Someone to Look Up To
October 1991

“Someone to Look Up To,” Tambuli, Oct. 1991, 42

Someone to Look Up To

First of all, Shawn Bradley is tall.

Not just the ordinary kind of tall.

Shawn is literally the tallest person most people will see in their lifetimes. His height simply astounds people.

But Shawn Bradley is more than a 2.26-meter-tall freshman college basketball player. His honest concern for others and wonderful attitude about life hint at depths that match his amazing size. But first of all, before anyone can come to understand that inner person, there is Shawn’s height.

“I intimidate people,” Shawn says half apologetically, “just because I’m so tall. It’s really funny how some people react when they see me.”

“Yes,” says Justin, Shawn’s 1.87-meter-tall, thirteen-year-old brother, “When we see another 2-meter guy, we don’t think he’s so tall.”

Sitting in the front room of his parents’ home, Shawn doesn’t seem extraordinarily tall while relaxing in a comfortable chair. But as soon as he stands up, the room’s normal 2.43-meter-high ceilings shrink. “I have to duck through almost every doorway in this house. It was built ten years ago, and Mom and Dad had no idea I would be this tall.”

The doorways cause problems when Shawn forgets to duck his head. He and Justin sometimes start wrestling and chasing each other as brothers will do. “When I get chasing Justin around, once in a while I’ll forget that I’m indoors,” says Shawn. “Then, bang! My head hits the doorway, and I’m flat on the floor. I almost knock myself unconscious.”

Shawn’s mother, Theresa, lists a few other adjustments they have had to make at home. “We had to extend the height of our mirror in the bathroom so Shawn can see. We’ve had to order him a 2.43-meter-long bed. He loves to come home after he’s been traveling with the basketball team and sleeping in hotel beds.”

“I have to sleep on the floor when I’m traveling,” says Shawn.

Friends and family are completely used to Shawn’s height, but they find it entertaining to go places with him and notice other people’s reactions.

“My family treats me horribly when we go to the stores,” Shawn says, in mock complaint. Justin and sisters Tasha, 15, and Adrianne, 9, just smile because they know what he is going to say next. “We’ll all be walking together, my family and friends, and I’ll look around and no one will be there. I turn around, and they are about six or eight meters behind me, watching everyone look at me. I’ll say, ‘Thanks a lot, guys.’”

His sister, Tasha, adds, “You can’t believe the looks he gets.”

Doesn’t he get tired of never being able to go anywhere without causing a sensation?

“Sometimes he gets tired of it, but he loves it,” says Corinne Pugmire, one of Shawn’s best friends from high school. “He wouldn’t exchange the experience for anything, and he’ll be the first one to tell you that.”

“I love being tall,” says Shawn. “I do get tired of people always looking at me and always saying things, but I try to represent myself in a good, upstanding manner for my faith and my family. I am what I am. I’m 2.26 meters tall, and nothing is going to change that. I have to deal with it and live with it. My family and my coach have taught me to look positively at things. Make the best of the situation is a slogan I live by. Look for the best in everything. That’s what I’ve tried to do so far in my life, and that’s what I want to do for the rest of my life.”

It’s the kind of attitude that would make anyone stand out in a crowd. Shawn gives a lot of credit for his positive outlook to his parents.

Theresa and Reiner Bradley met in a hospital. She was visiting a friend, and he was working his way through college as an orderly. When he walked into her friend’s hospital room, Theresa remembers thinking, “Wow, this guy is tall.” Standing 1.82-meters-tall herself, she was aware of height. Reiner is two meters tall. “He remembered my phone number when I gave it to my friend, and he called me,” says Theresa. They were married a year later. It was while the couple was stationed in Germany, fulfilling an obligation in the army, that Shawn was born. After finishing his schooling as a medical technologist, Reiner moved his young family back to Theresa’s hometown of Castle Dale, Utah. They wanted a small-town atmosphere for their children.

“I wanted my children to become well rounded,” says Theresa. “I wanted them to participate in lots of different activities so that when the time came for them to choose what they wanted to be in life, they’d have a good background. It’s happening. My kids are involved in almost too much. We have animals, and the kids can sort of learn how to work doing chores.”

“No ‘sort of’ about it,” Shawn interrupts. “We do chores. I like doing most chores, but the worst is in the middle of the winter when it’s snowing, and out in the corral it’s really messy. The milk cow is wet and dirty, and you have to go out and milk her at six o’clock in the morning when the temperature is below freezing. It’s got to be the worst chore in the world.”

Shawn may have to face the cow in the freezing barn some mornings alone, but in everything else his family offers encouragement and love. “We were there behind him to support him,” says Reiner, “not to push him. I don’t think he ever felt pressure to play in any sport.”

Shawn loves to play baseball and also played football during his junior high school years until he felt he couldn’t risk injury. He was on the high school golf team, although he’s quick to add that when they organized the eight-member team, only seven tried out. “They had to let me on.” He likes to horseback ride, rock climb, and water-ski with his friends.

“Reiner is very athletic,” says Theresa, “and so am I. When Shawn came home from the hospital, my husband put a basketball in the crib. That was the first thing Shawn saw.”

Shawn laughs and shrugs his shoulders, “I had no chance.”

“We knew quite early that Shawn would be good in basketball,” says Reiner. “I played ball with some men in the ward early mornings at the stake center. I asked Shawn if he would be interested in coming along. He went with me many mornings to the stake center and played with the adults when he was only eleven or twelve years old.”

Some time in his early teenage years, Shawn first beat his Dad in one-on-one basketball competition. “I don’t remember when it happened. When Dad would win, it would make me feel bad, so the next time, he’d let me beat him. I never really knew when I actually could beat him.”

But Shawn is not quite so kind to his younger brother, Justin. Would he like to beat his older brother? Justin answers very quickly, “Yes.”

Theresa says, “That’s Justin’s ultimate goal.”

Under his breath, Shawn mumbles, “It’s never going to happen. I’m not going to let him. When he beats me, he’ll know it.”

Of course, Shawn’s basketball prowess has not gone unnoticed. He has attracted national attention since he was in the ninth grade. His family’s ability to look for the positive really helped while college recruiters visited around Castle Dale trying to persuade Shawn to consider goint to their colleges. Shawn’s dad, Reiner, says, “We were told the recruiting process could become unpleasant. We sat down as a family and said, let’s not let it get that way. Let’s do this from a positive angle. Let’s enjoy it. It was an incredible experience, and the family enjoyed every minute of it.”

From the beginning of the recruitment process, one of Shawn’s requirements was stated clearly, and if schools would not agree, then there was no more discussion. Shawn told them that as soon as he turned nineteen years old, he would be taking two years off to serve a mission. That point was nonnegotiable. All the colleges that talked with Shawn agreed. His family supported Shawn’s decision as he selected a school. Theresa confesses to being delighted when her son chose to go to Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, just about a two-hour drive from home.

As many prospective missionaries do, Shawn has thought about some of the places he may serve a mission. “I’ll go anywhere,” says Shawn. His mother adds, “We’re hoping he’ll go to a country that feeds missionaries really well so he can gain weight.”

And that brings up the subject of food. Shawn is too skinny for his height. He weighs ninety-five kilos and is consciously working to put on weight. “I eat anything I can get my hands on,” Shawn explains. “It’s like a constant hunger. I can always eat. It’s really hard for me to gain weight.”

But serving a mission is more than living and eating in another place. It is teaching others about your deepest beliefs. Shawn has already had some experiences that have prepared him for teaching the gospel.

When Shawn was fifteen years old, he and a friend attended a national basketball training camp with 120 of the best high school players in the United States. A new friend talking with the two Utah players had some unusual misconceptions about Mormons.

“He asked me, ‘There are Mormons where you’re from, right? Do you see them? Do you live by them?’

“I answered him,” says Shawn. “‘Yes, we go to school with them. We see them all the time. Mormons are just like you and me. They are normal people. They look like us. They dress like us. They act like us. They talk like us.’

“He didn’t believe me until I said, ‘I can prove to you that Mormons are just normal people.’ He said, ‘How?’ I said, ‘We’re both Mormons.’ It really shook him up. A few days later, he started asking more about the Church and our ideals. He couldn’t believe we practiced chastity and that we wouldn’t drink alcohol or smoke. We had a very serious discussion for fifteen-year-olds.

“On that same trip was the first time I had ever had to tell the Joseph Smith story. I was asking myself, how much do I really know? I did not feel satisfied with myself at all explaining what I believe. I ended up bearing my testimony to him. That is the best missionary tool in the world. I just couldn’t find a way of explaining everything I knew. But I knew it was true. It was an excellent feeling to know something is really true.”

Shawn finds himself more and more often talking about the Church. Besides his television interviews with national press, he spends time speaking at firesides. His friend, Corinne Pugmire, says people can sense his testimony. “When he speaks, he never has to take something back that he said about the Church. You can tell that he is not making it up to impress people. He definitely has a strong testimony. He’s adamant about standing up for what he believes and not backing down one bit.”

Friends mean a lot to Shawn. He wants to be able to trust everybody, but he’s already met people who just want to take advantage of him. “Deep down I can sense their motives. I can tell when people want to know me for what I am, not who I am. I think it’s the Holy Ghost saying, ‘Be careful.’”

“People ask, is he conceited?” says Corinne. “He’s not at all. He’s very ordinary. He never gives you the feeling that he thinks he is better than anyone else. He’s always quick to say he’s sorry if he does something wrong.”

In his ward, Shawn’s bishop, Scott Johansen says, “He’s quiet, friendly, and very considerate of others. He goes out of his way to cheer others up. He would be an outstanding young man even if he were shorter than he is.”

When asked to think about someone Shawn has helped, his friend Bill Wright thought for a fraction of a second before answering, “He’s helped me. He’s incredibly caring. He puts everybody ahead of himself. My mother died two years ago, and he was the only one of my friends who came to her funeral. That has stuck with me. He was so caring and thought about me so much. He’s always there for me when I’m feeling bad.”

When asked what advice he would give to young people, Shawn says, “It bothers me when people don’t think well of themselves. They need to have high self-esteem. If I had advice for anyone anywhere, it would be that you have got to think of yourself as the Lord would think of you, as one of His children.” Maybe that’s part of Shawn’s secret, why he treats people with such kindness and courtesy.

And his ability to see the good side to things has something to do with his favorite scripture, 2 Nephi 2:11. “That’s the one that talks about opposition in all things,” says Shawn. “If something goes wrong, I say, well, there is opposition in all things. This is the opposition. You have to put it aside and go on.”

Shawn has learned how to take gospel truths into his life and let them guide his actions and decisions. It is in this way that he continues to grow.

Yes, Shawn Bradley is tall, and he is definitely someone to look up to.

Since this article was written, Shawn has received his mission call. He is now serving in the Australia Sydney mission.

Photography by Peggy Jellinghausen

Photography courtesy Deseret News

Photography by Janet Thomas