Athletic power couples: How six student-athlete courtships resulted in marriage at BYU

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Zach and Kennedy Eschenberg pose near their home in Bountiful on Friday, May 22, 2020. The two BYU volleyball players were introduced to each other by teammates, but actually met playing basketball and were married in 2018. More than a dozen BYU athletes are married to another athlete at the school. Zach and Kennedy Eschenberg pose near their home in Bountiful on Friday, May 22, 2020. The two BYU volleyball players were introduced to each other by teammates, but actually met playing basketball and were married in 2018. More than a dozen BYU athletes are married to another athlete at the school. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

BYU has had more than a dozen student-athlete marriages the past few years. How did they meet? What was their first date? How did the proposal go? And why are there so many of these unions in Provo?

PROVO — Connor Harding and Paisley Johnson first spoke in the tunnel linking the BYU basketball practice facility to the Marriott Center after Harding “mustered up the courage and the confidence” to suggest that the two should hang out some time.

“Great pickup line, by the way,” Harding said last February, laughing.

Football player Bracken El-Bakri and discus thrower Sable Lohmeier got acquainted in a sports psychology class, while volleyball stars Zach Eschenberg and Kennedy Redding were introduced by teammates, of course.

Quarterback Baylor Romney and pole vaulter Elise Machen met at a church youth conference when they were teenagers in El Paso, Texas. Football player Darius McFarland saw softball star Rylee Jensen on a team poster and asked her teammate for her phone number, while tight end Matt Bushman and volleyball standout Emily Lewis first talked at the salad bar of an on-campus eatery.

All six of the couples are married now.

They are part of the unofficial, but ever-increasing, club of BYU student-athletes who have married another student-athlete at the school owned and operated by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

That a lot of BYU athletes marry each other isn’t surprising, considering they often intermingle in classes favored by athletes, share weight rooms, academic tutoring centers and training facilities, and dine together at the Legends Grille in the Student Athlete Building.

And, of course, marriage is sort of a big deal at BYU. There’s a reason why there’s a jewelry store on every corner in Provo.

“BYU is really good at integrating everybody, especially athletes, at banquets and firesides and the Y Awards and all that,” said El-Bakri, who married Lohmeier in March. “We see each other a lot, cross paths a lot. So there’s that.”

El-Bakri, a former Brighton High star, says it would surprise people how much athletes date each other at other instate schools, like Utah, Weber State and Utah State.

“But at BYU, a lot of people have the desire to get married, rather than just date,” he said.

Hence, “a little dating community” has sprung up around the SAB, gymnast Summer Raymond told the Deseret News in 2015 before sharing vows with basketball’s all-time leading scorer, Tyler Haws. The newspaper identified 32 BYU student-athlete marriages in that piece, a number that has obviously grown (see accompanying list of current or just-graduated couples).

The Deseret News recently caught up with six of those couples and focused on how they met, what their first date was like, and how the proposal went. Here are their stories:

Paisley Johnson (basketball) and Connor Harding (basketball)

After Harding told Johnson they should get together after the following night’s doubleheader, “like a freshman from Pocatello,” he forgot to ask for her phone number.

“I started to walk away and she yelled at me, ‘Hey, you need my number,’” he said. “But I didn’t have my phone on me or anything to write with, so I actually gave her my number. And that’s how it started.”

Johnson, who is from Everett, Washington, said she had watched the recently returned missionary play and practice in the Marriott Center Annex a couple times, and also at In-N-Out Burger in Orem one night, and told a few of his teammates she was interested in him.

“But Connor wasn’t biting,” she said. “He didn’t seem to be interested at all.”

Oddly, the couple share the same birthday — Sept. 16. Harding is a year older, while Johnson is farther along in school because Harding served a church mission to Atlanta.

They went to the Provo Beach amusement center to attend his sister’s birthday party for their first date, and started to bond while bowling and playing a game called Jurassic Park in the arcade, Johnson said.

 Courtesy of Paisley Johnson-Harding
Paisley and Connor Harding

Harding proposed just before their respective teams traveled to the West Coast Conference basketball tournaments in Las Vegas last March. They went to the Joseph Smith Building in downtown Salt Lake City with teammate Taylor Maughan and his wife, where they met up with Harding’s step mom, sister, nieces and nephews, and two of Johnson’s best friends.

The nieces and nephews held a sign that said: “Will you marry our uncle?”

“It was so cute,” Johnson said. “It was just a lovely night, a great night.”

Married on May 1 at Sundance, the couple recently moved into their own apartment in Provo and is eager for the Annex to open in June sometime so they can practice and work out together again. But they probably won’t be playing much pickup against each other.

“We do like to play one-on-one occasionally, but sometimes when that happens things get pretty heated between two very competitive people,” Johnson said. “Sometimes things get a little in the gray area, so for the most part we just work out together.”

Kennedy Redding (volleyball) and Zach Eschenberg (volleyball)

Eschenberg, from Newbury Park, California, had just returned from a mission to Lima, Peru, and Redding was a redshirting freshman from Bountiful in September 2016 when a few of Redding’s teammates were in the same freshman writing class as Eschenberg and his teammates and invited them to all hang out together.

“I thought she was really pretty when I first saw her, and that got me excited to want to know her better,” Eschenberg said. They also had a Book of Mormon class together.

Zach and Kennedy Eschenberg chat at a park near their home in Bountiful on Friday, May 22, 2020. The two BYU volleyball players meet playing basketball and got married. Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
Zach and Kennedy Eschenberg chat at a park near their home in Bountiful on Friday, May 22, 2020. The two BYU volleyball players meet playing basketball and got married.

One of the big group of volleyball players’ first activities together was playing basketball at the Helaman Hall courts, and the 6-foot-6 Eschenberg remembers being “really impressed” at the 6-5 Redding’s basketball prowess, not knowing she was a four-time all-state basketball player in high school and easily could have played college basketball.

For another group activity, the volleyball players had a baking competition, and Eschenberg’s banana and peanut butter cookies were deemed the best.

“His teammates’ cookies were really gross and flat, but Zach’s were amazing and we were like, ‘Wow, Zach is a good cookie-maker,” Redding said. “And that’s where he earned some brownie points with me.”

For their first date, they played a game of H-O-R-S-E at the Heritage Halls courts. After Redding won the first game, Eschenberg challenged her to a bet: Best two out of three, and the loser buys lunch.

He won, so Redding found a coupon to Two Jack’s Pizza in Provo and treated him to a tasty pie.

“I like to say I paid for our first date,” Redding said.

“I insisted that I pay, but she wouldn’t let me,” Eschenberg replied.

They dated for 14 months — an eternity in Provo — before Eschenberg popped the question in January 2018 at a park in Bountiful and they were married in July in the Bountiful temple. Redding’s roommate, former BYU volleyball player McKenna Miller, also married a BYU volleyball player, Alex Ah Sue.

“This isn’t normal for me, but the first time Zach said hi to me I really liked him, but I kept it a secret,” Redding said. “I told my mom, but that’s it.”

Sable Lohmeier (track & field) and Bracken El-Bakri (football)

One of the more colorful characters on the BYU football team, El-Bakri wanted to ask Lohmeier on a first date the last day of their sports psychology class. But she was at a track meet.

He didn’t have her phone number, so he wrote her a letter on a plain piece of copier paper and had someone put it in her locker at Smith Fieldhouse.

Brigham Young Cougars defensive lineman Bracken El-Bakri (93) celebrates in Provo on Saturday, Sept. 14, 2019. BYU won 30-27 in overtime. Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
Brigham Young Cougars defensive lineman Bracken El-Bakri (93) celebrates in Provo on Saturday, Sept. 14, 2019. BYU won 30-27 in overtime.

“I basically just asked her out over a handwritten letter, and I didn’t have an envelope to stick it in, so I opened an old bill that had been sent to my house, from State Farm Insurance or something, and I just shoved it in there,” he said.

One problem: He didn’t leave his name.

But Lohmeier, who is from Mountain Home, Idaho, figured it was from him.

“My friends were like, ‘What the heck — this only happens in movies,’” she said.

For their first date, El-Bakri rented a canoe, packed his camp cooker and some pancake batter and took Lohmeier out on Utah Lake to make some flapjacks. The outing was aborted by a sudden storm that caused 6-foot waves, and it was so windy they couldn’t get the cooker to stay lit when they tried to heat up the griddle on shore.

“The pancakes were so bad the ducks wouldn’t even eat them,” El-Bakri said. “So we bagged that and went and got some mac and cheese. Our first couple of dates were ingenious in plan, but failed miserably in practice.”

Despite that rough beginning the couple dated for six months and El-Bakri proposed just before Christmas last year, a few days before the Cougars left for the Hawaii Bowl. He took Lohmeier on another Utah Lake canoe ride — this time in calmer conditions — then asked for her hand in marriage at a place where the Provo River flows into Utah Lake.

“They have a Christus statue and underneath the statue I had put some Christmas lights on a plywood board that said, ‘Sable will you marry me?’” He said. “We got there, I flipped them on.”

The El Bakris were married on March 27; Lohmeier’s teammate, javelin thrower Payge Cuthbertson, recently got engaged to men’s volleyball star Miki Jauhiainen, and the couples do a lot together, she said.

“I think a lot of athletes here like the idea of dating another athlete because you understand each other a little bit more,” Lohmeier said. “You understand the demands it takes to be a student-athlete at BYU.”

Rylee Jensen (softball) and Darius McFarland (football)

McFarland and BYU football teammate Clark Barrington were walking past a picture of the softball team about 18 month ago when McFarland asked Barrington, who was dating softball player Brooke Hill, to tell Hill that he thought Jensen was attractive.

Word got back to Jensen, and she told Hill to give McFarland her number. Eventually, they went on a triple date with BYU quarterback Jaren Hall and his future wife, Breanna McCarter, a former UVU soccer player, to Winger’s in Provo. Then they went bowling.

BYU outfielder Rylee Jensen (2) hits a triple against Utah at Duke Stadium in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, April 18, 2018. Jensen married BYU football player Darius McFarland. Adam Fondren, Deseret News
BYU outfielder Rylee Jensen (2) hits a triple against Utah at Duke Stadium in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, April 18, 2018. Jensen married BYU football player Darius McFarland.

“He didn’t act like he liked me at all,” Jensen wrote in The Athletes’ Journal — a regular series on the BYU Athletics’ website. “He didn’t even walk me to the door. … We hung out again the next day and he kissed me goodnight. I guess he did like me.”

Jensen wrote in the journal that she “grew up country” and played baseball against boys growing up on a farm near Idaho Falls, Idaho. McFarland is from Brigham City and served a church mission Washington, D.C. They got married last December.

How did McFarland propose?

Last summer, McFarland took Jensen back to Winger’s, site of their first date. Then they went to a place just south of campus where they had gone on a half-dozen walks previously, and a bunch of their friends and teammates were there hiding.

“He proposed, I said yes, and everyone cheered,” Jensen told BYU sports information. “Everyone knew it was coming, except me.”

Elise Machen (track & field) and Baylor Romney (football)

Before she became BYU’s school record-holder in the indoor pole vault, Machen grew up in El Paso, Texas, and a kid moved into her ward who looked nothing like the third-string quarterback who led the Cougars to victories last fall over Boise State, Utah State and Liberty.

Romney, 14 at the time, “was in a cowboy hat, big boots on, big belt buckle, and I was like, ‘He’s kinda cute anyway,’” Machen told BYUtv.

 Courtesy of Jeni Romney
Baylor and Elise Romney

Romney, whose family had moved across the border from Mexico, was kind of quiet and shy, but the teenagers shared a love of their church and athletics, and began dating a couple years later.

A year ahead of Romney in school, Machen signed with BYU as a senior at Franklin High and spent her freshman year in Provo while Romney completed his final high school season in El Paso and committed to play football at Nevada.

They left on their missions the same day — Machen for New Zealand and Romney for Carlsbad, California, (by way of the Missionary Training Center in Provo). They got married a few months after Romney returned, and he decided to walk on at BYU rather than stick with Nevada.

Asked if she gets tired of being called Baylor Romney’s wife, given his high-profile position on the football team, Machen replied: “Yeah, a little.”

Romney’s brother, Gunner, is also on the BYU football team, while another brother, Tate, will join them in Provo after a mission to Argentina.

“We do cheer each other on,” Machen said. “But we also compete at some things, like in board games, especially if it is just us two. We get in arguments about it, mostly because Baylor hates to lose. Well, we both hate to lose.”

Emily Lewis (volleyball) and Matt Bushman (football)

The similarities between the Lewis-Bushman union in 2017 and the 1994 marriage of Lewis’ father, former BYU standout tight end Chad Lewis, and mother, former BYU volleyball standout Michele Fellows, are striking.

Emily Lewis was born in September of Chad Lewis’ senior season, after her mother had already completed her volleyball career and graduated. The Bushmans’ baby girl is due this September, the first month of Matt’s senior year. Emily Lewis completed her career and graduated in 2018.

Tight end Matt Bushman walks off the field after a Brigham Young University football practice in Provo on Friday, March 6, 2020. Spenser Heaps, Deseret News
Tight end Matt Bushman walks off the field after a BYU football practice in Provo on Friday, March 6, 2020. Bush married Emily Lewis, the daughter of BYU great Chad Lewis.

The football greats are both redheads, the volleyball stars nearly as tall.

Back in 2016, a former teammate told Emily to “be on the lookout” for a 6-foot-5 football and baseball player who was returning from a mission to Chile. She first saw Bushman at Legends Grille in the Student Athlete Building, and was surprised when he approached her at the salad bar.

“So I was impressed he was mature enough to come over and say hi, because most football players usually just play it cool and don’t ask your name and introduce themselves,” she said.

Turns out, a few of Bushman’s baseball teammates, Noah Hill and Bo Burrup, were friends with Emily Lewis and had told the two-sport athlete he should ask her out.

They went to Slab Pizza near the BYU campus for their first date, then got some hot chocolate at the Shops at Riverwoods. Their second date came nearly six months later.

“He had only been back from his mission for a month, and I felt like he was nice and all, but he was kind of shy,” Lewis said.

“She wasn’t interested at first,” Bushman interjected. He was interested, though, because Lewis seemed to be armed with dozens of questions to keep the conversation going.

“That first date was right before Christmas break, so it wasn’t the best timing to date,” he said. “She was the first girl, post-mission, that I told my parents about.”

They started dating again in May 2017, then were married the summer before Bushman’s sophomore season in the Mount Timpanogos temple.

“We became friends first, and that’s when I realized this was an awesome guy and someone I could connect with so much, and respected so much,” Lewis said.

When he decided it was time to ask Chad Lewis for his daughter’s hand in marriage, Bushman met with BYU’s associate athletic director for development in his office a few floors above where the couple first met.

“We started out talking about football, like usual,” Bushman said. “I was like, ‘Oh no, how am I going to transition this into permission to marry his daughter?’ It ended up being a good experience, though.”

Bushman proposed two days after Valentine’s Day at Tibble Fork Reservoir in American Fork Canyon.

“It was attractive to me to marry somebody who is athletic because my life revolves around sports,” Bushman said.

Some of BYU’s student-athlete marriages and engagements over the past few years

• Men’s volleyball’s Zach Eschenberg and women’s volleyball’s Kennedy Redding

• Football’s Bracken El-Bakri and women’s track’s Sable Lohmeier

• Football’s Matt Bushman and women’s volleyball’s Emily Lewis

• Football’s Baylor Romney and women’s track’s Elise Machen

• Football’s Darius McFarland and softball’s Rylee Jensen

• Football’s Aleva Hifo and women’s volleyball’s Tayler Tausinga

• Football’s Clark Barrington and softball’s Brooke Hill (engaged)

• Men’s basketball’s Dalton Nixon and women’s volleyball’s Taylen Ballard

• Men’s basketball’s Connor Harding and women’s basketball’s Paisley Johnson

• Men’s swimming’s Connor Anderson and women’s wwimming’s Gwen Gustafson

• Men’s swimming’s Ryan Evans and gymnastics’ Shannon Hortman

• Men’s volleyball’s Miki Jauhiainen and women’s track’s Payge Cuthbertson (engaged)

• Men’s volleyball’s Alex Ah Sue and women’s volleyball’s McKenna Miller