Life at BYU
His father’s words proved to be prophetic. As time went on, Willis’s family members started to attend BYU games. “I remember going back to my hometown and seeing some of my aunts and uncles wearing BYU gear,” Willis said. “It was a testament for me to know that diversity brings perspective.”
Willis quickly adapted to BYU culture, although there were some things he definitely had to get used to, such as prayers at the beginning and end of class, everything shutting down on Sunday, and attending religion classes.
What made the transition easy, however, was that he wasn’t worried about trying to fit in.
“I felt I had something to offer, whatever the culture was,” Willis said. “In order to fit in I would have to somewhat join the Church, and I knew I wasn’t ready to do that. So I just thought, you know something? People are going to like me because I’m unique, and instead of fitting in, I’m going to try to position myself in a way that they have to accept me, and hopefully, they like me and love me for who I am.”
Willis also felt supported by the thoughtfulness of his coach and teammates. LaVell Edwards asked his wife Patti if she wouldn’t mind attending religion class with Willis during his first semester to make sure that he felt comfortable, and she did. It was a gesture that touched Willis deeply.
Although Willis did get a few stares in the grocery store or the mall, he attributed those mostly to his tall stature rather than his race or his religion. “It was probably because they were wondering if I was a basketball player . . . and if you’re 6’3,” they’re like, ‘I’ve got to ask if you play for the Jazz,’ and things like that,” Willis said. Later on, Willis was recognized in public places simply for who he was as a BYU football player.
Willis hadn’t grown up with any kind of religion, but his parents had taught him love, respect, and how to be comfortable in your own skin. Willis’s parents had grown up in an era of segregation and wanted their son to be able to break patterns of separation and learn inclusion. “They wanted me to get out of my comfort zone, and they wanted me to grow as a person,” Willis said.
Joining the Church
Willis said that throughout his time at BYU, “the Church rubbed off on me because the people did.” What really pushed him to consider spiritual matters, however, was meeting his future wife Leslie.
Leslie was a BYU gymnast from American Fork, and because she and Willis were both athletes, they “couldn’t get away from each other.” As they began dating, “the Church became more and more real” to Willis as the two talked about family and eternity together.
Willis’s impression of the Church was happiness, and he decided that happiness, and an eternity with Leslie, was just what he wanted. Willis's good friend George Curtis, then the head athletic trainer at BYU, performed his baptism.
President Willis and his family at his son's graduation. His parents are on the far left. President Willis and his wife are in white. His three children are in the middle.
Although Willis’s parents had pushed him to attend BYU, Willis was afraid to tell them that he’d joined the Church. He was nervous about what they would think and worried that they would try to persuade him otherwise. “I thought I was going to keep it a secret,” Willis said, with a laugh.
Willis and his sweetheart were married in a church house because Willis still had to wait a year before going to the temple, and his entire family was able to attend the ceremony. At some point during the services, the bishop conducting the marriage said, “Ever since Jamal joined the Church . . . ”
“Oh no!” Willis thought, since he hadn’t told his family about getting baptized. “This is not going to be good.”
After the ceremony, his parents asked him about it. “Why didn’t you tell us?” they asked. Willis told them his reasons.
His parents laughed. “We already knew six months ago,” they said. A coworker had shown them a magazine blurb that said BYU’s Jamal Willis gets converted to the Church. “You know, Jamal, we support you in whatever you want to do,” they said. “We think it’s a great thing.”