It happens again and again at opposing coaches’ news conferences in the run-up to football games, but in particular when BYU has a good team.
It usually goes something like this: “Yeah, coach, how do you feel about going up against a BYU team that has a bunch of 24- and 25-year-old players?”
And the answer from the coach typically goes something like this: “We don’t pay much attention to that sort of thing, but … they do have a whole lot of grown men over there that our young’uns will have to do battle with.”
And it happened again this week when Oregon coach Dan Lanning was asked about the supposed age challenge.
A couple of reactions here: 1) It’s nonsense, and 2) BYU’s starters this week aren’t significantly older than Oregon’s.
I’ve written about this before, but because of the ongoing frequency of the question, it’s worth addressing again.
BYU’s roster rotation making room for the missionary program of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which owns and operates the school, is no advantage for its football team.
Not to any comprehensive advantage.
The first time I wrote about this was 45 years ago, when I surveyed somewhere between 40 and 50 BYU athletes — I can’t remember the exact number now — who had completed Latter-day Saint missions as to whether the delay of their athletic careers for missionary service helped them perform better when they returned. In the interim, I’ve asked a whole lot more the same question.
A very small percentage said it helped them. A large percentage said it was a difficulty to overcome.
The reasons are obvious to anyone who’s ever done the mission thing.
Usually the ones asking the question and the coaches answering it have not done the mission thing, so they have no clue.
Any time an athlete interrupts the momentum he has built into his football career for two years to go teach and preach his religion, to serve communities where he teaches and preaches that religion, he’s not doing it for any kind of competitive gain.
These players stop their training programs cold to head off to far-flung destinations to do their service. It’s essentially a two-year non-paid non-vacation to a place not of their choice. They serve anywhere from Fiji to Finland, from Maryland to Madagascar, from Philadelphia to the Philippines.
There’s no training table, missionaries instead eat local cuisine, which may or may not cause them any number of gastric distresses. Most missionaries lose weight and muscle during their time away, and if they do gain weight, it’s usually on account of chowing down too many baked goods, not the sort of gains made from slamming protein shakes.
Workout opportunities often consist of little more than riding a bike or walking from their home apartment to teaching appointments and to church services and to helping people in various states of need. There may be a few missionaries who sneak off to a Gold’s Gym now and again, but many of them have no such access to modern conditioning equipment.
I still remember talking to a BYU quarterback some 20 years ago, asking him about a red circle he had on his leg. He said it was leftover from his mission time in Panama, I believe it was. It was from some worm he had picked up while living in what amounted to a jungle hut.
That’s what a whole lot of missionary/athletes are dealing with.
Those who spend their time in more urban areas, they still get up at 6 a.m. every day, eat their own prepared breakfast, study for a couple of hours, then go out doing their proselytizing, or service activities, preaching love and kindness and charity all day long, returning to their apartments at 9 p.m., exhausted from their daily grind of goodness.
It’s not what any football coach would consider quality prep for their return to football at BYU.
Some missionaries/athletes are toughened up by their volunteer service, becoming more mature in the process. One BYU basketball player who completed his mission years ago said upon his return, “When you knock on doors in South Philly for two years, you’re not afraid of anything anymore.”
There is that.
But there also are more than a few athletes who head out on their missions, eager to return to football when they get back, but then lose the fire to slam helmets and pads on the field after becoming immersed in their gospel studies. They’d rather attend to their classwork and get on with their careers.
So, there’s that, too.
The idea that what BYU does — and Utah and Utah State do, as well — by incorporating missionaries into their roster rotation is somehow unfair to athletes on opposing teams because they are thought to be younger and disadvantaged is laughable to most returned missionaries.
They know what they’ve experienced and they know they would have been better off, in most cases, keeping the momentum they had previously built in their football pursuits.
It’s frequently been said that if missionary service really was an advantage in football that Alabama and Ohio State and Clemson and other college football powers would incorporate something similar.
Instead, they load their players into weight rooms and onto playing surfaces to sharpen their skills, build their strength, and kick butt on the field.
Outside of an occasional offensive lineman whose body might fill out during the mission years, the time spent in religious service is no physical advantage at all. One BYU receiver who went on to play in the NFL told me the only real workout he got during his mission came when a thief stole his wallet and he had to chase him down, which he did.
The question will go on being asked and answered, typically in ignorance.
If the curious really want to know, they should ask the guys who hacked their way through jungles to preach their version of truth, who knocked on doors in South Philly, who ate donuts at a member’s house, who drenched themselves in charity, trying to do good things for the people around them, hoping that their football dreams wouldn’t slip away en route.