Someone to Look Up To
December 1990

“Someone to Look Up To,” New Era, Dec. 1990, 26

Someone to Look Up To

At seven-foot-six Shawn Bradley is the tallest person most people will ever see, and his unwavering commitment to his beliefs makes him as deep as he is tall.

First of all, Shawn Bradley is tall.

Not just the ordinary, over-six-feet, hard-to-find-trousers-long-enough kind of tall.

Shawn is the duck-through-doorways, watch-out-for-light-fixtures, can’t-fit-in-some-cars, look-over-the-heads-of-everyone-in-a-crowd kind of tall. He is literally the tallest person most people will see in their lifetime. His height simply astounds people.

But Shawn Bradley is more than a seven-foot-six 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 big. It’s hilarious what some people do. It’s crazy.”

“Yeah,” says Justin, Shawn’s six-foot-two, 13-year-old brother, “when we see another seven-foot 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 slouching in a comfortable chair. But as soon as he stands up, the room’s normal eight-foot ceilings shrink. The doorways cause problems when Shawn forgets to duck. He and Justin sometimes get roughhousing together as brothers will do, “When I get chasing him around, once in a while I’ll forget,” says Shawn. “Then, wham! I’m flat on the floor. It knocks me silly.”

Teresa, Shawn’s mother, lists a few other adjustments they have had to make at home. “We had to extend our mirror up in the bathroom so Shawn can see. We’ve had to order him an eight-foot bed.”

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 mall,” 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 20 or 30 feet 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 sick of it, 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 trade it 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 seven feet, six inches, 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 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.

Teresa and Reiner 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, Teresa remembers thinking, “Boy, this guy is tall.” Standing six feet herself, she was aware of height. Reiner is six-foot-eight. “He remembered my phone number when I gave it to my friend and called me,” said Teresa. They were married a year later. It was while the couple was stationed in Germany, fulfilling an ROTC obligation in the army, that Shawn was born. After finishing his schooling as a medical technologist, Reiner moved his young family back to Teresa’s hometown of Castle Dale, Utah. They wanted a small-town atmosphere for their children.

“I wanted my children to become well rounded,” says Teresa. “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 they can sort of learn how to work doing chores.”

“No sort of about it,” Shawn interrupted. “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 yucky. The milk cow is wet and gross, and you have to go out and milk her at 6:00 in the morning when it’s ten below zero. 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 was the second-string quarterback in football during junior high 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.

“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 house. 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.”

Some time in his early teens, Shawn could beat his Dad in one-on-one. “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 could actually 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, “Yeah.”

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. College recruiters roamed around Castle Dale trying to persuade Shawn to consider going to their colleges.

But Shawn had one big requirement, and if schools would not agree, then there was no more discussion. Shawn told them that as soon as he turned 19 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. Teresa confesses to being delighted when her son chose to go to Brigham Young University, 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, “but I hope I don’t go to Japan. We have a family friend who was six-foot-four who went to Japan and had an uncomfortable time. He said things there were built for short people.”

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 210 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.”

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 15, he and a friend attended a prestigious national basketball camp with 120 of the best high school players in the United States. A new friend talking with the two Utah players had some pretty wild 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. “Yeah, we go to school with them. We see them all the time. Mormons are 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, that kid started asking more about the Church and our ideals. He couldn’t believe we wouldn’t have sex until after we were married, and that we wouldn’t drink and stuff. It was a heavy-duty discussion for 15-year-olds.

“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, 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 stuck up?” says Corinne. “He’s not at all. He’s down to earth. He’s always quick to say he’s sorry if he does something wrong. He’s totally cool.”

In his ward, Shawn’s bishop, Scott Johansen, says, “He’s just one of the guys. He’s quiet, friendly, and very considerate of others. He goes out of his way to cheer someone up. He would be an outstanding young man if he were five-foot-eleven.”

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.”

Then with a touch of amazement in his voice, Bill said, “I have a hard time even believing he’s my good friend because he is such an awesome friend.”

When asked what advice Shawn would give to young people, he said, “It bugs 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. [2 Ne. 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 he continues to grow.

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

Photography by Jed Clark, Peggy Jellinghausen, Janet Thomas, and courtesy of Deseret News

(Far left) Shawn chose to play his college basketball at BYU. (Left) Friends mean a lot to Shawn. He likes knowing everyone in his school and in his small hometown by name. (Right) Seminary is a great chance to learn more about the gospel. “The first time I had to tell the Joseph Smith story,” says Shawn, “I did not feel satisfied with myself.” Continued gospel study is important to him.

Eating is a favorite and necessary pastime. “I’ll eat anything except lima beans,” says Shawn. “And I’ll eat them if I have to.” Dancing the slow dances (right) with friend Corinne Pugmire used to cause problems until a chair evened things out. After a mission and college, Shawn plans on a pro basketball career while raising a family.

Pausing for a photo on a Saturday morning when Dad was at work, the Bradleys (from left)—Tasha, Justin, Adrianne, Mom, and Shawn—are ready to scatter for a normal busy day. (Below) Teresa and Reiner Bradley had no idea their children would be this tall. Still, when it comes to help in decision-making, Shawn looks up to them.