First and Ten: A Mormon Quarterback Talks About Leadership

“First and Ten: A Mormon Quarterback Talks About Leadership,” New Era, June 1977, 55

Special Issue:

First and Ten:
A Mormon Quarterback Talks About Leadership

What does a six-foot-five-inch, 205-pound, all-American quarterback know about leadership? The New Era felt that in leading the Brigham Young University Cougars to a co-championship in the Western Athletic Conference, placing sixth in the Heisman Trophy balloting, and making BYU the top passing team in the nation, 22-year-old Gifford Nielsen must have learned something, so we talked to him about it. You will find that interview on the following pages.

In case you don’t know about Gifford Nielsen, he is a young man who is so talented athletically that he has played both basketball and football for BYU, serving one year as a starting guard on the Cougar basketball team. In football he set conference passing records during his junior year in attempts, completions, yards, touchdowns, and total offense, and tied records for total plays and touchdowns he was responsible for. Nielsen ranked first nationally in touchdown passes and team passing yards, second in total offense, and fourth in completions per game. He was the eighth player nationally ever to throw more than 3,000 yards in one season. And before Gifford could even start his amazing record-rampage, he had to work his way up from third-string quarterback to the starting spot last year.

Gifford is presently serving as assistant teachers quorum adviser in his ward in Provo and often speaks at youth firesides.

New Era: Is the quarterback the leader of the team?

Gifford: Not officially, but most of the people on the team look to the quarterback for leadership. As quarterback you are the one who stands up over the ball and calls the signals. You put the play into motion, and so just being the quarterback gives you an unofficial leadership label.

New Era: So the moment you stepped in as quarterback, you became an instant leader?

Gifford: No. Having the leadership label and being a leader are two different things. No person coming into a new group has instant leadership. He might have the ability to be a leader, but he has to earn leadership over a period of time as people gain respect for him. In athletics you gain respect partly from the way you perform on the field, from the way you get the job done. If you can make a big play or do something to help the team win, that makes your teammates feel good, and they’re more likely to respect you. Over a period of time that respect will grow into leadership.

Of course, you don’t gain any leadership from throwing a touchdown pass if you come off the field afterward and say, “I’m the greatest, and that was a great throw!” You’ll gain a lot more if you say to the line, “Great protection!” and to the receiver, “Great catch!”

New Era: Why does there need to be a leader on the field? If each player does his job exactly as he has been instructed by the coaches, won’t that be enough?

Gifford: It isn’t a question of the team having eleven separate jobs to accomplish. We have to work together as a unit, helping each other and filling in for each other’s mistakes. That requires real togetherness, and it takes leadership to hold people together. For example, when I have to scramble on a pass play, the offensive line knows how to handle it, and because we work together, I know how they’re going to handle it. If I see an opponent coming at me, I know just about how wide to go for my teammate to get a block on him. We are close, and we each know what the other player is going to do. That kind of coming together as a unit requires leadership.

There are other aspects of the game besides just executing plays, too. Psychologically, you often need someone who will step forward and say the right thing at just the right moment. Maybe somebody punches you during a play, and you want to punch him back. That’s when a teammate needs to pull you around and say, “Don’t do that.” That can help hold the team together. When somebody makes a great catch or a great block or sacks the quarterback, you definitely get more togetherness if somebody stands up and says, “Great job!” Then other people will say, “Yeah, great job!”—people who hadn’t said much before. It just takes one offensive lineman to say, “Come on, line, if we’ve never blocked before, let’s block this time!” and then everybody else comes to life—“Come on, let’s do it! Let’s go!”

New Era: A lot of excellent quarterbacks seem to have a pretty high opinion of themselves. Do you have to be a little bit arrogant to be a good quarterback?

Gifford: No, but you do have to have self-confidence. I definitely have confidence in myself. I don’t think I could play without that. But I think there is a difference between having self-confidence and being cocky. I think you’ve got to go out with the attitude that you’re going to have a good day. But you shouldn’t come off the field thinking, “Wow, that was the greatest pass that was ever thrown! The blocking was weak, and the catch was sloppy, but I put it right on the money! I did it all by myself!” You need to have confidence in both yourself and your team. You won’t win otherwise.

New Era: But if you’re going to be a leader, don’t you at least have to dominate the other players a little bit?

Gifford: I don’t try to dominate anybody. We have a lot of leaders on the team, and I look up to all of them. I’m willing to accept their advice, and when I have some advice for them, I assume they’re willing to do the same. The offensive line will often tell me something like, “Stay in the pocket a little longer, and we’ll just run them on by.” Or if we have a roll-out play, they may say, “Stay behind the tackle more,” and I’ll do it because I know that if I can make their job easier, I’m making my job easier too. Sometimes I’ll say to them, “I need more time. We’re going to lose the game if I don’t get more time because I’m being forced to throw before I’m ready,” and they say, “Okay, we’ll give you more time,” and they do.

I’m sure they’re more willing to listen to me because I listen to them. If they asked me to sit back in the pocket and I said, “I’m right where I’m supposed to be. You guys just keep them away from me,” I would hurt our relationship, and we wouldn’t have as good a team.

New Era: How does a leader express disapproval if someone isn’t performing well?

Gifford: It helps if you are willing to admit it when you make a mistake. I’ll go into the huddle when we’ve got the ball back after an interception and say, “I’m sorry. That last one was my fault.” And just to show you the wonderful kind of guys I play with, they usually say something like, “We’re together in this. It’s the fault of all of us. Now let’s forget it and take the ball down the field.”

It’s also important that you praise people when they do something well. This past year I received a lot of recognition, but I’ve always been careful to emphasize to interviewers that I’ve achieved this recognition through the work of my teammates and that they deserve as much credit as I do. I point out that the offensive line did a great job of blocking, the receivers did a great job of catching, the running backs did a great job of moving the ball, and the defense did a great job of getting the ball back. I give them honest praise every chance I get, not only because it’s a good leadership principle, but because they deserve it. If you are doing these things, it will be easier to help someone who isn’t performing up to his abilities.

I think the next thing to remember is that encouragement is more important than criticism. Exactly how you handle each case depends on how close you are to an individual, and how much he respects you. I know my receivers pretty well, and they know me well enough that if they drop a ball, I can go up to them and say, “C’mon, we’ve got to catch those. We can’t afford to drop them, and you guys are better than that. I’ll try to throw them better too. We’ve worked hard at it—let’s do it!” But with some people, maybe you have to say, “You’re doing great; you’re playing great; just keep it up, and hang onto the ball a little harder.” But l would never bawl anybody out. I don’t think any person deserves that.

New Era: We’ve been talking about you as a leader. There are some men called coaches who are your leaders. Does that cause any problems?

Gifford: A leader has to know how to be a follower too. If every time they sent in a play I said, “Oh no! Not that one!” I think I would be less of a leader to the other players, and our team would be less successful. Sometimes players get upset because on a third down with two inches to go the coach says, “Let’s punt,” and everyone on the team says, “We have confidence in ourselves. Let’s go for it!” Unless somebody speaks up in defense of the coach, some of the players will go off the field pounding their helmets, and we lose togetherness. That’s when we need a leader out there who will say, “Come on, he’s the coach, and he’s a good one; so let’s accept his decision.” Then everybody feels better about it, and the team stays together.

Every player has to respect every one of the coaches. Fortunately, with our coaching staff, that’s easy to do. Coach LaVell Edwards is one of the greatest coaches in the country. He makes football fun, and a lot of players I talk to on other teams say, “If we don’t win, we’re in trouble.” But Coach Edwards isn’t like that. He’s got a father-type image. He’d do anything in the world for each of his players. He respects them as gentlemen, and he makes sure that you develop as a person as well as a football player. He wants to make sure that you’ll make it in life as a person. All of our coaches are that way. If somebody on the team has a suggestion, they respect it and give it serious consideration.

New Era: Making football fun is nice, but where does winning come in?

Gifford: Winning is very important to me, but it’s not a matter of life and death. It’s great to be a winner. The difference between the way you feel as a winner and as a loser is like night and day, but every time two teams play, there has to be a loser. If you try to close your eyes to that reality, you’re being foolish. I am completely committed to winning, but that doesn’t mean that I can’t play fair or that I can’t be a gracious loser. If you have given absolutely everything you have and have still lost, there is no reason to be ashamed. If you know that you held back, that is a different matter, of course. Sometimes you feel you’ve really paid the price, and you still lose, so you’ve just got to accept defeat graciously. It’s going to tear you up a little bit inside, but you’ve got to face it and say, “Well, next week we’ve got to be a little bit better.” It helps to keep football in perspective, too. We only lost three times last year, so the losses were really tough, and I lost a lot of sleep afterward. But when I came home and saw my wife and daughter, it really eased the pain.

New Era: Speaking of losses, when you have a real setback, like an interception, how do you keep from losing concentration or becoming discouraged?

Gifford: You’ve got to develop emotional stability. I went through some adverse situations in my high school career, and I would leave the field kicking my helmet and making an idiot of myself. At that time I decided that if I was going to participate in athletics, I would have to control my emotions. I couldn’t let athletics control me, and at that time athletics were controlling me. I said to myself, “Look, the main goal in this life is to gain eternal life, and nothing else is really vital. Having those kinds of eternal feelings really helps. I had an interview down in Florida, and one guy said, “I don’t see how your church helps you in athletics.” I said, “Well, I’ll tell you something. It just gives me a purpose in life. The most important thing in my life is to prove myself and return to my Father in heaven. The Church gives me an eternal perspective of the reason why I’m playing football. Football is a very big part of my life, but it’s not the most important thing in my life.” I think if you look at sports in that light, it will really help you in adverse situations.

New Era: If you were giving advice to a young man who wanted to be a leader someday, what would you tell him?

Gifford: The first key is to live your religion. Live the kind of life that your Father in heaven would want you to live, the kind of life you’ve been brought up to live. People will respect you for it. If somebody in a group says, “Let’s go and get a drink,” or “Let’s go out and smoke,” or any other thing you know you shouldn’t do, don’t follow him. That’s the wrong kind of following. Be able to stand up and say, “Look, this is what I believe in, and this is the way I’m going to live my life.” I think that’s the number one thing. Maybe you’re all alone and there are five or six others trying to talk you into something. It’s difficult, but that’s when you gain their respect.

Another part of living your religion is staying close to your Father in heaven. If you do that, you will be successful in life. I think prayer is a major contributor to the success you have in any field. I know it has been for me. Not all kids are going to be successful in athletics, of course. Some are going to be successful in music or art or something else, but staying close to your Heavenly Father is the key to being successful in this life.

The second key to leadership is humility. Don’t try to force yourself on people as a leader. Be willing to both give and receive advice, and above all be willing to help people. I think a young person gains a lot of his leadership ability in the home from learning to get along with his brothers and sisters and obeying his parents. It’s his best training for getting along with others in life. If you can get along with your brothers and sisters and parents, you can master most things in life. Sometimes it’s difficult, but it builds humility. Humility for a quarterback means that when you come off the field after throwing a touchdown pass, you don’t say, “I’m the greatest,” but, “You guys did a great job blocking, and that was a great catch!”

The third key is learning to handle yourself under pressure. I threw some interceptions this year, and if I had taken off my helmet and kicked it all the way off the field, I would have lost leadership. Instead I’ve got to go off the field and think, “Well, when we come back out there, you guys had better look out, because we’re going to score.”

New Era: If you had to name a fourth key to leadership, what would it be?

Gifford: You’ve got to be prepared. Our football team puts in hours and hours of very hard work and memorizes pages of complicated plays just as a start. Then at the first of every week our coaches prepare a little booklet of five or six pages on the opposing team for that week. It includes the height and weight of all their players, how well they’ve played, and what honors they have won so that we’ll understand what we’re going against. The next couple of pages contain the defenses that our opponents use. Our coaches drill all the quarterbacks to be sure we understand all the defenses that we will see during the game. By game time we are all very well-read in everything we need to successfully meet our opponents.

I believe that if I don’t prepare myself physically and mentally, I’m letting my teammates down, and I believe I owe them my best. I believe that the whole team owes the school something too because we’re representing them every time we play. I think that if we’d all ask ourselves whom we’re representing every time we started playing or studying or anything else, we’d find ourselves wanting to do our very best.

I think these same principles apply to all aspects of life. If we work and study this hard for a football game, how much harder should we work and study for our eternal purpose in life? A lot of us procrastinate sometimes, but we’ve got to prepare ourselves to live with our Father in heaven again. We can’t expect to succeed without preparation.

New Era: You mentioned the importance of keeping calm under pressure. When two or three big defensive players break through your protection and are chasing you around the backfield, how do you go about staying calm?

Gifford: I think a lot of it comes through experience. The very first time you see those guys coming at you, you don’t know what you’re going to do. But after it’s happened a couple of times, you gain experience, and then you have confidence in yourself and your teammates that it will work out. But it’s always tough, and it’s especially tough the first time. It’s a lot like life. It’s tough the first time you have to say no to the guys. That’s the hardest thing in the world. At that point you think, “If I tell them no, they’re not going to be my friends, and I want them to be my friends so much.” I think every time you do something new in life you’re sticking out your neck, but if you know it’s right, you have to do it anyway. Any person keeping God’s commandments is a leader and a pretty brave one too.

Photos by Jed Clark