This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2016, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
The Mormon mission deal, as it pertains to BYU sports, especially football, rears its head on a fairly regular basis. It's usually used as a hammer to pound the point about the players' advanced age. Sometimes it comes from commentators, but typically it's used by opposing coaches who bring it up in passing, dropping it in the middle of their assessments in the week leading up to a game with the Cougars. It goes something like this:
"Yeah, we've got our hands full this week, playing BYU. They've got an explosive offense. They're physical on defense. They're well coached. They've got maturity. I'll tell you what, they've got grown men out there, grown men going up against our young kids, our 18- and 19-year-olds. Those guys shave every day, our young'uns shave once a month. It's gonna be a tough, tough challenge."
That script is written into a coach's handbook somewhere, that in your news conference before playing Brigham Young University, particularly if the Cougars are any good that season, you are required to chuck in that grown-men line. Its purpose is double-barreled: Those guys have an unfair advantage and you have an excuse.
There's only one problem with the exercise: It's a lie.
The revolving door in the middle of BYU football and every other sport at the school, with wide receivers heading off to Bolivia, defensive backs living in Bulgaria, power forwards knocking on doors in Belarus, is not an advantage. It is a pain in a coach's keister.
Ask any BYU coach if he or she would rather have an athlete in the program for four or five, counting a redshirt season consecutive years or have those years either interrupted or delayed for 18 to 24 months by a mission, and the answer is going to be, in almost every case, the former.
I know because I've asked.
The coaches are not often going to come right out and say that in the plain light of day, given that BYU is owned and operated by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the Salt Lake City-based faith likes having its young people going on missions for what it considers a more important cause than beating the Utes. But they think it.
Here's why: Take any highly crafted skill, honed through junior leagues and high school sports and maybe a year of college. Combine it with strength, built through hours and hours in the weight room, and put it all into cold storage for two years. Watch it deteriorate by way of serving your fellow humans, preaching the good word, and then have to darn near start all over again. What kind of edge is that?
Moreover, these athletes aren't just getting a bit rusty being away from their sport, they are adopting a whole new namby-pamby way of looking at life, filled with faith and charity and sweet-faced kindness to the rest of humanity. They're helping people with their problems, moving furniture, playing with toddlers, praying with parents, teaching forgiveness and love and peace, stressing the importance of temperance and tolerance and turning the other cheek.
What the hell is Kalani Sitake supposed to do with that, when his 320-pound nose guard, who used to be a profane, mean SOB, comes home weighing 260, beaming smiles and chucking daffodils in every direction? The kid may now look sharp in a suit and tie, but he looks ridiculous in a helmet and pads.
That's not the worst of it.
Some of these players go live in jungle huts, eating foods native fruits and berries and pudding concoctions and blood sausages and such wholly unfit for an athlete. I've seen some come home with ringworm, tapeworm, digestive difficulties stemming from micro-invaders wreaking havoc with their once-ruddy systems. I interviewed a BYU quarterback, returned from a Latin American country, who had spots on his legs from some unknown bug that had taken up residence in his body. I talked with a decorated offensive lineman who said he had learned all kinds of significant lessons on his Mormon mission and one of them was that football isn't that important, certainly not the be-all-end-all that he thought it was before he served. And his new lack of fanatical drive was adversely affecting his play.
In most cases, there's no Gold's Gym down the street from where these missionaries live. Even if there were, they would be breaking mission rules by frequenting one for daily workouts. There's simply no time for that kind of thing. Like other missionaries, they try to stay in shape through pushups and other rudimentary exercises in the morning and riding a bike everywhere they go.
This much is a fact: Any coach who believes players who serve LDS missions, growing two years older in the process, give BYU (or any other school) a competitive advantage, has never done the mission thing himself. Former missionaries may be more mature, but they are compromised in so many other ways. If anything, that time away is a disadvantage, at least when it comes to sports.
Next time you hear a coach say, "We're going up against grown men," think about that former QB with the spots on his legs and that offensive lineman looking to move on.
There are all sorts of good reasons for going on a church mission, for encouraging athletes willing and wanting to serve to go on missions. Improving their athletic ability and the overall welfare of a sports program isn't one of them.
GORDON MONSON hosts "The Big Show" with Spence Checketts weekdays from 3 to 7 p.m. on 97.5 FM and 1280 AM The Zone.