File photo of President Ken Niumatalolo, bottom left, with Latter-day Saint midshipmen at the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. (Photo courtesy of USNA Latter-day Saint Midshipman’s Parents Facebook page.)
First Person: Navy football coaches true priesthood 'shepherds'
By Jason Swensen
29 Dec 2022
The recent coaching shakeup at the United States Naval Academy conjured many personal memories and emotions.
I did not attend the Naval Academy — and the school’s Annapolis, Maryland, campus is thousands of miles from my Salt Lake Valley home. But over the past several years, I’ve formed professional and personal connections with two Latter-day Saint football coaches with academy ties: former Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo and his slot backs coach, Joe DuPaix.
I learned from both football men unexpected lessons about prioritizing priesthood service.
A shepherd’s response
I’ve followed Joe DuPaix’s football career since his days tormenting defenses as a state championship-winning QB at Utah’s Skyline High School.
In 2018, following a stint at the helm of Southern Virginia’s football squad, DuPaix returned to coaching at the Naval Academy where my son Christian was a student.
Two years later, Annapolis Maryland Stake President Ken Niumatalolo organized a YSA branch at the academy. The president called his slot backs coach — DuPaix — to preside over the branch.
In the fall of 2020, Christian participated in the academy’s Navy SEAL screener — a tryout of sorts for midshipmen interested in joining the Navy’s special warfare community.
It’s an understatement to call the SEAL screener “physically and mentally grueling.” For 24 hours, the prospective SEALS don rucksacks and swim, run and perform military calisthenics — over and over and over again. There’s little sleep and little rest.
It is one hell of a day, literally.
During the screener, the participating midshipmen were instructed to frequently hydrate and replace electrolytes to mitigate the unnatural demands they were placing on their bodies.
Following the screener, Christian returned to his room and dropped into his rack, exhausted. When he awoke several hours later, his urine was the color of a Diet Coke. He was rushed to the Anne Arundel Medical Center and diagnosed with rhabdomyolysis, a potentially fatal condition where skeletal muscles rapidly break down and jeopardize kidney function. It’s often caused by extreme strenuous exercise.
Typically, I would have flown immediately to Annapolis to be at my son’s bedside, monitor his care and provide a priesthood blessing. But nothing was typical in the fall of 2020. COVID restrictions prevented me from stepping foot inside the hospital.
I was frightened for Christian. I felt helpless.
Then I discovered that clergy was allowed inside the hospital. I texted Christian’s priesthood leader, Coach DuPaix. I knew it was the middle of Navy’s football season. I knew his time was limited. But, I pleaded, could he find a few minutes to visit Christian, share a few words of encouragement, pray with him and give him a blessing?
DuPaix texted back immediately, reassuring me that Christian would be under his shepherding care. He visited my son in his hospital room, administering a priesthood blessing. Frequent updates followed until my son’s release. I exhaled a bit each time one of President DuPaix’s texts dinged on my phone.
Christian has recovered and now serves in the Navy’s fleet as a surface warfare officer.
But our family remains grateful for the lessons we learned from a caring priesthood leader who was eager to serve his flock, even during hectic moments in his own life.
On a Sunday evening in late January of 2019, I received a text message from Annapolis that Navy football coach Ken Niumatalolo had been called to preside over the Annapolis Maryland Stake.
I couldn't believe it.
How was it possible that a D1 football head coach could simultaneously fulfill such a demanding ecclesiastical role?
I reached out to Elder Kevin S. Hamilton, the General Authority Seventy who presided over the Annapolis stake reorganization. I was curious to know why the call had been extended to such a busy, busy man.
“President Niumatalolo is a very high-profile college football coach, but we found him to be a humble and devoted disciple of Jesus Christ,” wrote Elder Hamilton in an email. “He and his wife, Barbara, are faithful members of the Church and he will serve well as the new president of the Annapolis Maryland Stake.
“We were very pleased to be part of the process of identifying who the Lord had already chosen as the new stake president.”
Some context: When Coach Niumatalolo was called to be a stake president he was weeks removed from a disappointing 2018 season at Navy. Most would give him a pass for opting to punt at that moment.
But he accepted the assignment, called his two counselors and got to work.
Always accommodating, President Niumatalolo made time to speak with me for a Church News story just days before the 2019 edition of the Army-Navy game. The troubles of the 2018 season, he said, had caused him to “drop to his knees” more than ever before and invoke the Lord’s aid.
Those prayers deepened his relationship with Christ. So when the call came to shepherd the Annapolis stake, he accepted without hesitation.
Divine assistance, he added, allowed him to fulfill both jobs. He then recited a few Book of Mormon verses that were guiding him through a coach’s/stake president’s inevitable ups and downs:
“Yea, humble yourselves, and continue in prayer unto him.
“Cry unto him when ye are in your fields, yea over all your flocks.
“Cry unto him in your houses, yea, over all your household, both morning, mid-day and evening.” (Alma 34:19-21).
Coach/President Niumatalolo made Latter-day Saint history when he became the first person to coach a D1 college football team while presiding over a stake of Zion. He will likely be the last.
But Niumatalolo’s example of prioritizing priesthood service will remain with me long after he steps away from the gridiron — and the stake presidency’s office.
File photo of Annapolis Maryland Stake YSA Branch President Joe DuPaix, second from right, with members of the branch presidency. (Photo courtesy of Lynn Creswell)