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Church Ball's 'Top-30 Latter-day Saint Influencers' in sports

Growing numbers of Latter-day Saints are ‘influencers” — leveraging their expertise and brands in politics, social media and pop culture.
Church members are also formidable sports influencers — moving the proverbial needle in their respective fields. So for its maiden edition, Church Ball presents its “Top-30 Latter-day Saint Influencers” in sports.
The alphabetized “Influencer” list features athletes (including a couple of SI cover boys), coaches, owners, the Church president, media members — and even a former BYU running back-turned-sculptor

By Jason Swensen

29 Dec 2022

Dame Valerie Adams - Shot putter/Four-time Olympic medalist/Eight-time world champion

Arguably history’s most dominant shot putter, Dame Valerie Adams’ trophy case is crowded with medals from two decades of international competition.

The New Zealander once enjoyed a staggering streak of 56 wins at elite-level competitions and, in 2014, was the IAAF World Athlete of the Year. Her homeland popularity was evident when she was chosen to be her country’s flag bearer for the closing ceremonies of the 2020 Olympic Games.

In August, Adams utilized her Instagram page to invite others to the  Hamilton New Zealand Temple Open House: “Bring your family and friends along to what will be a very rare experience.”

Adam’s is the subject of the recently released documentary “More than Gold.”

Danny Ainge - NBA executive and former coach/retired NBA and MLB athlete/BYU legend

Football’s versatile Kordell Stewart was nicknamed “Slash” — but the moniker aptly fits Danny Ainge. 

Just count the slashes in this former bishop’s sport’s resume: College basketball’s Player of the Year/Major League infielder/NBA champ/NBA head coach/Title winning NBA executive (Boston Celtics).

At 63, Ainge remains influential. The aggressiveness that defined his high-scoring days at BYU more than four decades ago was again on display last summer when he overhauled the Utah Jazz roster in his current role as the Utah Jazz CEO of basketball operations.

Garett Bolles - NFL lineman/returned missionary/Utah All-American

Garett Bolles’ circuitous route to becoming an NFL All-Pro reads like a Dickens novel.

As a teenager, he had brushes with the law, associated with gangs and was kicked out of his home. He was eventually “adopted” by a devout Latter-day Saint family, placing him on a path to Church activity and lucrative athletic success.

After serving a mission in Colorado and playing at Utah’s Snow College and the University of Utah, the Denver Broncos selected the agile offensive lineman with their first pick in the 2017 NFL draft.

Bolles shared his redemption story in a Church-produced youth Face-to-Face worldwide event last March.

Elijah Bryant -  NBA and Euroleague champ, former BYU hoops star, social media influencer

Claiming back-to-back rings in the world’s top two basketball leagues — the NBA (Milwaukee) and the Euroleague (Turkey’s Anadolu Efe) — would be enough to secure Elijah Bryant a spot on this list. But it’s how the former Cougar utilizes social media to share his gospel testimony that elevates his influence.

Quotes from General Authorities and Latter-day Saint leaders and temple images dot his Twitter and Instagram.

“I read the scriptures and the [general conference] talks almost every day — so why not share with my followers what I’m learning and what brings me happiness,” he told me in a recent Church News interview.

Blair Buswell - Sculptor/ former BYU football player

A figurative sculptor might seem a curious inclusion on a “sports influencer” list — but who else has hosted the likes of Jerry Jones, Kurt Warner, Steve Young and other NFL legends in their workplace?

From the confines of his Pleasant Grove, Utah, studio, Buswell has sculpted the busts of almost 100 inductees displayed in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. His sports-themed subjects are not limited to gridiron stars. The returned missionary’s heroic-sized monuments include the likenesses of legends John Wooden, Mickey Mantle, Jack Nicklaus and Oscar Robinson.

He has also sculpted the busts of Church presidents Harold B. Lee, Thomas S. Monson and Russell M. Nelson on display at the Conference Center.

Buswell was a back-up running back for the Cougars in 1981.

Liz Darger - BYU senior associate athletic director/senior woman administrator, member of the Church’s Young Women Council

Liz Darger must have a clone or two — she seems to be everywhere.

Attend almost any BYU sporting event and you will likely spot the always-approachable administrator wearing a blue ball cap and supporting the Cougars.

Darger’s bridge building skills are often cited as playing a key role in helping BYU land a spot in the Big 12 Conference.

During a January Church News podcast interview, Darger spoke of being able to speak freely about the gospel at the Church-sponsored school.

 “I’m really grateful to be able to work at a place where I can openly share my testimony and openly hear the testimony of my colleagues and of these student-athletes, because I learn so much from them and their strength. They really are remarkable, remarkable disciples of Jesus Christ.”

Tony Finau - PGA professional

Pro golf can be a lonesome trade. Outside of a trusted caddy, linksmen such as Tony Finau fly solo. No team bench. No bullpen. No batterymate. But the affable Latter-day Saint says he’s never alone on or off the links.

“Everything I do,” he said in a Church News interview, “is deeply rooted in my faith and especially in Jesus Christ.”

Finau has top-10 finishes in each of the PGA’s four majors and has represented the Stars-and-Stripes in Ryder Cup and Presidents Cup competition.

Jimmer Fredette —  Retired international pro basketballer, BYU hoops legend

More than a decade has passed since Fredette “Jimmered” opponents in BYU’s Marriott Center. But hoops fans from Provo to Shanghai can still dub a random player’s prolific offensive performance as “Jimmeresque” —  and everyone gets it.

College basketball’s 2011 consensus National Player of the Year, Fredette’s  professional career trotted him across the globe. He’s plied his trade on three different continents. No surprise, he is adept at answering questions about the Church.

A gospel testimony, he told ESPN after scoring 43 points in a victory over Kawhi Leonard-led San Diego State University in 2011, has “been a great thing. I really love the Church.”

Dick Harmon - Deseret News columnist/veteran BYU beat writer

Dick Harmon has covered Cougar sports for BYU’s global fanbase for decades.

As a columnist for the Provo Daily Herald and the Deseret News, he’s been a press row witness to all things Ainge-McMahon-Young-LaVell-Detmer-Durrant-Jimmer-and-Kalani. 

Three generations of Latter-day Saint sports fans have enjoyed Harmon’s insight and prose.

Harmon writes about the Latter-day Saint/Polynesian athlete from a personal perspective. He called Tonga his home for several years when his father, Rondo Harmon, was a Church Education leader on the Pacific Island nation.

Bryce Harper - Pro baseball player

Hard to believe it’s been 13 years since Latter-day Saint/Philadelphia Phillie Bryce Harper was a Sports Illustrated high school cover boy, a la LeBron James. The then 16-year-old “had faster bat speed than Mark McGwire….throws a fastball that has been clocked at 96 mph…and attends religious education classes nearly every morning before school.”

Harper has met all expectations, highlighted by his two National League MVPs. His recent heroics on the diamond launched the Phillies into the 2022 World Series.

Legions of his Instagram followers know of his religious convictions. Who can forget the image of Harper looking perhaps a bit starstruck meeting with Latter-day Saint leaders President Russell M. Nelson and  Elder Dieter F. Uchtdorf?

Instagram Photo

Ashley Hatch - United States National Women’s Team, NWSL all-star,  BYU All-American

There’s always a roster spot for a soccer player with a knack for putting the ball in the back of the net. At every level, Ashley Hatch has demonstrated that gift.

Following a prolific BYU career, the Latter-day Saint striker made a speedy impact in the National Women’s Soccer League, earning Rookie of the Year honors. She later claimed the league’s Golden Boot as the league’s top goal scorer, played a key role in the Washington Spirit’s 2021 NWSL title run and took home an ESPY as the nation’s top soccer player. A slot on the US national team soon followed.

At every stop on her celebrated soccer journey, Hatch shares her Latter-day Saint beliefs. During the recent open house of the Washington D.C. Temple, she played host to several of her Spirits teammates while inviting her Instagram followers to see the temple for themselves.

“Being a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints brings me so much joy and is a huge blessing in my life.”

Taysom Hill - NFL athlete/former BYU QB/returned missionary

Three years ago, two of the Church’s most athletic General Authorities — Elder S. Gifford Nielsen (a retired NFL quarterback) and Elder Brian K. Taylor (a former BYU basketball player) — participated in the groundbreaking ceremony of the Pocatello Idaho Temple.

But both Seventies would surely concede they were not the best athletes turning soil that day. At their side was New Orleans Saint Taysom Hill, a Pocatello native and their fellow BYU alum.

The NFL’s “Swiss Army Knife,” Hill’s versatility makes him a real-time folk hero in the Big Easy. Consider this never-to-be-duplicated stat line from Hill’s Oct. 9 game vs the Bengals: Three rushing TDs. A passing TD. Three kickoff returns for 69 yards. And, finally, a recovered fumble as a member of the punt return unit.

Tom Holmoe - BYU athletic director, former Cougar, NFL player/3-time Super Bowl champ, D1 coach

A Church convert, Holmoe presides over BYU’s athletic department at a period of unprecedented disruption in American college sports.

The three-time Super Bowl champ has proven to be the guy for the job at his alma mater. Holmoe has guided the program from the Mountain West Conference, through the lonesome world of football independence and, ultimately, to next year’s monumental entry into the Big 12 Conference.

BYU’s women's sports program has also risen to the NCAA elite.

Holmoe’s job description at BYU  is like no other college athletic director. Beyond his traditional duties, he’s also a de-facto ambassador for the Church. In a Church News podcast with Sheri Dew, Holmoe spoke of the uniqueness of BYU sports.

“It seems like we’re constantly evolving, and that’s a good thing, but we always have our sponsoring institution, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, to help guide us and to shine a light on where that path goes.”

Olivia Moultrie — Pro soccer player, youngest player in NWSL history, Nike athlete

Last year, Olivia Moultrie made her debut for the Portland Thorns at the age of 15, becoming the youngest player to compete in an NWSL regular-season game. Two months later, she scored her first professional goal. 

At that point, the California teen was already a veteran influencer. She was, after all, a Nike-endorsed athlete by age 13. 

Her family and faith keep her grounded even as she ascends the soccer world. 

“We always say in our family — ‘It’s faith. Then family. Then soccer.’ That’s what means more to me than anything. That’s what always comes first, and I just try to be the best person I can possibly be,” she said in a Church News story.

Earlier this year, Moultrie shared her remarkable story with Young Women General President Bonnie H. Cordon in a Church-produced Face to Face youth event.

Moultrie and the Thorns claimed the 2022 NWSL title.

President Russell M. Nelson - President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints/Chairman, Church Board of Education and Board of Trustees

Sports are surely near the bottom of President Russell M. Nelson’s ecclesiastical priority list. The Church’s president’s primary duties are to provide spiritual comfort, guidance and leadership for 16 million-plus Latter-day Saints across the globe.

But as the chairman of the Church’s boards of education and trustees, President Nelson has the ultimate say in all matters at the Church’s flagship university — including Cougar sports. 

At BYU, he is an unquestioned influencer. Football players are greeted by a President Nelson quote each time they step inside the Cougar weight room: “The Lord loves effort because effort brings rewards that can’t come without it.”

The 98-year-old retired heart surgeon is also an example of the benefits of active, healthy living.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

Ken Niumatalolo - Former Navy football coach/returned missionary/stake president/”Meet the Mormons” headliner

“Coach Ken” was fired following Navy’s overtime loss to Army on Dec. 10. 

His termination triggered a vast and vocal reaction, signaling his broad influence and popularity. Columnists, former players and fans expressed appreciation for Niumatalolo — and outrage over his indelicate firing.

For Navy football’s global fanbase, Niumatalolo’s defining statistic is 10-5 — that’s 10 wins against five losses in the storied Army-Navy rivalry game. (After “Yes, Sir!” and “Yes, Ma’am!”, the first thing a Naval Academy plebe learns to shout is “Beat Army!”)

During his 16 years as head coach in Annapolis, the Midshipmen claimed six bowl victories and a pair of Top-20 finishes — remarkable accomplishments at a service academy with limited access to top-end recruits.

Since 2019, Niumatalolo has presided over the Annapolis Maryland Stake, becoming the first D1 football head coach/stake president.

Mark Pope - BYU men’s basketball coach, former NBA player

In Mark Pope’s three seasons as BYU’s head coach, the Cougars have won over 70 percent of their games. Impressive,  but a bit of context enriches that figure. Many of Pope’s key players have not been “traditional” BYU recruits (read: Latter-day Saints). His aggressiveness utilizing the transfer portal and landing recruits of varied backgrounds has raised the program’s ceiling as it prepares for Big 12 play.

Pope’s broad approach to building BYU’s program reflects his own athletic and personal background. He played college ball at Washington and Kentucky before professional stops in several NBA cities and Turkey. He was usually the only Church member on his team.

“I’m so grateful for the gospel and its guiding principles,” he told the Church News. “Without the gospel, I would have been a disaster.”

Taylor Randall - University of Utah president/returned missionary

Hoping to spot President Taylor Randall on the sidelines of a Utah Utes game? Just look for the high-energy guy with the red sneakers.

The returned missionary (Spain) isn’t shy about showing his school spirit at the public university founded in 1850 by Latter-day Saint prophet Brigham Young. “We come out of Utah’s pioneer heritage, and you still see that heritage in the university’s DNA,” he told the Church News shortly after becoming the school president.

Latter-day Saints have long filled key roster positions and coaching slots at the University of Utah — including Church apostles/former Ute football players President David O. McKay and Elder Joseph B. Wirthlin. 

Randall’s  leadership helps ensure the University of Utah will remain a viable landing-spot for Latter-day Saint recruits.

Andy Reid - Super Bowl-winning Kansas City Chiefs coach/ former BYU lineman/Insurance pitchman

Playing Sunday School hooky to talk football in the wardhouse foyer? 

Pull out this NFL stat to impress your fellow sluffers: Andy Reid is one of four coaches with career win-loss records 100 games over .500. The others: George Halas, Don Shula and Bill Belichick.

Even with a beefy Super Bowl ring on his former O-lineman’s finger, Reid’s legacy as a top-flight coach and developer of players is understated.

Reid joined the Church while playing for BYU. His stoic LaVell-like sideline demeanor may not betray his sharp sense of humor — but check out his recent State Farm Insurance commercial. 

Coach is a comedian. Who knew?

Holly Rowe - ESPN, Utah Jazz television sports reporter

Few television sports reporters this side of Jim McKay (that’s a nod to Boomer/Gen-X readers) have covered as wide a variety of sports as Holly Rowe.

To name a few: College football, NBA basketball, WNBA basketball, college basketball, college volleyball, women’s World Cup soccer, swimming, track & field, college softball, BYU gymnastics and the Little League World Series.

Spain’s Running of the Bulls? Yup, Rowe covered it.

The University of Utah/BYU alum’s influence stretches beyond sports. Rowe advocates for cancer research and prevention even while waging her own battle against the disease.

Kalani Sitake - BYU football coach and former player/returned missionary

During his seven seasons at the helm of BYU’s flagship sport, Sitake has risen to mononymous status among Cougar fans.

Once there was “LaVell.” Now there’s “Kalani.” No further intro needed.

No Latter-day Saint sports figure is as scrutinized and second-guessed as Sitake. That’s the reality of being the head football coach at BYU.

Scrutiny aside, the optimistic returned missionary is grateful to lead a program where coaches, players and recruits can talk football and the gospel with equal candor.

“I’m honored to be the coach at BYU and to be given the responsibility of establishing a football program that will make our fans, the members of our Church and our Church leaders proud,” he told the Church News.

MyKayla Skinner - Olympic gymnastics medalist, former University of Utah All-American

MyKayla Skinner once told me if she had not been competing in the highest ranks of elite gymnastics during her youth, she would have served a mission.

While never formally set-apart as a missionary, the Arizona native has certainly represented the Church. She’s at ease in media interviews talking about prayer, patriarchal blessings and her testimony of the priesthood and the temple.

Skinner’s unlikely, oft-bumpy path to the Olympic medal podium in the vault competition in 2021 will long be remembered as a Latter-day Saint’s tale of resilience, faith and the power of hope.

Ryan Smith - Entrepreneur/ NBA & MLS team owner

A self-described sneakerhead and Qualtrics' co-founder/executive chairman, Smith is a relative newcomer to the sports world. But he joined the heavyweights of American professional athletics after purchasing a majority stake in the Utah Jazz from fellow Latter-day Saints, the Miller family.

Two years later, Smith became the majority owner of the crosstown Real Salt Lake soccer club.

A returned missionary (Mexico), the BYU alum often tweets #SundayThought quotes from Church leaders.

Courtney Wayment - Team USA track athlete, former BYU athlete and multi-event NCAA national champion

Courtney Wayment reflects the deep footprint Latter-day Saint distance runners are leaving in the sport at the highest levels. These are prodigious days for Church members who can run far and fast.

Wayment competed for Team USA in July in the steeplechase final of the world track and field championships. Weeks earlier, she slapped an exclamation point on her multi-national-title winning BYU career by winning the NCAA steeplechase title.

Expect to see Wayment repping the Red-White-&-Blue in future Olympics. But representing the gospel, she told the Church News, is not the sole claim of elite athletes.

“It doesn’t matter if you’re working a 9-to-5 job or if you’re a stay-at-home mom or if you’re an athlete winning a national championship — God cares about you. He knows you. He knows what’s important to you. And He genuinely cares. He wants you to have happiness and joy in your life.”

Greg Wrubell - Multi-sport BYU broadcaster/returned missionary

If there’s a harder working guy in sports radio than Greg Wrubell, step forward.

The “Voice of the Cougars” seems ubiquitous — providing BYU play-by-play calls for football, women’s soccer, men’s basketball and baseball for the school’s global alumni/audience.

Wrubell’s passion for BYU sports is matched by his preparation. Folks who have shared the broadcast booth with Wrubell marvel at his grasp of stats, team histories and trends.

If Wrubell were asked on the fly to call the Cougar game in Portuguese, he could. The returned missionary served in Brazil.

Fred Warner - NFL linebacker/BYU alum

The San Francisco 49ers knew they were getting a promising athlete when they drafted BYU linebacker Fred Warner with their 3rd round pick. But c’mon — no one guessed Warner would be this good.

The Latter-day Saint has played his way into the NFL’s linebacking elite. He’s also well-compensated. Last year he signed  a multi-year contract believed to be north of $95 million.

Warner was raised in the Church and reportedly landed on the Cougars roster after a fellow member in his Southern California ward wisely reached out to BYU coaches.

Eric Weddle - Retired NFL safety/Super Bowl champ/University of Utah All-American

Some day, Church Ball “Influencer” Blair Buswell will likely be commissioned to sculpt the bust of Hall of Fame inductee and fellow Latter-day Saint Eric Weddle.

Weddle’s wildly successful NFL career makes him a lock for Canton.

Lightly recruited out of high school, Weddle made an immediate impact for the Utah Utes. He carried that success into the pros where he was selected for a half-dozen Pro Bowls and the NFL’s 2010s All-Decade Team. He closed his career in 2022 in style —  coming out of retirement to claim a Super Bowl ring with the Los Angeles Rams.

Weddle’s story — “No Excuses, No Regrets”  — is recounted in a Deseret Book-published biography by writer Trent Toone.

Kyle Whittingham -  Utah football coach/former BYU player

Longtime Latter-day Saint pigskin fans have witnessed Whittingham evolve from an all-conference BYU linebacker to a stout D1 defensive coordinator and, ultimately, into one of college football’s venerable statesmen.

During his 17 seasons as Utah’s head coach, Whittingham has presided over milestones that no Ute fan old enough to have grown up driving a stick shift could have ever imagined — including back-to-back Pac-12 titles and appearances in the Sugar Bowl and the Rose Bowl. He will return to Pasadena on Jan. 2.

And how’s this for college coaching bragging rights?: Whittingham’s Utes are unbeaten in all games where Nick Saban, Jim Harbaugh or Lincoln Riley were manning the opposite sideline.

Zach Wilson - NFL quarterback/former BYU QB

Zach Wilson cringed when he was dubbed the “Mormon Manziel”, according to a 2021 Deseret News profile. He was reticent of being overtly connected to the Church because he did not grow up active in the religion. Still, he considers himself “a Mormon, an LDS Church member for sure.”

Hence, the quarterback’s inclusion on this list.

Following three prolific years under center at BYU, Wilson was selected second in the 2021 NFL Draft by the New York Jets. No surprise, his name and his Latter-day Saint affiliation are often linked in stories originating from the Big Apple — the United States’ largest sports media market.

Steve Young - NFL Hall of Famer, former BYU QB, ESPN analyst, Deseret Book author

A member of the College Football Hall of Fame and the Pro Football Hall of Fame (yes, his HOF bust was sculpted by the aforementioned Blair Buswell), Young’s gridiron resume includes All-American, NFL MVP (twice) and Super Bowl MVP honors.

A descendant of Brigham Young, he’s also a Latter-day Saint Renaissance Man. He earned a law degree at BYU and panels for ESPN's popular “Monday Night Countdown.”

Young is also a Deseret Book published author — including his recent work, “The Law of Love.”

— So, who did we miss? Who else can be counted among the Church’s key sports influencers? I’m eager to learn who you think belongs on the list.

Editor’s note: Prior to his Dec. 13 death, the late Mike Leach was to be included in this list. His entry is included below (as it was written in its original form) as a tribute to a beloved Latter-day Saint whose influence in the sports world will be felt for many years.

Mike Leach - Mississippi State football coach/BYU alum/”From the sidelines” marriage counselor.

Netflix should greenlight a documentary shadowing Mike Leach, aka “The World’s Most Interesting Football Coach.” 

It would be comedy gold.

The former BYU rugby player with impromptu observations on everything from Dollar Store candy to the benefits of eloping has coached teams in a trio of P5 conferences: the Big 12 (Texas Tech), the Pac-12 (Washington State) and, currently, the SEC (Mississippi State). 

Leach once told USA Today he has read the Bible multiple times, adding “I read the Book of Mormon and the Doctrine and Covenants.”

He once divined the afterlife in Leach-like fashion: “I think that when you die, you continue to progress. You continue to grow in kind of an elevated state, but I don’t think you sit there and wallow around and play the harp. I really don’t.”

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