Written by Corbett Smith
Athletes find reward, risk in Latter Day Saints missions
Recruits who choose LDS missions know time will bring changes
HURST — Like many of the area’s best football players, Hurst L.D. Bell defensive tackle Mohelika Uasike is in the midst of wrapping up his recruiting process.
Committed to Utah State, Uasike (pronounced Wah-SEE-kay) is taking an official visit to Logan, Utah, this weekend. On Feb. 5 — national signing day — he’ll participate in a ceremony at L.D. Bell, celebrating the accomplishment with his teammates, friends and family.
But the 6-3, 290-pound Uasike won’t sign the NCAA-required letter of intent, nor will he see Utah State’s campus again for some time. Instead, he will dedicate the next two years of his life to serve as a Mormon missionary, heading off to an as yet undisclosed locale this summer.
“A calling, that’s a good term for it,” Uasike said. “I see it as my time to go. They are a lot of people that are lost, and for us Christians, we are called to go out and share with them.”
Athletes who serve as missionaries for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (LDS) during their college careers must be willing not only to give up the limelight of collegiate athletics but also to jeopardize their own size, strength and skill. They also must be selective in finding schools willing to honor the scholarship offer upon return and patiently wait as they return to fitness.
“It’s a challenge,” BYU football coach Bronco Mendenhall said. “But rather than view it as a hindrance, we really look at how we make that experience into a great strength. We see the value in having them serve out in the world, and their value coming back to us as young men.”
‘Almost a shell’
The athletic setbacks players incur as a result of mission trips can be substantial. Physically, they may never get back to peak performance, and, if players choose to go to college for a semester or two before taking their mission, it can sacrifice their place on the depth chart.
BYU offensive tackle Michael Yeck was a 6-8, 280-pound lineman at Keller in 2008 but came to BYU in 2010 at 235 pounds after serving his two-year mission in Birmingham, Ala., right out of high school.
Missionaries are on a regimented schedule, getting about 30 minutes of workout time each day — often without any weight equipment. Coupled with changes in diet and lifestyle — riding bikes or walking to get most places — can result in players shedding weight, muscle mass and strength.
“It’s not like they can go to 24 Hour Fitness at night,” Euless Trinity coach Steve Lineweaver said.
Two of Lineweaver’s seniors, Abilene Christian pledges Moses and Eddie Ngungutau, are leaving for their missions in May.
“That’s not in the deal; their focus is on full-time ministry,” Lineweaver said. “Heck, they might be sent to Hong Kong or a place like that — and they’ve got to eat whatever is eaten by the native population. They come back almost a shell of what they once were, and a lot of colleges aren’t willing to deal with that.”
Former Southlake Carroll safety Tanner Jacobson started the 2013 season as a walk-on at Texas Tech but finished with seven solo tackles against Arizona State in the Holiday Bowl, one of Jacobson’s four starts. Instead of fighting for a full-time role during the off-season, Jacobson left Texas Tech in January to serve a two-year mission in Bolivia.
“He had a plan, and nothing was going to deviate him from that plan,” Southlake Carroll coach Hal Wasson said. “You’ve got to respect what he chose to do. If he wasn’t that kind of kid, he might not have been the type of player he was.”
His older brother, former Carroll wide receiver McKay Jacobson, left BYU after his freshman season in 2006 to serve as a missionary in Sapporo, Japan — after being named the team’s offensive rookie of the year. Upon returning, his career never really took off.
“It’s hard to quantify how much [the mission trip] really took away from me,” McKay Jacobson told The Morning News in 2011. “Definitely, I was out of shape coming back, but I gave myself the best opportunity to come back.”
As a result, some colleges shy away from recruiting mission-bound LDS players. Lineweaver and L.D. Bell coach Mark Smith said they know of schools that stopped recruiting players as soon as they found out about a potential mission trip.
Uasike said that schools never dissuaded him about his planned service, but they did ask questions. A factor in Uasike’s decision to go with Utah State was the school’s comfort level with his decision, he said.
Overwhelmingly, FBS players who take mission trips come from three schools: BYU, Utah State and Utah. Salt Lake City’s Deseret News calculated that of 112 FBS players serving as missionaries, all but 16 came from those three schools.
Yeck — who was recruited by Kansas State, TCU and others — said that BYU’s track record with mission-bound athletes “definitely played into” his college choice. Yeck started all 13 games as a junior this season for the Cougars, being named to the FBS All-Independent team.
At any given time, Mendenhall said that as many as 50 BYU players could be serving as missionaries, making his program one of the most volatile in the country in terms of roster turnover. It isn’t without benefits, however.
BYU’s program has built long-term recruiting plans, using a seven-year model dependent on “self-reliant” older players back from mission trips.
And for those coming back, Mendenhall called his staff “experts” at reintegrating players back into the program.
“This is a completely different type of test for these players: one of patience and humility,” Mendenhall said. “We’ve become very skilled at it.”
‘A servant’s heart’
Ultimately, Uasike said his trip shouldn’t be viewed as a sacrifice. Mission trips aren’t about football.
“The emotional strides and maturity that I gained in my mission, I couldn’t begin to explain for my college experience,” Yeck said. “Being LDS is such a big part of my life, and there was a sense to duty to give back to the church in the small way that I could.”
Tanner Jacobson came to visit Wasson over the Christmas break. They talked football, Texas Tech’s season, and his upcoming Bolivia trip.
“He’s looking at it as an opportunity, to fulfill that vision he has for himself,” Wasson said. “Playing football, that’s not his calling right now. His purpose is to do what he’s doing. Tanner has a servant’s heart, and I’m proud of that.”
Follow Corbett Smith on Twitter at @corbettsmithDMN.
Drawn to serve
Here are some area FBS football players who have served or are serving as Mormon missionaries:
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