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Tom Smart, Deseret News
Jamal Willis carries the ball during a football game in 1994. Willis played running back for BYU from 1991-94 and joined the LDS Church during his college career.

SALT LAKE CITY — Being called to serve in the new Genesis Group presidency came as a shock to Jamal Willis.

First of all, Willis was invited to the LDS Church's multicultural activity organization years before, but the former Brigham Young University and NFL running back never attended.

Second, it's not like any calling you read about in the church handbook. He didn't know what to expect, he said.

"I was like, OK?'" Willis said. "Then I went and was honestly floored. It was an awesome, awesome experience. I grew up with really not much of a religion aspect of my life, so to see this, so much diversity, and see everything is connected with the gospel, even people sharing different cultures, I don’t know if I’ve ever had an experience like that.

"I’ve had wonderful experiences with the church but this experience is so unique. After Sunday, people asked me, ‘What is Genesis?' I said you have to go to experience it because I can’t tell you. … This has been one of the best kept secrets in the church."

Willis, a convert to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, was one of three men sustained in the new Genesis Group presidency Sunday. Davis Stovall is the new president, with Willis as first counselor and Joseph Kaluba as second counselor. The Genesis Group, which meets monthly and is now hosted by the Draper Utah Mountain Point Stake, was established in 1971 by then junior apostles Gordon B. Hinckley, Thomas S. Monson and Boyd K. Packer.

Willis, a school district administrator in Saratoga Springs, said he's previously served in a bishopric and as a stake high councilor, and now feels an urgency to get the word out about the Genesis Group.

It's a long way from where he was when he first heard about the group as a football player at BYU, before ever joining the LDS Church. Why go to a Mormon function when you aren't a Mormon, he said.

Willis, a Las Vegas native, was recruited to play football by programs such as Oklahoma, Nebraska, Washington, Arizona, Arizona State and California. But it was BYU that impressed his parents, Willis, who went on to play for the Cougars from 1991-1994, he said.

"I think the reason my parents wanted me to go to BYU over the other schools was because of what they saw there, the people and how they treated you," Willis said. "It was a culture of acceptance. I think that's what rubbed off on me."

LaVell and Patti Edwards went out of their way to make sure that Willis, who was not yet a member of the LDS Church, felt comfortable on campus. For example, coach Edwards asked his wife to sit with the freshman during his first Book of Mormon class.

"She was there just to make sure I felt, you know, safe, I guess? She was there to support me," Willis said. "That was a turning point. This guy cares about me this much to do that? Send his wife here? That’s how it started."

Another factor in his spiritual journey was meeting and marrying his wife, the former Leslie Durfey, a member of the LDS Church and the BYU gymnastics team. Willis also appreciated the friendship and influence of teammates and friends, including George Curtis, BYU's longtime head athletic trainer, who performed his baptism.

"I never really had an 'a-ha' moment, it was just the process of being there," Willis said of his conversion. "It was the people who drew me in, the way they acted and how they treated people. That’s what drew me into the gospel. It’s hard to explain it because everyone has a different conversion story, but mine was more or less about falling in love with the people, the culture and knowing people cared about you, and realizing there is more to life than football."

Willis was a four-year starter at BYU, finishing his college football career with 35 touchdowns and nearly 3,000 yards rushing, before playing two seasons with the San Francisco 49ers. He later returned to BYU to earn master's degrees in educational administration and counseling.

Willis feels his many experiences at BYU will benefit him as a leader with the diverse Genesis Group.

"I saw what BYU did for my family … that was a testament for me," Willis said. "I would say the goal of Genesis Group is to really reach out so everyone knows what the Genesis Group is all about. … This needs to be inclusion, an opportunity for people to come together and rejoice, celebrate the Savior and celebrate the gospel. Genesis is all about unity. … It's not a secret anymore. We want to carry on what previous leaders started."

Zandra Vranes and Tamu Smith, also known as the Sistas in Zion, are longtime members of the Genesis Group. Vranes said she wasn't surprised to learn Willis enjoyed his first encounter.

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"It’s a place where members of all backgrounds and walks of life come together and clap our hands, stomp our feet, praise the Lord and get something to eat! I welcome our new Genesis presidency and look forward to the new ways in which their counsel and service will bless the Gospel of Jesus Christ," Vranes said. "Since Genesis is a community in Christ that was organized by apostles through the priesthood, to support Black Latter-day Saints, their families and friends, I believe the new presidency and their families will encounter a lot of love and mentorship among its Saints."

Smith doesn't know the members of the new presidency but recognized Willis from his days at BYU. They have some common friends and she looks forward to becoming better acquainted with all three leaders and their backgrounds. She joked that if things go awry, they will hear about it on Twitter.

"I'm excited but also a little anxious," Smith said. "I just want people to be patient with them and I want them to be patient with the people."