Stories of Faith | Kurt Henderson
My name is Kurt and I play football for Brigham Young University. Last week we stepped on the field with National Championship dreams and a Heisman Candidate quarterback. Sixty minutes on the play clock later, we stepped off the field with a crushing loss and an injured quarterback. Our dreams for a national championship and perfect season were over.
Since that game I’ve had a few people ask me, “Is football even worth it for you anymore?”
My answer is “Yes.” First, because our pride in who we are. And then because of our fans, friends, and families who have supported us through peewee leagues, late night broadcasts, exhilarating wins, and heartbreaking losses.
But maybe more importantly, football is still worth it because, ultimately, it was never about a perfect season, national championship, or the Heisman award. I’m sure that sounds crazy to anyone who knows anything about college football - and don’t get me wrong - if any team wanted that perfect record, it was ours. We’ve poured in thousands of hours, and given literal blood, sweat, and tears. We’ve sacrificed our grades, our bodies and our time all to be a national championship team. We have an undying desire to win.
But at the end of the day, that’s not really what it’s about. Trophies collect dust and rings are hollow, but what we become through the game of football lasts forever.
I feel like this is the lesson I was supposed to learn as I came to BYU 4 years ago.
My football career didn’t start with an official visit, national letter of intent, scholarships, or fall camp with the latest Nike issue gear. It started with an invitation to try out, a pair of old shorts, a faded jersey, and a dogged faith that I could make the team. During spring workouts I quickly became sore, behind in my classes, and very aware that everyone on the team was extremely talented. It wasn’t long before I was trying to figure out where I fit in—if I fit in at all.
After getting minimal reps and being called by my number because no one knew my name, I found myself with a black garbage bag with my remaining gear thrown inside, hustling out of the locker room hoping that no teammate would see me as I ran to my car with the shame of “not being good enough”, or cut from the team.
This was a huge crossroads for me, maybe one of the biggest of my life. I knew the work and time it would require to make the team again. After a lot of thought and prayer, I decided this was a program, a cause, and a team that I wanted to commit to. I would do all I could to make it on the team come fall.
I used codes to get into the facilities from other teammates and began to train and study film on the great players. I lifted longer, ran harder, and aligned my life to do anything that would give me a chance. I knew I had to give my all to have a shot even to make it on the scout team.
After the season began, tryouts were held for walk-ons, and I went with complete confidence in my preparation that summer. I had a great tryout, and at the end of the day I was on the roster for the scout team. I’ll never forget the first time the equipment manager handed me a new pair of cleats, shorts, gloves and a plain white helmet with no decals. I grabbed that helmet and kissed it. I had summited my first mountain and made the team, but the climb was just beginning.
Every practice was a battle. I basically was a piece of meat to be thrown around so the starters could loosen up their shoulders for the next game and have a good read on the offense. Coaches still didn't know my name, and I remember limping off the field, blood and sweat dripping off of me, wondering if I was experiencing a concussion or it was just another headache. When I accepted that my situation wasn't going to change quickly, I decided I would make the most of this next step, using practices against one of the top defenses in the country to help me develop my route running skills, and learn to read defenses. Always in the back of my mind was my goal of being a BYU play-maker on a championship team, but I had to take it one practice at a time.
The year soon ended and I noticed something that surprised me. The same names who had been across the headlines just months before were now walking around campus wearing last year’s gear and just trying to graduate. The hype and praise that had surrounded them left quicker than I could have ever imagined. I determined that whether I ever made it in football or not, I wouldn't let my story end the day I hung up the cleats. I began to climb more strategically and focus not only on developing as a football player, but as a man and a student of life.
Spring ball came again, and I felt like this was my chance time to make a spot on the 105. While most guys were fighting for a starting spot or coach recognition, I just wanted to make the squad. For all I knew, most coaches didn't even know my name! After a bloody battle, I caught another break and made the 105. I wasn't on scholarship, but I was on the roster. I had learned to be grateful for every small victory: catching a ball, running a crisp route, five extra pounds on my bench max, or winning the conditioning test were all opportunities to prove to both myself and the team.
My freshman year I saw minimal playing time, but it was time nonetheless! My sophomore year I continued to improve and see more time on the field. Fast forward to this season - my junior year - and after practice before our second game against Texas, Coach Mendenhall called me up in front of the team and stated, “as of right now, Kurt Henderson is a scholarship player.” My brothers erupted and rejoiced with me in this victory; we were on the quest for perfection together.
With high hopes and some huge wins, it was only a few weeks later that we were rocked with a loss that ended our perfect season.
That same weekend, two teammates and I had the chance of a lifetime: after attending our church’s General Conference, we met Gifford Neilsen, one of my biggest football and spiritual heroes, and M. Russell Ballard, a spiritual coach for me personally and a leader of my church.
The three of us players hung on to every word and feeling that came from our two heroes, and we chatted with them for a while about football and life as Elder Ballard invited us to his office. He then turned to us said “I know it’s hard to believe that life isn't all about football, but what you heard in conference today is what life is all about.”
As we entered his room the plaque on his desk caught my eye:
Why build these cities glorious If man unbuilded goes? In vain we build the world, unless The builder also grows.
Ironically my dad had memorized this poem and used to recite it to us growing up, but the words hit me then like never before. This is what football and life was all about, and this is what we had heard that day in General Conference. We don’t play or live for the glory - for the roaring of the fans, for the trophies, or for the rings. We play to become men who will someday be husbands and fathers, leaders and examples.
I recognized that was what I was learning all along in football. It’s about becoming. It’s about facing adversity and setbacks and failures and letting them light your fire to be better and get stronger. It’s about not blaming setbacks on teammates or coaches or tough calls, but instead asking, “is it I that needs to improve or make changes?” It’s about seeking perfection while learning what to do with adversity and defeat. It’s about holding onto faith in things we can’t yet see as we work towards the goal of perfection.
Our chance at a perfect season is over. We lost. We gave everything and couldn’t have wanted it more, but the fact of the matter is, we will not have a perfect record this year. It hurts. But in the end it’s not the end—not for this season or for us.
This is why football’s still worth it for me, and why I’m proud to lace up my cleats again tomorrow night with my brothers. I’m grateful to play alongside men and coaches who give their all to be better every day, every practice, and every game, and to continue seeking a perfect record long after our time on the field is done.