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Photo taken by James Stanton/Courtesy of Jan Madsen
Hundreds of people celebrated the life of Greg Madsen by participating in a paddle out in his honor.

On the first Saturday in August, hundreds of people lined the streets of 38th Avenue Beach in Santa Cruz, California. Many wore wetsuits and stood at attention with paddle and surf boards on their backs. People from all walks of life had gathered for a paddle out to honor and pay tribute to one man: Greg Madsen.

Madsen is not famous. In fact, when I called to interview his wife, his daughter and a friend, they all asked the same question: “Why are you writing a story about Greg?”

Truth be told, I saw a video of the paddle out shared on Facebook by a friend and was intrigued to know who Madsen was. The video showed many colorful paddleboards and surfboards out in the ocean to celebrate Madsen’s life. I thought, “If this many people went out in the ocean to celebrate the life of someone I’ve never heard of, then I want to know who he is.”

Photo taken by James Stanton/Courtesy of Jan Madsen

I learned that Madsen was a California husband, father, consultant, former LDS bishop and youth leader prior to dying on July 31, 2017, after battling lung cancer for nearly two years. I found that he was an inclusive person who made everyone feel loved. He was a San Francisco 49ers fan, and while he wasn’t “famous,” his family and friends can quickly rattle off a string of what they call “Greg Madsenisms.”

“Back in the day, when we were going to a lot of 49er games, we loved watching Jerry Rice play,” Madsen’s wife, Jan, said at the funeral, teasing Steve Young, who is a close friend of the Madsens and also spoke at the funeral, “Steve, sorry. We loved watching you play. We loved watching you two play together but we did love watching Jerry run. We were always in awe of how he could run and go deep fast. Eventually, we coined the phrase, ‘Jerry Rice-ing someone.’”

"Jerry Rice-ing" someone became a nickname for the famous “Greg Madsenism": “Go deep fast.” It was something Madsen emphasized through the way he lived his life, and in that phrase he found purpose in his struggle with cancer.

“He said, ‘Before this, you meet someone and you make all this small talk, but when you find out someone is chronically ill, you go deep fast. You immediately see them, you hug them, you tell them that you love them,’” family friend Karen Marriott recalled Greg Madsen telling her.

Madsen was all about connecting people. It wasn’t based on any desire for personal gain but simply because he knew, Marriott said, that there is a power in connection.

“Greg had this deep understanding, and in terms of our faith, that our relationships are eternal,” Marriott said. “They don’t end in this life and almost all of his life was about relationships because those are lasting and we believe those are eternal. I think he invested in those.”

At the funeral, Steve Young expressed appreciation for the “countless hours” Madsen spent with him talking about the rigors and challenges of Young’s life. “He was an angel in human form who came just for me, which I think a thousand other people probably feel the same way. Now, he’ll be an angel in angel form," Young said.

Photo taken by James Stanton/Courtesy of Jan Madsen

Madsen wasn’t a BYU football player, but another BYU football great, Mark Bellini, also spoke with me on the phone about a friendship that began on a houseboat in Lake Powell when the two were in college. Bellini recalled his favorite “Greg Madsenism": “Are you building or tearing?”

“He was always a builder," Bellini said. "And that’s one thing that was apparent to me at the paddle out was how many people’s lives he touched and who spoke out and said, ‘When I was having a hard time, Greg wrote me a letter and I read that letter over and over again because it really helped me,’ or ‘Greg helped me get a job,’ someone would say. ‘Greg helped me through a hard time, he talked to me.’ He spent so much of his life building, not tearing. And that to me was the message of the paddle out, how many people’s lives he touched for good.”

But Madsen didn’t care if you were BYU football star or someone struggling to make ends meet.

In fact, at the paddle out, someone asked, “I want you to raise your hand if you think you’re Greg’s best friend.” Every hand went up.

“His only agenda with people was to try to help them and get to know them and to love them,” Jan Madsen said. “He approached people with curiosity and he did not judge anyone based on circumstance or economics.”

Reading tributes to Madsen on a blog he updated throughout his cancer treatments showed the validity of this statement.

There was the family he took in when they had nowhere to live, someone he gave two of his church suits to, and a stranger he took to dinner when they were homeless and depressed.

“I will never forget Greg's kindness to our family — so many times — but especially six years ago with our daughter Valerie — 33 years old, mother of two young sons, and a very strong spirit who had chosen a path that was not what we would have chosen for her,” one comment read. “But suddenly she was diagnosed with cancer in her hip bone. It was incurable, and in fact she passed away only three months after her diagnosis.

“When she was in a hospital bed in our living room, being cared for by hospice, and nearing the end of her life, our dear friend Bishop Greg came to our home to talk with her. She loved Greg, and heard the kindness that he spoke to her. Then, on his knees by her bed, he administered the sacrament to her. That touched her, and humbled all of us. I will never forget the spirit that was in the room. Thank you, Greg, for teaching all of us about how to endure the challenges that we are given. We will always love you!”

Another commenter, Madsen’s neighbor in college, wrote, “He saw things in you that you wanted to see in yourself, then in his Greg way brought them out. You were fearless with Greg around. You stood taller, shrugged it all off and charged forward. Because he let you see something big just ahead. And I’m taking that with me, Greg. Thank you so very much.”

At his funeral, where 1,030 seats were filled and people stood in the back, Madsen’s wife, Jan, echoed this idea and sought to instill in those present a lasting confirmation of this belief her husband had in those around him. She began with another “Greg Madsenism.”

“Whenever I had to prepare a talk, Greg would always say, ‘Start with the end in mind,’” she said. “So at the end of these remarks, the one thing Greg would want you to walk away knowing is that he loved you. He loved you unconditionally. He believed in you, he had faith in you and your capacity to be and accomplish whatever it is you wanted. It didn’t matter your circumstance. He was your biggest cheerleader.”

On Aug. 5, hundreds of the Madsens' family and friends filled in for Greg as they cheered for Jan Madsen and three of the couple’s four children (their son Emmett is currently serving an LDS mission) as they prepared to honor their husband and father by paddling out into the ocean and sharing memories with others who loved and were loved by Greg Madsen.

Photo taken by James Stanton/Courtesy of Jan Madsen

“I didn’t really know what to expect so when we walked out and down our street and saw everyone lined up … it honestly felt like I was entering the pearly gates of heaven surrounded by so many people who loved and cared about my family and I,” said Ella Madsen, Greg Madsen’s 23-year-old daughter. “It really was just a little slice of what that’s going to be like.”

Karen Marriott first met Greg Madsen her senior year of high school when he lived at her parents' house while completing an internship in Washington, D.C. She remembers his efforts to motivate her to exercise. So it seemed appropriate when she found herself paddling out in the ocean, something she had never done, to pay tribute to the man she has called a friend for 31 years.

“I’m not a surfer,” Marriott said. “I never would have done that unless Greg had made me do it. And it was so Greg. So as I was paddling, I would just cry. It was beautiful. It was hard … it was perfectly calm. You’re with all of these people paddling and then I would just cry and lift my head up and I would start laughing like, ‘This is so you. This is just like the first time I met you, making me swim laps in the pool.’

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“It was a beautiful way to honor him. It was moving and deep going out and it was joyful coming back. And I guess that’s how it is. Life is hard, the paddle, but you go the distance and when we have this reunion with our loved ones, we’re joyful. We’re reunited again and we’ve fought the good fight and that’s what he did. He fought the good fight.”

I never had the privilege of meeting Greg Madsen, but from him over the last month, I've learned about how to live.

And I guess that’s the reason I wrote a story about Greg Madsen.