Provo • It is not big news when a BYU football player announces he is leaving the program for two years to serve an LDS Church mission. After all, 70 percent of the players on BYU's current roster are returned missionaries, and the program currently has 38 missionaries serving in 17 countries.
But it was more than surprising even shocking, to some when BYU defensive lineman Russell Tialavea announced after the 2009 season that he was going on a mission to Santiago, Chile.
Because Tialavea was well past 19 years old, had already played three seasons of football, and had been in the program since 2005. Players who do go on missions usually leave before or after their first season. What's more, Tialavea, by his own admission, was known as a malcontent, a lazy player just going through the motions, a classic underachiever.
"My attitude was horrible," Tialavea said. "I was prideful, always angry. I was a punk."
When the native of Oceanside, Calif., left on his mission, some coaches didn't think he would return to BYU, seeing how it wasn't certain that he had a year of eligibility remaining. Then there was his reputation for not being all that enamored with the place, or the sport, before he left.
And he departed not knowing whether the NCAA would grant him an additional year because he had already received a redshirt year in 2005 and a medical redshirt in 2007.
"It truly was a leap of faith," said BYU defensive line coach Steve Kaufusi.
Not only is Tialavea back, he's a mainstay on a defensive line that has been riddled by injuries. Expected contributors Ian Dulan (bad back), Eathyn Manumaleuna (knee surgery) and Jordan Richardson (bad back) have been lost for the season. Tialavea has made 12 tackles and knocked down two passes while starting all eight games.
"I hate to imagine where the defensive line would be without him," said Kaufusi.
With the Cougars (4-4) set to take on Georgia Tech and its explosive spread-option offense on Saturday (1 p.m., ROOT), Tialavea, nose tackle Romney Fuga and fellow defensive end Ziggy Ansah will be tested mightily, along with the eight other defensive starters.
"It's going to be fun," said Tialavea, no longer the grumpy, brooding player who avoided media interviews at all costs. "I have just been working really hard, trying to hustle and do my best. I'm improving. Before my mission, I didn't really try to reach my potential."
It shows in his physique and his class schedule. He's already earned a degree in sociology, and is thinking about applying to a master's program if he can make up some poor grades from his pre-mission days.
"I weighed in at 265 yesterday. I have no muscle, man," he said with a laugh. "My redshirt freshman year, 2006, I weighed 335. I'm lighter, but smarter."
Coach Bronco Mendenhall said that one of the highlights of his coaching career was the day Tialavea came into his office and announced he was leaving on a mission.
He called it a "truly remarkable experience ... there was no panic among the coaches. We were genuinely happy for Russell. There were hugs all around."
Tialavea needed shoulder surgery when he returned last January, and was forced to sit out of spring camp. Mendenhall said he's been one of the biggest surprises of the season.
"Russell has played phenomenal," Mendenhall said. "He has played better than he ever played before. He is working harder. He is more productive. He's just better in every way. He is really playing good football."
Russell Tialavea's path
2005 • Prized recruit from Oceanside, Calif., redshirted due to a significant injury
2006 • Started in seven games as a redshirt freshman, made 22 tackles
2007 • Tore his ACL in fall camp, received medical redshirt
2008 • Sophomore started 12 of 13 games, made 17 tackles, two sacks
2009 • Junior started six games, played in nine, and made 11 tackles
2010-11 • Served an LDS Church mission in Santiago, Chile
2012 • Mainstay on defensive line has made 12 tackles, knocked down two passes
BYU at Georgia Tech
P Saturday, 1 p.m. MT
TV • ROOT