Notre Dame legend Rudy Ruettiger meets and greets at BYU football fireside


It really is a small world after all, even at Mormon devotionals in mid-western Indiana.

The BYU football team gave its traditional pre-game fireside message Friday at a packed house that included Notre Dame football legend Rudy Ruettiger and former BYU basketball coach Steve Cleveland.

Ruettiger attended with his friend, Latter-day Saint bishop Randy Garn. He told The Universe he was looking forward to seeing the Fighting Irish and Cougars play more often over the next several years.

BYU football players Bronson Kaufusi and Skye Povey talk with Notre Dame legend Rudy Ruettiger at the team's traditional pregame fireside Friday, Nov. 22, 2013. Photo by Sarah Hill
BYU football players Bronson Kaufusi and Skye Povey talk with Notre Dame legend Rudy Ruettiger at the team’s traditional pre-game fireside Friday, Nov. 22, 2013. (Photo by Sarah Hill)

“It’s starting to become a good tradition,” Ruettiger said, noting that several scenes from Rudy, the film memorializing his efforts to play for Notre Dame, were filmed during the the two teams’ contest in 1992.

Ruettiger, one of the most iconic figures in college sports, said he appreciates the way the Cougars represent the university.

“I was impressed with the coaches and with the players and with how they interact with each other,” Ruettiger said. “I’m impressed with where the foundation is. … The coach really has a good thing going.”

Former BYU hoops coach serves the LDS Church in basketball country

Cleveland, who coached at BYU from 1999 to 2005, now serves as a mission president  in the Indiana Indianapolis Mission — the middle of basketball country. Cleveland said his responsibilities supervising more than 200 missionaries don’t leave him very much time to keep tabs with the Indiana college basketball teams he once coached against. But Cleveland told The Universe it was rewarding to see one of his former players from Fresno State thrive on the local NBA team.

Paul George, a former Bulldog, is quickly becoming an NBA superstar for the Indiana Pacers.

“I can say I’m pretty proud of that,” Cleveland said.

Mendenhall said it was refreshing to reunite with Cleveland, a former colleague at BYU, and Cleveland’s wife, Kip Cleveland.

“It’s real brotherhood,” Mendenhall said of the bond between coaches and their families. “And (it’s) an even fiercer sisterhood.”

Several sets of Cleveland’s missionaries attended the fireside and brought with them church investigators.

“The (team) did a great job tonight,” Cleveland said. “I loved the message. … What a great opportunity for the people of this area to feel the spirit of these young men and of the institution itself.”

Mendenhall and Hill: Being a witness at all times and helping others through dark days

Perhaps to ease some of the tension prior to their 1:30 p.m. Saturday contest with Notre Dame, Mendenhall and quarterback Taysom Hill shared their lighter side with the South Bend Stake as they found creative explanations for the sophomore’s three first-half interceptions against FCS opponent Idaho State.

Hill joked that the mistakes were natural considering he grew up in Pocatello, the Bengals’ backyard.

“I got confused about who was on my team,” he said, drawing some laughs from the congregation. “Unfortunately that happened three times.”

Mendenhall speculated Hill had felt a need to give back some of his success and wanted to get that done as quickly as possible.

“He figured — Notre Dame, Idaho State … hmm, let’s get those out of the way now,” the coach said, smiling.

Mendenhall also candidly spoke about his goal to help the football program represent the values of BYU and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He told those gathered he disagreed with the idea of compartmentalizing his job responsibilities into one part of his life and his beliefs into another.

“It’s just the same as (applying the gospel) as a teacher, or as a lawyer or an accountant,” Mendenhall said. “Once we separate those things from the gospel, we’re not witnesses in all things and at all times and in all places. We become conditional witnesses.”

Mendenhall said he’s learned not to determine his life or coaching decisions on the conditional praise of others.

“Win, and get good emails. Lose, and get bad emails. Win, and get good ones … What if there’s not any perspective in a job like that? You’d be blowing all over the place,” he said. “But what if there is (perspective)? What would all that (criticism and praise) do to you? Nothing.”

Hill opened up about some of the most difficult moments of his career, beginning at the conclusion of the 2012 contest against Utah State when he blew out his knee. He said the long road of rehabilitation was extremely difficult.

“It was equally or more hard in the mental aspect of things,” Hill said.

During his recovery the quarterback received an unexpected email from former BYU and NFL tight end Chad Lewis (who now works with BYU Athletics), promising him he would regain his strength after enduring long days and that he would “see it as a miracle.” This turning point, Hill said, is a witness that God works through everyday people to help others through their darkest days.

Hill also recounted another dark day from earlier this season, a moment many BYU fans can well remember and one the sophomore may never totally forget. After losing a fourth-quarter lead to Virginia in the 2013 season opener, BYU’s offense had stalled on its final drive of the game in a shocking defeat.

“It had (at that moment) become apparent we were going to lose,” Hill said. “I was laying on the ground completely soaked, totally dejected that we had lost the game.”

Amid Hill’s bitter disappointment, teammate Craig Bills sprinted full speed toward him and, lending a hand, picked him up off the ground. Though brief, the gesture braced Hill’s spirits, he said.

“Craig at that time was a light to me,” Hill said.

Mendenhall, mentioning Hill’s stories as examples, said he prizes the weekly fireside as part of the team’s preparation because it reminds him to have a better frame of reference for the football program.

“I get to see who my team really is,” he said. “The world will judge them by a different standard tomorrow. But we know that won’t matter — it’s not eternal; it’s not lasting.”

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