In an unexpected partnership, two former football players brought their “teams” together to play for a higher cause: feeding the hungry and lifting their communities.
In 2019, Elder S. Gifford Nielsen a General Authority Seventy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was asked to be a part of a hosting group in Salt Lake City.
Mel Hamilton, one of the 14 Black football players kicked off the University of Wyoming’s team in 1969 for wanting to protest the Church’s policy restricting Black men from holding the priesthood.
As Elder Nielsen learned more about Hamilton and the Black 14, he was struck by their experience as college students and their lives afterward.
“To me, it’s a very compelling story,” he said. “So when I met Mel Hamilton for the first time, I went, ‘Oh my goodness, you’re the famous Mel Hamilton!’”
Over lunch Elder Nielsen, a former BYU quarterback, and Hamilton, a former offensive lineman, connected over their shared love of football. Hamilton told the Nielsens about the sudden, devastating end to his football career in 1969 and how recently, he and his teammates had started to heal from the decades-old pain.
The University of Wyoming invited the 14 back in 2019 to receive their letterman jackets and a formal letter of apology, which provided some closure and forgiveness 50 years after the scandal that cost most of the 14 their college experience.
LDS students at the university invited the Black 14 to speak at one of their institute classes. As a welcome to the team and a gesture of goodwill, the students made black armbands for themselves and the former players.
“The whole thing was, you know, really almost brought me to tears,” Hamilton said of the experience.
After their first meeting, Elder Nielsen asked Hamilton what the Church could do for them. Hamilton said he’d think about it, and a few months later called Elder Nielsen with an idea.
The Black 14 had started the Mind, Body, Soul Initiative in 2019, a program to fight food insecurity. One of the group’s fundraisers was selling T-shirts and using the profits to buy food for those in need. “Buy a shirt and feed a family,” their website boasts.
Hamilton wanted to put BYU’s logo on the T-shirts. They would need permission from BYU, and Hamilton broached the idea with Elder Nielsen.
The Church leader brought another offer to the table. The T-shirts, he explained, could only bring in so much food. Why not give the program a truckload of food and supplies from the Church?
“I could only imagine what the Black 14 were saying,” Elder Nielsen said. “‘You’re not going to do that. The reason we got kicked off this team is because of you.’”
From that meeting, the relationship between Elder Nielsen and Hamilton flourished.
As friends and fellow humanitarians, the two began forging a bond between their respective groups.
Elder Nielsen remembers Hamilton on several occasions asking, “Why are you being so nice to us?”
After the history of hurt between the two groups, it was a logical question. Elder Nielsen’s answer was a simple declaration of his Christian beliefs.
“Because we love the Lord and we love our neighbor,” he said. “And Mel, you’re my neighbor. I love you.”
After 50 years, the Black 14 and the Church aren’t seeking to erase a part of their mutual history. The men said this isn’t about covering a wound and moving on, it’s about healing hurt that has festered for decades.
“What happened in 1969, that’s ancient history,” Black 14 member John Griffin said of the collaboration. “Let’s do something together. Let’s work together. And that’s what Gifford brought to the table.”
Since that first meeting between Hamilton and Elder Neilsen, the Black 14 and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have joined forces to serve communities in need, healing old wounds and bringing people together in a divided time.
“This is a time for us to come together and do magnificent things,” Elder Nielsen said.
So far, those “magnificent things” include 18 semi-trucks carrying 20 tons of food each.
That’s 700,000 pounds of food in nine different communities, and thousands of full and thankful bellies.
Working together has made a much greater impact than just feeding the hungry.
At Spirit of Faith Church in Brandywine, Maryland the Church and the Black 14 collaborated with several local churches to distribute food throughout the community.
As volunteers unloaded a truck from the LDS Church, Donna Hopkins, a sports broadcaster and longtime friend of Black 14 member Tony McGee, said she could tell a new era was beginning.
“You could feel the energy, you could feel the excitement,” Hopkins said. “You could feel a new story being told that day from both sides.”
Jeffrey Wooten, a pastor at Spirit of Faith, said collaborating with different faiths has made their impact farther-reaching than it would have been working alone.
“It’s good that we come together and we carry out these assignments because we can make a great impact when we work together,” he said.
With food insecurity at a high due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Hopkins said the partnership couldn’t have come at a better time.
“I thought that was a great partnership for healing to come forward,” she said. “And how that all transpired with donating the food, which (was) much needed during that time and much needed now.”
Mark Hahn, community relations and parish director for Catholic Charities in Denver, said working with other faiths to serve their respective communities has strengthened existing relationships within those communities.
“We’ve been able to have really strong relationships,” Hahn said. “But this gift of food and compassion has just enhanced and really expanded and built those relationships.”
Beyond touching lives in a temporal way, LDS Church welfare and self-reliance manager Daryl Blount said the Black 14 collaboration is a way to share faith without using words. The message of Jesus Christ, he said, is woven throughout every food delivery.
“With food trucks and employment help … all the kind of things that we do, they practically say, ‘Here’s the gospel of Jesus Christ,’” Blount said.
Hamilton said that unity and friendship has been one of his goals since the beginning.
As he recounted the division and hate that’s driving individuals and nations into crisis today, Hamilton asked, “Why can’t we love each other?”
He’s decided to be an active part of the solution.
“Rather than to ask myself that question, I want to put myself in motion to make that happen,” he said. “And that’s what I’m going to do right now. We’re going to show the world how to love.”