Famous Latter-day Saints

LDS Convert, NFL Player Shares How Diversity Led Him to Join the Church



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mal Willis, former NFL running back for the 49ers, was recently called to be in the presidency for the Church’s Genesis Group. In an interview with LDS Living, he shared his story of embracing diversity and staying true to himself while navigating college, football, and Mormon culture.

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A Life-Changing Decision

When Jamal Willis received a football-recruiting letter from BYU, he threw it in the trash. “I didn’t want to go to BYU. I didn’t know BYU,” Willis said. “I was one of the highly recruited athletes. I had a lot of big schools—Nebraska, Oklahoma, Washington—recruiting me.”

Willis didn’t know much about BYU, but he did recall hearing a few of his family members talking about it. “It’s a religious school,” they said. “There’s not a lot of black people that are there.” It didn’t matter anyway, because Willis had much made up his mind. It was either Nebraska or Berkley for him.

Willis’s dad had set up back-to-back visits in their Las Vegas home from Nebraska’s Tom Osborn and BYU’s LaVell Edwards. Edwards was waiting in the car for his appointment while Willis’s dad asked Osborn one question: “What can you offer my son?”

“We can offer your son a great football experience and an opportunity to play in the NFL,” Osborn said. Willis was sold.

A few minutes later, Willis’s father asked LaVell Edwards the same question: “What can you offer my son?”

Edwards said, “We can offer your son a great education, an opportunity to play good football, and an opportunity to grow as a young man and be around people who care about him.”

When Willis heard that he thought, “Seriously? That’s it?” His parents, on the other hand, were “just floored.” Willis’s father insisted that they visit BYU and check it out.

“I just went along with it,” Willis said. “Obviously, when dad says this is what we’re going to do, we’re going to do it.”

Willis’s parents loved BYU. “I think what drew them to BYU was more or less the culture, the people,” Willis said. “I didn’t really see what they saw. . . . I wanted to go to a place that was like how I grew up, and I thought Cal Berkley or Nebraska was that.”

Willis told his dad his decision, but the day before the press conference where Willis would announce his final decision, his father brought it up again. “Why not BYU?” he asked. They had a long discussion, debating back and forth. In the end, Willis asked his father, “Dad, where do you want me to go?”

“I want you to go to BYU,” his dad said.

“Okay, Dad,” Willis responded, although he was upset. “If you want me to go to BYU, okay, I’ll go. But if I fail, it’s your fault.”

The next day, at the press conference, “everyone in Las Vegas thought Jamal Willis is going to Nebraska,” Willis said. When he announced that his choice was BYU, the room was dead silent. One of his family members got up and stormed out.

“At that point, I felt like I let my whole family down. I felt like I let my town down, my whole city. And I remember the news talking that night, saying they couldn’t believe Jamal was going to BYU when he was getting recruited by big schools. I was embarrassed,” Willis said.

The next day Willis kept to himself, stayed in the house, and didn’t talk to anybody. “I didn’t want to answer to anyone,” he said. His dad came in to talk to him, however. “Jamal, I know you don’t understand the why of why you need to be there. But I promise you, you’re going to go there and you’re going to be successful, and you’re going to change lots of people’s minds.”

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.

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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.

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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.” 

Playing for the NFL

Just as Willis’s father had predicted, Willis’s BYU experience was a success. He went on to play as the running back for the San Francisco 49ers. As a new convert and a new husband, Willis felt blessed to have good role models in the four other LDS members of his team, including Steve Young and coach Tom Holmoe. He said that they were a huge support to him in living his faith during his time playing in the NFL.

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“On Sundays obviously we couldn’t go to church because we played all our games on Sunday,” Willis said. But his teammate Steve Young got permission for the four of them to conduct their own sacrament meeting in their hotel room. Two of them would bless the sacrament and the others would present a spiritual thought. “It was such a spiritual experience,” Willis said.

Willis remembers a time when his teammate Jerry Rice came up to him and said, “You’re not LDS are you?”

Willis told him he was. “It blew him away. He said, ‘Well, you don’t act it. You surprise me,'” Willis said.

Willis took the comment in the light it was intended. First, he recognized that many people don’t realize there are black Mormons. Next, he understood that many don’t realize that you can be yourself and still be a good Mormon. “I think he was impressed that you can be within your own skin and be a member of the Church,” Willis said.

Called to the Genesis Group

Willis was recently called by Area Authority Seventy Elder David Warner to be the first counselor in the Genesis Group presidency. Embracing individuality and diversity is at the heart of the group.

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 The new presidency of the Genesis Group — first counselor Jamal Willis, left; President Davis Stovall, center; and second counselor Joseph Kaluba, right; after they were sustained in the group's monthly meeting in Cottonwood Heights, Utah on Sunday, Jan. 7, 2018. Image and caption from Facebook.

The group was created in 1971 to support black Latter-day Saints and is a place where many feel they can let their hair down and be themselves, worshiping and celebrating the gospel in a way that is culturally familiar to them. “It’s all about inclusion. It’s about love. It’s about service. . . . It’s about acceptance of anyone and all differences,” Willis said.

The monthly group meetings feature music by the Unity Gospel Choir, which engages the audience through clapping, swaying, and encouraging sing-along. The choir is accompanied by instruments not typically seen in an LDS chapel, such as the electric guitar and the saxophone. Inspirational speakers and a testimony meeting round out the program.

At Genesis, the congregation is encouraged to stand up and meet new faces around them, shout or holler when they feel moved, and clap during and after musical performances and speakers’ messages. “After you’re done with Genesis . . .you just feel so rejuvenated that you want to go out and you can conquer the world,” Willis said.

According to Willis, many attend Genesis Group because it’s a place where they feel welcome to be who they are without judgment or criticism. “Sometimes that lacks in certain wards,” Willis said. “I mean, we all know that feeling.”

Although Willis loves that people have a place to congregate and be themselves, he hopes that Genesis Group will accomplish more than that. “Our goal is for those people who come to Genesis to leave Genesis with the motivation and the love and the hope to go out and not just show their uniqueness in their wards, but to help others feel the same spirit of unity.”

Genesis reflects the lessons Willis learned at BYU. “Instead of trying to fit in, understand your uniqueness and what you bring,” Willis said. “Once you do that, people tend to gravitate to you, regardless of color, regardless of differences.”

Willis wants everyone to understand that you don’t have to change who you are to be a member of the Church.

“Diversity is a great thing in the gospel,” Willis said. “We’re different, and it’s okay to worship and to be excited in your own way.”

Photos courtesy of Jamal Willis

Interested in learning more about Genesis Group? Visit ldsgenesisgroup.org


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