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Editor’s note: The following is part of an occasional series catching up with the individuals featured in “Meet the Mormons.” The previously published stories on Bishnu Adhikari, Gail Halvorsen, Jermaine Sullivan and Giovanna Raccosta Nezhati can be found on deseretnews.com.
Ken Niumatalolo was one of six members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints featured in a full-length film titled “Meet the Mormons” that was released in October 2014.
Less than two years later, Niumatalolo, the head football coach at the U.S. Naval Academy, characterized the experience as unexpected and memorable.
“We had no idea what we were getting into,” Niumatalolo said in a telephone interview. “But looking back, it was a great experience for our family and we got to meet great people. … It was a great missionary tool.”
Niumatalolo missed the movie’s premiere because it was in the middle of football season, but his family attended and enjoyed shaking hands with many people. The experience opened their eyes to the worldwide church, Niumatalolo said.
“There are good people all over the world, members and those not of our faith,” Niumatalolo said. “It was cool to see how the gospel affects their lives.”
As the first Samoan to become a college football head coach, Niumatalolo was already accustomed to standing out in a crowd. Since appearing in the film, he said more people — Mormon and of other faiths — have recognized him in public settings.
“They all say they saw me in that documentary about the Mormons,” Niumatalolo said. “I don’t really know how to respond when I hear that. ‘Oh, that’s great.’ It’s kind of weird.”
From a missionary perspective, it was an honor for Niumatalolo to take part in the movie. A cousin reminded him that his grandparents were pioneers of the gospel in their American Samoan village many years ago, which included giving property for the building of a chapel. That made it more meaningful, he said.
“There is great symbolism,” the relative told Niumatalolo. “Your grandfather was part of the church coming to American Samoa. Who would have ever thought you would be one of the families (in ‘Meet the Mormons’)?”
Perhaps the biggest challenge of the filming process involved getting approval from the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. It was mostly logistical stuff, the coach said.
It was important for the film to convey Niumatalolo’s faith as his own, he said.
“We’re just normal people. It wasn’t that big of a deal. I’m a member of the church who happens to be a football coach,” Niumatalolo said. “They know I’m LDS, they know my values, and I think they recognize that I don’t force our religion or beliefs on anybody. They recognize I’ve always conducted myself that way, and I think that helped. We have a pretty good relationship.”
A winning record may have also contributed to Niumatalolo earning Navy’s trust. Going into his 19th year at the Naval Academy (eighth as head coach), Niumatalolo is the all-time winningest coach in school history (68-37) and is 8-0 against Army, according to his bio on the Navy website at navysports.com.
In April, President Barack Obama presented the Midshipmen with the Commander-in-Chief Trophy after Navy defeated both Army and Air Force. It was Niumatalolo’s 10th trip to the White House, including four times as an assistant coach and sixth as a head coach, he said.
“It’s a pretty cool deal that never gets old,” Niumatalolo said. “It’s pretty simple. Getting the Commander-in-Chief Trophy is our No. 1 goal. We’ve gone for most of President Obama’s tenure and the end of President George W. Bush’s last term. The longstanding joke is the only people who have been there more than us during President Obama’s tenure is Jay-Z and Beyonce. We’ve been there more than anybody and that’s kind of our claim to fame.”
The 2015 season was special for the Midshipmen as the team won 11 games, the best year in Navy football history. One reason, in Niumatalolo’s opinion, was not working on Sundays.
“In the movie, I talked about not working on Sunday. For years, that was just me and everybody had that choice,” he said. “Last year, I made it staff wide to take Sunday off. I thought it would be good for us to rest, get rejuvenated and see your family. We had our best year ever. Not too many staffs do that.”
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