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He Was Like Rocker in Mormon Tabernacle Choir at BYU

January 25, 1986|GENE WOJCIECHOWSKI | Times Staff Writer

NEW ORLEANS — keeping with Jim McMahon tradition, perhaps it's only right that he attended Brigham Young University. If there is such a thing as a love-hate relationship with a college, he had one.

McMahon went to BYU for three reasons:

--His family lived in Roy, Utah, about 70 miles from the Provo campus.

--Few other football programs developed and taught quarterbacks as well as BYU.

--BYU was the only school that recruited him.

McMahon wanted to go to Notre Dame. "But they didn't give him a tumble at the time," said Dave Schulthess, sports information director at BYU.

"The University of Utah may have been interested," Schulthess added. "But his folks lived right up the road, he was a great passer and we were enlarging our stadium. Maybe it was a logical choice for him.

"And we told him there would be certain restrictions and standards he'd be expected to measure up to."

At BYU, students are asked to sign an agreement stating that they will adhere to the school's strict code of ethics and morals. The university's Mormon administration vigorously enforces rules that prohibit students from using alcohol, drugs, tobacco and caffeine.

McMahon, a Catholic with a fondness for four-letter words, a cold beer, Coke and chewing tobacco, was immediately at odds with the institution.

"That's kind of a minor source of embarrassment for conduct," Schulthess said. "I think Jim resisted. He also strained a little bit of the rules, the standards."

It's not as if McMahon went on an ax murder spree. He enjoyed a brew while playing golf and knew how to annoy BYU police. Schulthess and BYU Coach LaVell Edwards were informed of the occasional violations.

"Jim was sort of a maverick," Schulthess said. "I don't believe he enjoyed the full experience that was available to him."

But McMahon wasn't the only player to have difficulties with the code of honor. About one-third of BYU's football team are not Mormons. Some non-Mormon students and players transfer because of the rules.

McMahon stayed, but not because he became any more comfortable with his surroundings. He was learning to play quarterback.

"It was a perfect place for Jim McMahon to develop his skills for a pro career," said Gifford Nielsen, a former NFL quarterback who played with McMahon for two years. Nielsen is a Mormon.

As for the code of honor, Nielsen said that McMahon recognized its scope. "He knew what he was getting into when he was going to BYU."

But Nielsen said the code of honor requires a certain discipline and a belief that the aforementioned substances are bad for a body. "Jim was not raised that way," Nielsen said. "I mean, that's a tremendous adjustment."

Still, McMahon signed the agreement. Gave his word. "But in any business you're going to have people who will not live straight down the line. Everybody has messed up.

"I do think LaVell wondered on occasion (about McMahon)," Nielsen said. "Jim was different from the ordinary BYU student."

Said Edwards: "He was not a problem at all."

Edwards may have forgotten the time he grabbed McMahon's face mask and brought the quarterback to his knees after hearing one too many cuss words.

Strange sunglasses and haircuts, that all came later.

"He never did do those things when I was around him," Edwards said. "I hate to see it, but no, it doesn't surprise me. He's his own man. It's the same basic person, but he's doing some outlandish things."

Since leaving Brigham Young without a degree in 1982, and vowing never to return, McMahon has described the school's social life as restrictive and arbitrary. Asked once by a Utah reporter to name his favorite memory of BYU, McMahon said, "Leaving."

"I know Jim McMahon is not as crazy as the public perceives him," Nielsen said. "His wife is a very sweet person. She says Jim usually goes to bed at 10 o'clock. He's a loving family man. That's the kind of Jim McMahon I know."

McMahon and former BYU quarterback Marc Wilson, who now plays for the Raiders weren't exactly pals. They fought for the same position.

"They went back and forth," Nielsen said. "It was kind of an uncomfortable position. Marc is not as outgoing as Jim. At times, that forcefulness . . . I think it really bothered Marc."

Despite whatever indiscretions McMahon may have committed by Mormon standards, Schulthess, Edwards and Nielsen said they believe BYU remains proud of McMahon.

"I can't help but think he's doing a little acting himself," Schulthess said. "There's no question what I see, I tend to laugh a little bit. I hope he has a great career. But a lot of the things he says, I couldn't buy."

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