless. I was fourth in line on my side. I looked over at the other side and saw Mike. He was third in his line. I said “excuse me,” and stepped around the guy in front of me, so I would be in line to tackle Mike. I could see Mike peering around his line, trying to see what I was doing. I could see a smile creep onto his face when he realized I had changed places so I could tackle him. I knew what he was thinking: This is one of those religious wimps. He reads the Bible. I hope I don’t put him in the hospital.

Now, for Mike to have a reasonable basis for serious consideration of the gospel, his preconception about men of faith would have to be reformed. So when our turn came I did my best. I have to admit that it was a great effort. I let out two years of pent-up tackling energy on Mike. Planting my helmet square into his number, I lifted him up off the ground and body-slammed him into the grass, ending up almost in a headstand on his sternum. He just lay there for a second. I helped him up, gave him a friendly slap on the helmet, and trotted off. When I got back in line I looked over and saw him in the other line, rubbing his chest and looking very perplexed. He was getting ready to see some light.

I continued to leave the Book of Mormon on the edge of the desk. It took another week before Mike’s curiosity got to him, or at least before I caught him. The linebacker meeting ran a little late that night, so when I got to the room I opened the door quietly in case Mike was asleep. He was leaning over from his side of the room, gingerly holding open the Book of Mormon with his fingertips, as if it might bite him, and peering inside.

“Hi there!” I said cheerfully. He just about jumped out of his socks.

“How ya doin’?” he said, trying to think of something to say. “I was just …”

“Listen,” I interrupted, “you can borrow that book anytime you want. You don’t even have to ask.”

“Oh no,” he stammered, “I don’t … uh …”

“Honestly,” I said. “It’s no bother. I have two copies.”

“Well,” he said, “maybe I will look at it some other time.” I left it at that.

Two nights later it was really hot, and I was having trouble sleeping. I could tell Mike was awake also, as I heard him wrestle with his sheets about every fives minutes in a vain effort to get comfortable.

“Marchant,” he whispered, “you awake?”

“Yeah,” I said, “what’s up?”

“Is that book—” he asked, “that blue one on your desk—is it like the Mormon Bible or something?”

“Well, it’s not a Mormon Bible,” I explained. “But it is a religious history, like the Bible is. We consider them both to be books of scripture.”

“What do you mean, history book!” he said out loud in the darkness.

“Well, Mike,” I started out, “the Bible is basically a religious history of the ancient Mideastern people, and the Book of Mormon is a religious history of the ancient American people.”

“Don’t give me that!” he shot back in the darkness. “That’s no history book.” He threw off the covers and turned on the light. He grabbed the Book of Mormon off my desk and flipped right to the page with Arnold Fribergs’s painting of a well-muscled Nephi on it.

“Look at this guy!” he said, shoving the book in my face and pointing to Nephi. “This looks more like Muscle and Fitness magazine!”

It took me the better part of an hour to explain that picture and all the rest of them to his satisfaction. After that Mike kept the Book of Mormon on his desk, and whenever we couldn’t sleep we would talk about the gospel.

At the first of September school started. Mike and I decided we’d see if we could room together for the whole school year. His parents flew in from California for the first home game, to see their son’s college debut. As I was jogging off the field after the game, Mike grabbed me and introduced me to them.

“Mom, Dad, this is my roommate, Dave Marchant. He’s that Mormon guy I’ve been telling you about.”

I got a lump in my throat. I was sure they were going to tell me that they weren’t going to allow Mike to have a roommate who was a religious fanatic.

“How do you do,” I said. “Your son is pretty tough for a freshman.”

“We’ve heard about you,” his father said as he shook my hand. Oh no, I thought to myself. Here it comes.

“And we want to thank you for being such a good friend to Mike,” he continued. His mother put her hand on my shoulder and said: “Our next-door neighbors at home are LDS, and they’re such fine people.” I offered a prayer of gratitude in my heart for the light of that family, whoever they were.

Mike’s parents took us both to dinner at their hotel, and afterward I drove him to the airport so he could see them off. They wanted to let us use their rental car to drive back to the university, because we always had to push-start my car, but we said we were used to it. On the way home, while we were stopped at a stoplight, I asked Mike if he had told his parents anything else about the Mormons, besides the fact that I was one.

“Yes,” he said matter-of-factly, “I told them I was thinking about becoming one.”

“You did what?” I choked, as I popped the clutch and stalled the car right in the middle of the intersection.

“Well,” he explained, “I told them that I read the Book of Mormon and I think it’s true. They’ve always said that when I was old enough, I could choose my own religious beliefs. Anyway, I think we better get out of the middle of the intersection.”

He got out and push-started us. When we got going again I decided I had better find out if he was really serious.

“Mike,” I counseled, “are you sure about this? When did you read the Book of Mormon?”

“Whenever you weren’t around,” he said, “and sometimes I used my flashlight and read it after you were asleep. Anyway, it says in this part at the end to pray to God to find out if it’s true.” He stared out the window at the lights going by. “I did, and it is.” He turned toward me. “What do you have to do to belong to this church of yours?”

I started to feel that missionary glow inside again. It was a nice feeling.

“Well,” I said, “I suppose we could find some harvesters around town someplace.”

“Harvesters?” Mike’s voice had that concerned tone again.

“I meant missionaries,” I laughed. “I told you how I used to be one.”

“Oh, yeah,” he remembered. “Who push-started the car for you when you were in South America?”

[illustrations] Illustrated by Paul Mann