Call him the half-million dollar man. At least for one night. LaVell Edwards was among a small group of Utah's biggest names that spent a fall evening in raising money for Ascend: A Humanitarian Alliance. The organization, based in Utah, assists in the development of third world countries all over the globe.
"It was a fun night," Edwards says at the Oct. 20 event. "It's nice to be able to utilize your time for a positive cause like Ascend."
Using his celebrity status for the growth of positive institutions and programs is something Edwards has been doing for decades, but since his retirement from football in 2000, he has been able to spend more time focused in this area of his life. It all still seems a bit odd to Edwards. After all, Edwards never expected to become famous. This Utah-bred barrel of a man had experienced failure much more than success before taking over the reins as head football coach at BYU in 1973. That may be why -- as his success and celebrity grew -- Edwards remained grounded.
"Being on the losing end of football games for 18 years before enjoying any real success probably helped keep me level headed, because I knew the success could end quickly," Edwards says. "I never felt that we as a football team or I as a person were any more important than anyone else out there doing their job."
The success on the football field never did end for Edwards. He retired six years ago with 258 wins, 101 losses and three ties. His hard work and ability to teach helped drive people to be successful. But it was the way he did so, within the context of a team-oriented sport, that helped lay the ground work for his life's latest challenge as a man assisting in the rise of positive charities.
"Lavell Edwards is wonderful to be involved with Ascend," says Carolyn Dailey, president of the Ascend Alliance. "He is such a wonderful man who does everything he can to help people in need."
Edwards explained that Ascend reaches into the poorest and most disadvantage places in the world, including parts of Africa where the simplest aspects of life are lacking. It's through education and construction that the lives of others are being improved.
"My wife and I chose to align ourselves with Ascend because it is about teaching people all over the world how to become self-sufficient," Edwards says. "We want to help people be able to manage and improve their lives through education."
Edwards says it's an honor to be able to assist organizations that help others in need.
"I'm just one of many people who lend their help to this and other organizations," Edwards says. "This is a great way to make a positive mark on the world."
Like many people in education, Edwards struggled as a young husband and father moving from Granger High School to BYU. Most of the teams he coached struggled to scratch out wins, and when he was named head football coach at BYU in 1973, no one in the world of college sports paid much attention. Now Edwards' name has become synonymous with passing, quarterbacks and winning.
"I doubt anyone goes into coaching or education thinking they're going to become famous or whatever," Edwards says. "I know those things never entered my mind. I was just trying to survive and keep my job."
Edwards sees his experience in organizations like Ascend, the Lung Association, and the Boys and Girls Clubs as an extension of education and coaching.
"A lot of these organizations and programs work with people to help them improve their lives through education and implementation of projects," Edwards says. "It's the old adage that says to really help people improve their lives we need to teach them to become self-sufficient."
Spoken like a true educator.
Edwards says one of his first hands-on experiences in such programs also came away from the football field when he and Patti were serving as missionaries for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in New York City. Many people know Edwards was instrumental in the development of the Harlem Hellfighters football team, but as he pointed out he was not initially thrilled with the assignment.
"I had spent my whole life as a football coach," Edwards says. "Then we got to New York and I was called in for a meeting and asked to help with this football team in Harlem. I was thinking, 'is this what I went on a mission for?'"
The answer came in a resounding "yes" as Edwards ventured to the mean streets of Harlem to assist in the development of the Hellfighters. Through Edwards and Hellfighters coach Duke Ferguson, the program has exceeded the expectations of everyone involved.
"It wasn't me, really," Edwards says. "All I did was give some knowledge where it was needed.
"Duke Ferguson is the real man behind the success of this program. He understands and implements the same ideas of many of the positive organizations I like to work with in that he is using football as a means to help these young people learn how to work and achieve and ultimately stay off the streets of Harlem."
Edwards says Ferguson's program is as much about academics as football.
"What I did was put together a program where kids from different schools come over to this one place and they have a minimum of a one-hour study hall and then football," Edwards says. "Duke is very strict about academics and discipline."
Now four years removed from his daily involvement with the Hellfighters, Edwards keeps in touch with Ferguson and, like his BYU players, some of the Hellfighters players.
"Many of these young men have gone on to college, and some of them are doing so through football scholarships."
Now, the man who was once afraid of Harlem, and who was sure to avoid it while visiting New York, now looks forward to trips to that area.
"There's a great restaurant right near the LDS chapel called 'Sylvia's: The Queen of Soul Food,'" Edwards says. "On Sunday afternoon they have great gospel music with the food. "A lot of people go to Sylvia's, and we just love it."
Edwards sees all of his charitable experiences as positive. He believes he and his family receive much more than they have ever been asked to give.
"It's really amazing," Edwards says. "To be able to be involved in all of these different organizations is such a positive experience because just like a coach watches an athlete or student grow, mature and become a better person, the same principle holds true when assisting these different charitable groups.
"You see the growth and change that can happen when people are given the tools to improve their lives. That's really what life's all about." Edwards says. "Doing what we can to help others."