She was a fighter and an example to us. She had the grand scheme in sight, and her family was the center of her existence. —Former BYU receiver Kurt Henderson, on Lisa Mathews
OREM — Former BYU receiver Devon Blackmon was working out in a gym when he learned last Thursday morning that Lisa Mathews’ battle with pancreatic cancer was over. His eyes welled up with tears; emotions overwhelmed him.
Blackmon couldn’t talk about it. It was too hard. The entire day went by before he could address it by phone with me. Finally, his thoughts came through text message. He explained he couldn’t give voice to his feelings in a formal interview.
Lisa, 53, is mother to former Cougar receivers Marcus and Mitch Mathews. An energetic fireball and self-appointed mother of BYU football in the Bronco Mendenhall era, she produced thousands of photos and emails for parents of BYU players. She went on all road trips and chronicled behind-the-scenes moments of team events. She adopted out-of-state players like Blackmon and showered them with love unfeigned. Lisa died early last Thursday morning.
“I’ll always remember her opening her house to players who didn’t have anywhere to go for holidays,” said Blackmon, who is from Fontana, California. “I was at her house for Christmas. She always had something going on. Her spirit is what I will miss the most, she was such a spark, she had an energy that was unmatched, she was always in a good mood and ready to go. I am in shock, especially when she was just here.”
Mitch’s birthday was Saturday, the day before he left for a mini-camp with the Minnesota Vikings. He also just got engaged and will marry Maddie Lyons on April 26. These are moments Lisa lived for and will now miss in body, but not spirit.
When Lisa Mathews entered a room, it was like a second sun. Her vibrant personality was infectious. It penetrated everyone she met. She was a woman without guile with an unending capacity to love.
Jamaal Williams, BYU’s all-time leading rusher, is preparing for the NFL draft. His mother Nicolle also needed hours to find composure over news of Lisa’s passing.
“She was a wonderful, inspiring person,” said Nicolle. Lisa, a personal trainer and life coach, would work out with her son Mitch. “That inspired me to work out with Jamaal. She was sick, yet she would find the energy to do it,” said the former sprinter at UCLA and current Riverside County sheriff deputy.
“I’m so sorry for her suffering, but she was a fighter and you’d never know what she was going through because of her attitude, it was always positive. She sent us photos of everything and kept us informed. She was always there for players and my son.”
Former receiver Kurt Henderson reaped the benefit of Lisa’s sugary web when he was cut from BYU’s team and walked on the following year. He knew Marcus first but then Mitch, and after forging deep friendships with the two siblings, Lisa and her husband Kurt took him in as another son.
In Henderson’s second year at BYU, his parents were called to serve a three-year mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. So for his remaining days in a Cougar uniform, he had no family for fanfare at games, home or away.
“Lisa, just by the goodness of who she is, always looked after people,” said Henderson. “She always knew how to find people who needed to be loved. Every time I came out of the locker room after a game, she was the first one I’d see. She’d come up and give me the biggest hug. I had no family to do that.
“Lisa would know every play that I was in, whether I’d played just the last quarter or the whole game. She’d say, ‘Oh, that one time you were on the 30-yard line wide open,’ and she made me feel like a contributor, like I was the guy, like I was a stud, she’d make me feel so good. All the Mathews did that for me.”
After home games, Lisa made sure Henderson joined the family at Brick Oven for dinner. At other times, mindful of special diets, she’d make special meals and explain proteins and grains. “She did everything to help us. Her joy and her love was seeing her boys succeed. Everyone who came through her home, she made them feel that way.”
Every game, home and away in his career, Lisa and husband Kurt were there for Henderson. “They were at every event, every fireside. There is no doubt Lisa was the biggest BYU fan.”
Even a month ago, when Henderson got married, Lisa, as sick as she was, appeared at his reception. “She was all dolled up and looked unbelievably great and stood there and cried. She knew my wife and was so happy to see us happy. She understood the eternal family and the grand scheme and power of brotherhood. She was like the true mother of the Band of Brothers.
“Her door was always open, it was never locked. She loved Marcus and Mitch and they were her world, you could feel it, and it projected to others she knew.”
The weekend before Lisa’s death, Marcus, Mitch and Henderson made a bachelor’s trip to St. George, and upon their return, Lisa was so happy to see her sons, she hugged them, and Henderson said he held her hand. “She was so glad they were taken care of, it was never about her. Even to her last breath, she wasn’t about if we were there to see if she was OK; even so sick, it was to lift others. Even so sick, she just rolled with it.”
Henderson said Lisa’s illness may have made some bitter, negative or left with blame, but she avoided negative energy. “She was a fighter and an example to us. She had the grand scheme in sight, and her family was the center of her existence.”
Neighbor Leslie Nelson called Lisa a nurturer and caregiver to all. “Whether it was football players or her family members, she loved easily. Her sister lives with her. Her niece lives with her. She took care of young women in our ward. She cared for everyone she came in contact with.”
Nelson called Lisa’s battle with cancer “phenomenal.” “It has been the most beautiful yet heart-breaking thing to watch. She fought and fought and fought in the most dominant spirit as if she knew she could beat the wretched cancer and we all thought she had until the last few months.”
Neighbors learned of Lisa’s cancer right after Mitch’s senior year just over a year ago. Experienced nurses told Nelson she wouldn’t last the summer. She bucked the odds, fighting hard. “That is what her soul was like,” said Nelson.
Because she was a life coach, Nelson said Lisa continued to move and exercise until the end. A few days before her passing, Nelson came to relieve Kurt while he ran some errands. “When she woke up, I helped her with a drink and she couldn’t hold the bottle of water. She said she needed to go to the bathroom and although there was a small powder room 10 feet away, she said she wanted to go upstairs and move — to do everything she could possibly do.”
Nelson said everything Lisa did, she did in a fierce way. “She was a fierce caregiver, she loved in a fierce way and she took care of her body in a fierce way. We are so sad somebody like her is gone from our midst, someone who taught us so much in our friendship.”
Over time, Lisa Mathews became the outward fuel for a somewhat shy Mendenhall, a valued unassigned public relations assistant coach.
Michelle Kaufusi, like Lisa, had two sons play for BYU in Bronson and Corbin. “I’ve never seen any parent get involved like Lisa. She was probably the most highly engaged BYU football mom I’ve ever met, and I’ve been here a long, long time. She really wanted everyone to be included, she just loved her boys and was so proud of them.
“She always had a camera, always informed parents, shared news, photos. She was probably a better football mom than me and here it was right in my backyard. She was an amazing mother.
“I remember when Bronson and Mitch got their blankets on Senior Day and she had tears in her eyes and said, ‘I can’t believe it’s over.’”
Organizations, teams, businesses and families all need a Lisa. They become a force for good, an uplifting reminder that a life preserver is just a call away.