More than a year has passed since University of Utah receiver and return specialist Britain Covey returned from his mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Rancagua, Chile.
The 5-foot-8, 170-pound Provo native is still a missionary at heart.
When possible, Covey said one of his favorite things to do is engage in spiritual conversations with his teammates. He emphasized his intent in doing so is not to convert anyone but simply to share about God, he said in an interview a few days before the Utes' spring game on April 13.
Covey sat out Utah's spring football drills to allow previous injuries to heal.
"In football it’s really easy when you’re around the guys to view them as stereotypical football players who are hard-headed and who aren’t the church-going type," Covey said. "But every single player that I asked about their religious beliefs, it’s like a new side of them comes out."
Covey starts the conversation with questions like "Do you believe in God? Were your parents churchgoers? Do you pray? What are your prayers like? Do you believe God has a plan for you?" Then he listens. Later he'll ask if he can attend the teammate's congregation and delights in going. The result is a stronger bond between teammates, which he finds richly rewarding, he said.
"You'll see some of the toughest players open up and show their soft side. You start to build relationships on true principles and not just on hollow activities," Covey said. "It’s just wonderful to share. I feel that God is very present in all of their lives and it’s just cool to see that side to everybody."
Covey has also appreciated his association with Utah's team chaplain, Pastor France A. Davis of Calvary Baptist Church, who gives a 5-minute sermon and prays with the team each week during the season.
"I feel like Pastor Davis has enough faith to walk on water," Covey said. "He always asks the team if there are any special requests before he prays. I have no shame in raising my hand to share my special request because I know if he prays for it, it's bound to happen."
Covey's outgoing, friendly and spiritual nature comes as no surprise to Reed and Kathleen Harris, who preside over the Chile Rancagua Mission. In an email, President and Sister Harris described Covey's love for the Chilean people and his fellow missionaries through a handful of memorable anecdotes.
"The influence of Elder Covey was felt everywhere in the mission," they wrote.
One of Covey's mission companions was a Latino elder who had been a member of the church for less than two years and was the only Latter-day Saint in his family. Nearly every week the missionary received letters from his parents saying he was wasting his time and should come home, which left him discouraged and homesick. Elder Covey wrote to the missionary's parents, expressed love for their son and "explained he was a great missionary who was helping many people and doing an important work," the Harrises wrote. The heartfelt letter helped the family be more supportive of their son.
Another time, Elder Covey was sent to serve in a small branch that had few active members and no missionary baptisms in a long time. Within a short time, Elder Covey and his companion sparked a flurry of activity, nearly doubling the attendance and finding several convert baptisms, among other positive changes.
President and Sister Harris never knew Elder Covey to be distracted by football or heard him speak of his "glory days," they wrote. One time while greeting a group of new missionaries, a new elder from Utah who was a devoted Ute fan was ecstatic as he shook Elder Covey's hand.
"You're Britain Covey!" the elder said. "Hey, I watched you play football!"
"Football? What's football? Welcome to the mission!" Elder Covey replied with enthusiasm. "This is the best mission in the world. You will love it."
"That describes Elder Covey," President and Sister Harris wrote. "He was not a celebrity in the mission. He was a leader for good. He saw the good in others and promoted it."
At the end of his mission, a conflict delayed Elder Covey's parents from coming to pick him up on his release date. To accommodate the unexpected change, Elder Covey proposed staying in the mission an extra nine days to help various struggling companionships.
"He lifted every companionship to double or triple their production during his one to two days with them. It was an incredible experience to watch," President and Sister Harris wrote. "Most impressive was Elder Covey's love of God, love for his fellow men and his integrity. Wherever he served, the work improved and people changed their lives for the better."
In a recent interview, Covey reflected on his mission experiences, its impact and blessings in his life, along with other topics such surviving earthquakes, responding to opponent trash-talk in Spanish, his future college coaching aspirations and as his dating life.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Trent Toone: Is there any special significance behind your name, Britain?
Britain Covey: No. The first four months of my life my name was spelled B-R-I-T-T-O-N, then my parents decided to change the spelling to be like the country, B-R-I-T-A-I-N. So that’s what it is now. I have no idea why. But I do take advantage to wear “Great Britain” shirts all the time. I just flaunt it, it’s my namesake.
TT: What was the biggest message you took from April general conference?
BC: I always like to look for themes in general conference. Two things stood out to me. One was an emphasis on missionary work. The other was an emphasis on focusing on the simple things, kind of simplifying the gospel.
TT: What was your reaction to a new temple in Antofagasta, Chile?
BC: Oh, I was going nuts. The prophet said to maintain your emotions, but I thought he was only talking to those in the Conference Center. When I was in my house I was cheering.
TT: Since coming home, how many interviews have you had in which a reporter has asked you about your mission?
BC: I don’t think there’s been an interview where they haven’t asked about my mission. Obviously any returned missionary understands that question is often asked. Sometimes you don’t know what to say, because how do you describe two years in one sentence?
TT: Why do you think they are so interested in your mission experience?
BC: I think it’s just a different element that's not seen in many other places. I often wonder what impact they think it has on me as a player and not just as a person.
TT: After the 2015 football season, you went from being a celebrated, huge deal in Utah to serving in a country where people knew nothing about American football, another "gringo" struggling with the language. What was that transition like for you?
BC: It was good. I mean, it kind of brought me back down to humility and opened my eyes to a lot of things that you can’t grasp without actually experiencing it. There really is no substitute for experience. You can look at pictures of Chile, and you can read about it, but it's different when you go down there and you see it.
TT: What was the biggest challenge of mission life for you?
BC: I would say the biggest challenge is developing the mindset to make it a natural instinct to constantly turn outward. It's so natural that when something happens to you, when a change happens, to turn inward. But on your mission, you're so aware of trying to change and turn outward that it's a struggle, and you get frustrated with yourself. So it's a balance. It's trying to make it second nature to turn outward. That's the hardest part but it's so rewarding.
TT: Chile has had a lot of earthquakes in recent years. Did you experience one?
BC: Yes, I was there during a pretty big one in a place called Curico. I was in a grocery store and things started falling off the shelves. I started freaking out but everybody kept shopping. I was like, everybody, what do I do? They all started laughing. This is nothing. I couldn’t believe how calm they were about the earthquake. It was a 5.0 or 6.0-magnitude earthquake.
TT: How did serving a mission make you tougher?
BC: I think more than teaching me specific things about life, it taught me the process of how to deal with things. That's one of my biggest takeaways from the mission. The older you get, the more you realize that you don't know anything, but you do learn the process of learning things, dealing with things and asking God. The way I got tougher is learning the process of dealing with things.
TT: How has that process helped you when going across the middle to catch a pass and take a hit?
BC: Yeah, well, I think that one is just instinct. I don’t know (laughs). I think that I would have a different answer than my mom would because she would see that as a negative. I see it as a positive.
TT: How do you feel the Lord blessed you for sacrificing life and football to serve a mission?
BC: I feel like a mission is one of those turning points in your life. It's a fulcrum point where I think that the way you get to love someone is by sacrificing for them. The way you get to love God is by sacrificing for him. So the biggest way it helped me is I learned to love God, and I learned who he was better because I sacrificed for him. So really, it's almost unfair of me to expect blessings from God when all I did when I went on my mission was realize how much he has already blessed me.
TT: What did your mission teach you about being a leader? How has that translated into post-mission life?
BC: The biggest thing is a principle my grandpa (Stephen R. Covey) used to teach in one of his books called “Spiritual Roots of Human Relations.” It's my favorite key of leadership — the key to the 99 is the one. Basically, the reason why Christ has such influence over the masses is because he cares about the individual. The reason why he can influence the 99 sheep is because he left for the one sheep. When you care about individuals, you make it more personal. So on your mission, you're not focused on serving the masses, being recognized or getting attention, you're focused on serving individuals in small towns and small houses where no one's going to know except for you, them and God. I think that's what it taught me about leadership.
TT: What was it like to come home, transition back to normal life and support your teammate Devanta’e Henry-Cole in his Latter-day Saint conversion?
BC: I remember having a lot of mixed emotions as I was about to return from the mission. My sister gave me a paradigm shift. She said just view home as your next area. If God wanted you to stay on your mission longer, missions would be more than two years. He doesn't want you out there longer, he wants you to come home and serve in your next area. So I came home and viewed this as my next area. It was great taking the missionary discussions with Devanta’e. We just had another baptism of a girl, a fellow student here, that I've taught with the missionaries for three months. It's been wonderful to realize that missionary work never stops.
TT: What's been your favorite part of playing football at the University of Utah so far?
BC: The diversity of the university, of the football team in particular. I get to interact with people that are from such different backgrounds and cultures, and I feel like our bonds are stronger because of it. These are people from places and backgrounds very different than Utah County and yet we become best friends. I feel it just creates stronger bonds more than anything.
TT: Do you still get to use your Spanish?
BC: Yes, all the time. I know all the people that speak Spanish here. In fact, one time last season, Arizona players were talking trash to me. I responded in Spanish just to confuse them. I said, “No tiene ni un brillo” (a Chilean phrase that means someone or something is boring, not appealing). But yeah, I look for opportunities to learn and use Spanish whenever I can. (Covey is pursuing a minor in Spanish.) I’ve also spoken at a couple of Latter-day Saint devotionals in Spanish wards.
TT: Who would you say has had the biggest influence on you at the University of Utah?
BC: (Head coach) Kyle Whittingham or (defensive coordinator) Morgan Scalley. The reason why is because they both have a way of carrying themselves. The one thing that you really want in a coach is to respect them. There are coaches that are liked but not respected. There are coaches that are respected but not liked. Coach Scalley and coach Whit have both — they're liked and respected. The way that coach Whit carries himself has taught me so much about being a trustworthy and respectable person, and how that's what makes you successful.
TT: Where do you go or what do you do to relax and recharge?
BC: Sometimes you go on a date, but then you come home and you get grilled about the date from your parents, aunts and uncles. So that’s not recharging. Sometimes you watch the Utah Jazz. Yeah, I would say the Jazz and try to find a girlfriend.
TT: Any marriage prospects?
BC: Yes, I am dating someone right now. I consider her to be a prospect. Hopefully she considers me a prospect as well.
TT: What do you see yourself doing when your football playing days are over?
BC: I would love to perhaps spend a few years coaching. Then my major is business management, so wherever that takes me. But I definitely want to give coaching a go for a couple of years at the college level. I think coaches that realize the impact that they can have in college and take their job very seriously really do more than just help people become better football players. Coach Whit is like that. I’ve heard similar things about LaVell Edwards, who was an amazing coach.
TT: If you were to write a best-selling motivational book that starts with “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective (fill in the blank)," what topic would you focus on?
BC: Let’s go with … teams, “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Teams.” Or “The 7 Habits of a Highly Effective Dating Life.”