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Update: Exercise helps student-athletes make transition from missions easier
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2006, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Stretching over a 30-year period from Lance Reynolds to Fui Vakapuna and David Nixon, hundreds of football players have traded pads and a helmet for white shirts and ties.

Like snowflakes, no two players return from church missions alike in terms of physical conditioning. They run the gamut from grossly out of shape to nutritionally challenged and badly in need of a makeover.

Serving in Ecuador, Nixon got sick twice and lost 25 pounds.

Vakapuna looked like the spent his two years in Carlsbad, Calif., pumping iron on the beach.

But no matter the story, history has proven the good players will regain their form on the football field.

"If a guy's a stud, then he's a stud when he comes home, provided he has enough time to get himself back in shape," said Reynolds, Brigham Young's running backs coach.

Increasingly, players are rounding into shape more quickly and are able to make contributions soon after coming home. Vakapuna and Nixon are prime examples, as both are expected to play significant roles this fall for the Cougars.

Vakapuna was impressive during the recently concluded spring practice, soaring up the depth chart at running back. Nixon has worked his way into the rotation at linebacker.

Both players, who played two years ago as freshmen, got home less than a month before the January semester began. Spring practice started six weeks later.

Each player strictly adhered to a relatively new LDS Church policy that strongly encourages missionaries to exercise daily for 30 minutes. The guideline was part of the "Preach My Gospel" plan that came out in late 2004.

"It's almost like a commandment to work out for 30 minutes every morning," Nixon said.

Before the policy came out, Nixon worked out on his own for several months with handmade weights. After church authorities in Ecuador banned weight lifting, he exercised with rubber bands.

BYU's football staff mailed Nixon the equipment, along with instructions on how to use it. The strength and conditioning coaches usually provide each outgoing missionary with an exercise plan.

Nixon credited coach Jay Omer with helping to regain most of his strength in the weeks leading up to spring practice. Through years of experience, the coaches have learned how much to push recently returned missionaries.

"They know exactly what to do with us," Nixon said. "I think going to another university, it might have been a little tougher."

One of the first to interrupt his football career, Reynolds was a test case in 1974. After playing along BYU's offensive line for two years, he left on a mission to Seattle.

Most interested observers thought Reynolds was done with football.

Instead, he regained a starting position and went on to play in the NFL.

"When I left the most difficult decision for me was: It was football or a mission," he said. "That's how it was posed to me. There was enough proof and enough evidence to say that was probably true."

Like Vakapuna and Nixon, Reynolds got home shortly before the winter semester began. He developed a few nagging injuries during spring practice, prompting the "I told you so" responses.

He also was accused of lacking heart and a killer instinct. None of that stuff was true, Reynolds said, and isn't in most cases.

"There was a criticism out there that you couldn't do it," he said.

"As soon as they came home and weren't feeling good and weren't up to full stride right away, then it's 'See, you can't do it.' I think they'd get discouraged easily, where now we just realize this is going to take a little time.

"There's a whole different attitude than there was years ago."

Coaches have become more educated, realizing a missionary needs more time to recover from the daily grind. Once a player regains strength and conditioning, Reynolds said, he's the same as before the mission.

As evidence, Reynolds points to several former missionaries now playing in the NFL. The success rate of ex-missionaries has passed down a level confidence for other returning players, he said.

"Even just a few years ago we were questioning if quarterbacks can do it, because we didn't have guys that had done it," Reynolds said.

"Now all of a sudden we have some guys that have done it and now that's not an issue anymore."

Ideally, the coaches prefer a missionary serves out of high school or waits until after the season and leaves in January. The minimum age for males to serve is 19.

If a player returns in January, Reynolds said, it provides enough time to be ready in August. Coach Bronco Mendenhall, in his fourth year at BYU, believes missionaries need one year to completely regain form.

"We operate under the premise here that even though the players will contribute when they come home that first year, it won't be at the same level as it would after they've been home for a full year," Mendenhall said.

Weber State coach Ron McBride prefers each of his prospective missionary recruits enroll part-time for a semester before leaving.

The routine, known as gray-shirting, allows to a player to delay the start of his eligibility until after the mission.

A former assistant and head coach at Utah, McBride has recruited hundreds of LDS players. When he became head coach in 1990, Utah had one missionary.

There were between 35-40 in the program when McBride left after the 2002 season. His goal is to recruit about five each year at Weber State.

McBride believes players mature emotionally and physically during the two years away from football. He points one of his recruits at Utah, Tavo Tupola, who played safety at Kahuku High in Hawaii and then returned from Tucson, Ariz., as an offensive lineman.

"You don't have to worry about them doing anything stupid," he said.

"When they come back they kind of are programmed to do the right thing and get on with their lives. Ninety percent of those kids are right on track when they come back to be successful."

pjk@sltrib.com" Target="_BLANK">pjk@sltrib.com Stretching over a 30-year period from Lance Reynolds to Fui Vakapuna and David Nixon, hundreds of football players have traded pads and a helmet for white shirts and ties.

Like snowflakes, no two players return from church missions alike in terms of physical conditioning. They run the gamut from grossly out of shape to nutritionally challenged and badly in need of a makeover.

Serving in Ecuador, Nixon got sick twice and lost 25 pounds.

Vakapuna looked like the spent his two years in Carlsbad, Calif., pumping iron on the beach.

But no matter the story, history has proven the good players will regain their form on the football field.

"If a guy's a stud, then he's a stud when he comes home, provided he has enough time to get himself back in shape," said Reynolds, Brigham Young's running backs coach.

Increasingly, players are rounding into shape more quickly and are able to make contributions soon after coming home. Vakapuna and Nixon are prime examples, as both are expected to play significant roles this fall for the Cougars.

Vakapuna was impressive during the recently concluded spring practice, soaring up the depth chart at running back. Nixon has worked his way into the rotation at linebacker.

Both players, who played two years ago as freshmen, got home less than a month before the January semester began. Spring practice started six weeks later.

Each player strictly adhered to a relatively new LDS Church policy that strongly encourages missionaries to exercise daily for 30 minutes. The guideline was part of the "Preach My Gospel" plan that came out in late 2004.

"It's almost like a commandment to work out for 30 minutes every morning," Nixon said.

Before the policy came out, Nixon worked out on his own for several months with handmade weights. After church authorities in Ecuador banned weight lifting, he exercised with rubber bands.

BYU's football staff mailed Nixon the equipment, along with instructions on how to use it. The strength and conditioning coaches usually provide each outgoing missionary with an exercise plan.

Nixon credited coach Jay Omer with helping to regain most of his strength in the weeks leading up to spring practice. Through years of experience, the coaches have learned how much to push recently returned missionaries.

"They know exactly what to do with us," Nixon said. "I think going to another university, it might have been a little tougher."

One of the first to interrupt his football career, Reynolds was a test case in 1974. After playing along BYU's offensive line for two years, he left on a mission to Seattle.

Most interested observers thought Reynolds was done with football.

Instead, he regained a starting position and went on to play in the NFL.

"When I left the most difficult decision for me was: It was football or a mission," he said. "That's how it was posed to me. There was enough proof and enough evidence to say that was probably true."

Like Vakapuna and Nixon, Reynolds got home shortly before the winter semester began. He developed a few nagging injuries during spring practice, prompting the "I told you so" responses.

He also was accused of lacking heart and a killer instinct. None of that stuff was true, Reynolds said, and isn't in most cases.

"There was a criticism out there that you couldn't do it," he said.

"As soon as they came home and weren't feeling good and weren't up to full stride right away, then it's 'See, you can't do it.' I think they'd get discouraged easily, where now we just realize this is going to take a little time.

"There's a whole different attitude than there was years ago."

Coaches have become more educated, realizing a missionary needs more time to recover from the daily grind. Once a player regains strength and conditioning, Reynolds said, he's the same as before the mission.

As evidence, Reynolds points to several former missionaries now playing in the NFL. The success rate of ex-missionaries has passed down a level confidence for other returning players, he said.

"Even just a few years ago we were questioning if quarterbacks can do it, because we didn't have guys that had done it," Reynolds said.

"Now all of a sudden we have some guys that have done it and now that's not an issue anymore."

Ideally, the coaches prefer a missionary serves out of high school or waits until after the season and leaves in January. The minimum age for males to serve is 19.

If a player returns in January, Reynolds said, it provides enough time to be ready in August. Coach Bronco Mendenhall, in his fourth year at BYU, believes missionaries need one year to completely regain form.

"We operate under the premise here that even though the players will contribute when they come home that first year, it won't be at the same level as it would after they've been home for a full year," Mendenhall said.

Weber State coach Ron McBride prefers each of his prospective missionary recruits enroll part-time for a semester before leaving.

The routine, known as gray-shirting, allows to a player to delay the start of his eligibility until after the mission.

A former assistant and head coach at Utah, McBride has recruited hundreds of LDS players. When he became head coach in 1990, Utah had one missionary.

There were between 35-40 in the program when McBride left after the 2002 season. His goal is to recruit about five each year at Weber State.

McBride believes players mature emotionally and physically during the two years away from football. He points one of his recruits at Utah, Tavo Tupola, who played safety at Kahuku High in Hawaii and then returned from Tucson, Ariz., as an offensive lineman.

"You don't have to worry about them doing anything stupid," he said.

"When they come back they kind of are programmed to do the right thing and get on with their lives. Ninety percent of those kids are right on track when they come back to be successful."

pjk@sltrib.com" Target="_BLANK">pjk@sltrib.com

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