Two "outsiders" with two very different perspectives
In case you haven't heard, the state of Utah is different than the rest of the world, particularly in Provo and around BYU.
That's the narrative at least, right? Provo, UT is a weird place with weird rules and a weird religion and a bunch of weird things. If you aren't on the inside of the weirdness, it's just really weird.
Totally coincidentally, two separate podcast interviews found their way into my podcast feed today. The first was an interview with former BYU running back Jamaal Williams and the second an interview with current BYU quarterback Kedon Slovis. Neither Williams nor Slovis are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Both are outsiders from the persepctive of what makes BYU and Provo such a weird place.
Listening to each of them talk about Provo, though, is fascinating. At least in the interviews that were published in the last couple of weeks, their perspectives are wildly different.
Let's start with what Williams had to say on The Pivot.
"It was the off-the-field thing that I had to learn more about," Williams started. "I was already an introverted, in-the-house type of kid. So I really didn't understand social life, really. But it was BYU, so it was like an adult high school."
So far, nothing super noteworthy, right. But Williams continued to talk a little about his BYU experience and it got a little more interesting.
"Being there, I learned a lot about how I am now, just go about your business - don't tell your business to everybody because everybody ain't your friend. People at BYU - trifling, some of them are trifling - they really tell on you because they think it's going to get them closer to the Lord," he said. "Which is crazy to me. Telling on me isn't gonna get you closer to God. But they did that! But it just taught me to watch people and trust my ninja instincts on how I feel about somebody - if I don't feel good about someone then there is a reason I don't. That's just how BYU was just for me. When I wanted to go have fun, honestly, I was in my house drinking Hennesy and apple juice playing Call of Duty and then when it was time - I lived right next to a skating ring - I would go to the skating ring and I just be in there chillin' and enjoying my life. And then I go home."
There is a lot to unpack in those comments, and we'll get to that in a bit. But, let's compare that with what Slovis had to say on the Laced Up Podcast with Crew Wakley.
"It's definitely different, but I will say that the perception outside is waaaay different than what it actually is. I think it gets blown out of proportion that, like, Utah is so weird. And it's different, for sure," Slovis said. "But it's not that much different than living in Arizona. Of all the places that I've been, this actually feels the most like Arizona."
Kind of a different response about Provo. But it's what Slovis had to say next that is a really big contrast from the way Williams described his time at BYU.
"The thing I love about being here that is really cool is, like, I think people are really unafraid to be themselves. I think in other locker rooms people are more closed off or put walls up and try to act a certain way. But - and maybe it's just the team or something and not the city - I feel like people are pretty genuine and just are themselves. They might be a little quirky or goofy, but they aren't afraid of that. They kind of just embrace who they are and what they like. That's kind of refreshing, you can just have a conversation with someone and they will tell you who they are and what they're like."
Two different people who are not members of the Church who have two very different ways of describing BYU and the people at BYU. One of them, because of his experiences, became more guarded and didn't inherently trust people that he came in contact with. The other described things as refreshing because people could be authentic to themselves and not have any concern about what the person next to them is thinking.
Why the crazy differences in experience? Neither Williams nor Slovis is wrong. In fact, if you were to poll random outsiders from the last few decades of BYU football, most would probably agree more with Williams than Slovis.
So, what's the difference?
Wakley talked about it later on in the episode, but it is worth singling out again: The difference is Kalani Sitake.
"I would imagine it's just because of the way Kalani is. I think he just does a really good job of, 'Hey we're going to love each other, we're going to be a team, be yourself.' He's talked about that too with his experience with Jamaal Williams. He's like, 'For me, I just had to let him be him - be his weird self and do his thing.' I think that's when people do their best, when they can just be themselves and be comfortable," Wakley said.
To me, this begs the question: What would the stigma about BYU - or about Utah - or about the Church in general - or about social media - or about anything - be like if we were all a little bit more like Kalani? How different would things look and feel like if everyone just tried to genuinely love each other for who the other person is without any sort of conditions or requirements? What if we assumed that the stranger we see at the grocery store is someone we would love instead being guarded and reserved? How different would things feel then?
Up until the day he died, I could count on a few things being true when I went to visit my grandpa on his farm. I could count on his keys being in the ignition of his truck, I could count on the 4-wheeler keys being in the ignition of the 4-wheeler, and I could count on a hearty 'Hello!!' from somewhere in the house when I walked into his unlocked front door.
Nobody ever stole his truck. Nobody ever stole his 4-wheeler. And nobody ever broke into his house. He assumed good intent in everyone and didn't feel it necessary to protect himself.
For me, that's wildly impractical. The keys to my Jeep come with me everywhere I go. My Jeep is stored inside a locked garage, behind a locked garage door that goes into my house, and then placed in a weird spot in my house along with my wallet. My house has multiple locks and cameras and an alarm system.
To most who will read this, my approach seems normal. And maybe it is the normal thing to do in 2023. To most, being more like Williams and putting walls up around yourself and being hesitant is probably the normal way to handle interactions with people too. I know for certain that is the way that I tend to handle my business.
But, what if it wasn't? Would people be able to feel the kind of tangible difference that you can see in the way Williams describes BYU and the way Slovis describes BYU?
My gut says that you would. Maybe it would burn you and some bad-apples would do you wrong, but I wonder if the benefits would outweigh the risks? I don't know that answer, but it's something that has been stuck on my mind today.
When my wife was a teenager, she used to babysit for a family that lived in the neighborhood. This week, she learned that one of the little girls she used to babysat died by suicide. A young, beautiful, bright, college-aged girl who had her entire life in front of her is no longer with us.
That's a story that we hear about far-too-often in today's society. Suicide is becoming commonplace. Mental health is at an all-time low. Life is getting harder and harder for everyone.
I am not a big enough person to change the world. I don't have anywhere near that kind of reach or influence. Odds are that neither do you. But, that doesn't mean that we can't try to change our worlds. Kalani is teaching and showing us that you can change your world with a little love and a lot of effort. He hasn't changed all of BYU or all of Provo or all of Utah or all of anything else. But, for at least Kedon Slovis, the efforts that Kalani has made in instilling a loving locker room that values genuine authenticity, there has been a change.
Maybe we can all try to do that in our circles of influence. And maybe - just maybe - we can help connect with someone in time to keep them here with us.
(P.S. Jamaal Williams is right. Tattling on someone isn't going to get you or anyone else closer to God. If you really feel that someone is doing something wrong, try to connect with that person and understand who they are and why they do the things they do. Love them without condition. And maybe, just maybe, you will learn something about yourself and about the person in the process. And that, my friends, WILL help you feel closer to God.)