As part of this month’s series on 20th century Mormonism, I’d like to take a brief glance at BYU and the 1984 National Championship. For those unfamiliar with 1980s sports history, BYU won the national championship for the very first time in 1984. As a 2009 article puts it, “I can’t think of a more unlikely national champion … an unranked (preseason) team from a non-power conference.” I refer you to the article for an analysis of games played; today, I’m going to give you a few media perspectives on the win.
First up is a 1985 Sports Illustrated feature, which contrasts the winning players with their teammates who were serving missions at the time.
On Sept. 1, 1984 in Pittsburgh, Brigham Young was opening its football season with a 20-14 upset of Pitt. In Capetown on that day, BYU quarterback Sean Covey was dipping the head of a South African woman into a fountain of water and reciting the rites of baptism.
On Nov. 24 in Provo, BYU was crushing Utah State before the largest crowd—65,508—ever to watch a sports event in Utah. With that victory the Cougars finished their regular season at 12-0. In Sao Goncalo, Brazil, BYU offensive tackle Don Busenbark was spreading the gospel in areas where 14-year-old boys carried guns.
On Dec. 21 in San Diego, BYU was defeating Michigan in the Holiday Bowl to clinch its first national championship. In Oruro, Bolivia, Cougar safety Scott Peterson was lying diagonally on his undersized bed under flypaper spattered with casualties, listening to the Armed Forces Radio broadcast of the game and biting back the black wish that his teammates not win it all without him.
The article mentions Spencer Kimball’s 1974 declaration that all worthy young men should serve a mission, “with no asterisk for BYU football players who dreamed of NCAA championships and NFL careers.” The story then unfolds among the missionaries abroad, some of which never returned to football. After all, the privilege of playing football on a college team is very clear, once you’ve encountered starving people in Bolivia and so much helplessness, alcohol abuse, and apathy.  It’s a fairly long article, and the gist is that while serving a mission always involves sacrifice, a football player sacrifices so much more, leaving behind his hopes and dreams of playing pro football, while ministering to the poor and the hard-of-heart.
Rest assured, I am not overdramatizing the article’s tone. You’d feel sorry for the missionaries, except you’re meant to admire their courage and perseverance. The article ends on a dramatic note, with Steve Young, who never went on a mission and always wishes he had,
Young: “I’d advise any young man in the church to go when he was 19 [the first year Mormon men are eligible] if he possibly can. If I had gone on a mission before I signed and everything became crazy, I might have handled things better.” … He peered down the road in search of his ride, wondering why so few understood: What championship, what fame, what career was not worth risking—rather than to live a life without a mission?
Here, the National Championship itself isn’t really of importance; it only serves to highlight the peculiar nature of BYU football players-turned-(returned)-missionaries.
The same 2009 article I mentioned above is more straightforward and calls the win “one of the greatest stories in the history of sports.” The headline reads: “The Ultimate Cinderella Story: How BYU Won a National Championship in 1984.” Besides a quick mention of the Church’s involvement in BYU, and the fact that “returned missionaries made poor football players, they weren’t mean enough,” BYU was treated like any other small team that performed above expectation. The only reasons the missionaries were mentioned at all was most likely to illustrate just how unlikely their win really was.
The Cougar website for the win reads along the same lines, so I’ll skip that here. Predictably, the Ensign codes the win with spiritual meaning in a March 1985 article, titled, “BYU Football Success Spotlights School, Church.” The team is characterized as filled with “unselfish” players, setting the tone right off the bat. LaVell Edwards is Brother Edwards, here, not Coach, and while the win is important on a purely football level, the relevant question is really what it means for BYU and the Church. It’s all good, apparently, as “[t]he attention has brought into focus for many people around the county the school’s other good points, including its high moral and academic standards rooted in gospel values.” While the players and coach are lauded for their sport skills, “Brother Edwards’ reputation as a moral, compassionate man” is deemed more important, and the coach’s philosophy is said to be rooted in gospel principles–principles that are “at least partly responsible for the team’s national championship.” 
So here you are, four perspectives on the 1984 National Championship, ranging from a football triumph to a more spiritual one. If anyone has memories of the championship (whether personal, familial, and/or cultural), please leave a comment!
 If there were football missionaries serving in more affluent areas of the world, they are not mentioned here. Apparently proselytizing in an area where people are materially wealthy, if perhaps spiritually poor (depending on your perspective) does not make for as good a story.
 Some of these principles don’t seem to be as uniquely LDS as the Ensign would like to believe, but I appreciate the faith-promoting nature of church magazines and especially the fact that I’m not the target audience of the Ensign in the first place.