Over the past 33 years, I’ve interviewed hundreds of LDS athletes about missions and the effects — both positive and negative — missions have had on their athletic careers. News out of LDS General Conference this past weekend that church missionaries now can leave for their full-time service at age 18 for men and 19 for women is a sweet deal, based on what those athletes have said.
Here’s why: The men, at least, now have the option to play their college sports in consecutive years, without delay, without interruption. They can go on their missions earlier and come back earlier and play straight through.
Starting into college football or basketball, or any other sport, for one season, then leaving at 19 (the previous minimum age) to serve a mission for two years, and then returning to complete college eligibility over the next three years, or four, including a redshirt year, was problematic for a lot of athletes.
It might not have been so bad had those missionary-athletes had a Gold’s Gym conveniently located down the street from their apartment and the time in their schedule to go through regular lifting and conditioning sessions as a means of tiding them over during their time away.
And there may be a small minority of missionary-athletes who enjoyed those kinds of benefits, both on account of favorable physical circumstances in the country where they served and a mission president who looked the other way while they bent strict mission rules blocking that kind of outside activity.
But on the whole, those are outliers.
In most cases, missionary service is so complete and comprehensive, there is no real opportunity for missionary-athletes to stay either connected to or conditioned for a sport that once dominated their focus and their lives.
Missionaries are up early, studying scriptural accounts, praying a lot, and, in the case of missions in foreign countries, honing language skills, until mid-morning, and then off teaching, proselytizing and doing humanitarian service until late at night, when they typically return home and collapse into their beds. Chances to smooth a jumper or catch a football or hit a baseball are nowhere in sight.
That’s why those, including opposing coaches, who criticize or complain about BYU or Utah or Utah State having some sort of competitive advantage by putting older, more mature returned missionaries on the field or on the court, don’t fully grasp what they’re talking about. Most of the missionary-athletes I’ve interviewed say going on a mission and leaving their athletic pursuits behind for an extended period brings them a unique, terrific experience and new perspective on the important things in life, but no real competitive edge. In fact, it’s more often a disadvantage, an obstacle to scale.
Tony Bergstrom, the former Ute offensive lineman now with the Oakland Raiders, who did his mission in Sacramento, Calif., said adjusting to football again was “tough,” but that missionary work taught him to embrace the “daily grind.”
Austin Collie, the former receiver at BYU and now an Indianapolis Colt, said after returning from his mission in Argentina in 2007 that his experience away was “a great time, I loved it.” But he also talked about the frustration of trying to gain back the receiving skills he once took for granted: “It’s been rough, hard to adjust to a different mind-set.”
Collie said he was so absorbed into his missionary work that he “never exercised” and “can count on one hand the number of times I ran.”
One of the times was when a thief stole his camera and he ran the man down. Another was when a perp stole his watch right off his wrist. When Collie caught the guy and tackled him from behind, the thief pulled a gun on him. The athlete wisely backed off.
A lot of missionaries are sent to remote areas where the comforts of normal American living are nowhere to be found. They live in jungle huts and are exposed to local diets that not only cause them to lose muscle mass, they pass along exotic bugs and worms that create health issues. One former returned-missionary quarterback once showed me blue-green spots on his leg, a leftover from his mission to Panama, during which he ingested and housed in his body nourishment-sucking parasites that caused him stomach and joint pain.
Aside from any of these issues, just being away from a sport, from the repetition of daily skill building and conditioning and fueling the mental toughness necessary to compete at a high level is a lot to overcome, especially when missionary-athletes for two years are neck-deep in charity, out preaching love and kindness and Christian principles to anyone who will listen.
Coming home to get nasty with and bite the heads off opponents takes a little time.
Now, athletes who choose to go on LDS Church missions can do it right out of high school and return to concentrate, if they still are driven to do so, on their sport for four or five straight seasons and offseasons. College coaches who have worked with athletes after they’ve returned from missions say that setup is far more advantageous for most athletes, and preferred by coaches.
Some athletes still will choose to play for a year before going, but the guess here is that course, over time, will become less traveled.
There could be one side-advantage for BYU in this development. Athletes who go on missions sometimes rearrange their priorities and want a different college environment after the mission experience than they would have craved before it. While the Cougars claim they do not recruit missionaries, there might be cases where they don’t have to, athletes will want to come on their own. A few, on the other hand, might want to leave BYU for other places.
Either way, LDS Church leaders lowering the mission age is a bit of inspiration Mormon athletes who want to serve can celebrate, regardless of where they play their sport. It gives them individual flexibility — and athletic momentum — they didn’t have before.
GORDON MONSON hosts “The Big Show” weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 1280 AM and 97.5 FM The Zone. Twitter: @GordonMonson.