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How Mormon Athletes Balance Service, Sports

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Copyright 2017 The Salt Lake Tribune
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The Salt Lake Tribune

 

The coach Brock Miller committed to play for at Utah State retired by the time he arrived on campus. The team? Only one of the players on the roster when he was a high school senior remains is Logan.

Miller signed with USU in fall 2014 to play for the Aggies' men's basketball team. After graduating from Brighton High School, the 6-foot-5 Sandy resident went on an LDS Church mission for two years in Buenos Aires, Argentina. From the time he left until his return to the U.S. on Feb. 6, 2017, he played basketball -- the sport that earned him a full scholarship -- no more than 10 times.

Once an athlete returns and acclimates to the old surroundings that have become new again, the hard part begins. Returned missionaries such as Miller must retrain their bodies and relearn the skills that made them elite in their sport.

"You're competitive," Miller said. "You want to get going right off the bat. But then at the same time, you've got to put things into perspective and realize it's all going to be good. Stay patient, and it's going to come. Just keep working at it. [But] it definitely was [frustrating]."

College athletic programs throughout the country integrate returned missionaries to their teams every year, but nowhere is it part of the fabric of so many programs as in Utah. However, there is no cookie-cutter process for getting athletes up to speed. Those who know the process best identify three things -- patience, trust and an individualized approach -- as crucial ingredients.

"It's kind of not anything that you can put on paper and say, 'This is what we're going to do' to see the level of fitness that they're in," Brigham Young University football coach Kalani Sitake said. "I've heard many times before that missionaries, when they get home from their mission, don't feel that their legs have come back until a year later. Now others have been able to perform and help their teams win."

BYU's latest incoming class for football included 10 returned missionaries (four midyear, six in the fall), while the school's baseball and men's basketball teams each signed players to national letters of intent this past year; they will not enroll until 2019.

Miller is one of two returned missionaries joining the USU men's basketball team; the other is Crew Ainge, the son of former BYU standout and current Boston Celtics President of Basketball Operations Danny Ainge. USU's football program announced its latest class on signing day in February, and it included five players who will serve missions before enrolling.

"We love coaching them. We love having them in our program. We love recruiting them," Utah State men's basketball coach Tim Duryea said. "I just think they're -- in today's world of college basketball -- most of the time they're just about the right stuff. They're kind of throwbacks in terms of, 'I'm going to go to school. I'm going to get my degree. The name on the front of the jersey means a lot to me.' "

Building a foundation

Miller benefited from having graduated from high school early in order to leave for his mission in February 2015. That gave him extra time to start the slow process of getting back to playing basketball before the fall semester.

"First of all, you start by getting back to eating normal," Miller said. "Down there [in Argentina], you only get a big lunch and that's about it. You can cook your own dinner, breakfast. Getting the body back into shape, you start slow, obviously. You get back into the gym, you get shots up, ball handling, conditioning."

Miller said that he limited his workouts to 45 minutes in the first few weeks at the gym, and he didn't attempt a 3-pointer until May. His first five-on-five pickup game didn't come until June, four months after he returned.

Miller benefited from having two older brothers who'd gone through the same experience. His brother Corbin finished his collegiate career as a senior co-captain at Harvard this winter. His brother Brandon was a sophomore on the Dixie State team last season.

University of Utah baseball pitcher Riley Ottesen didn't have that same sort of family experience to lean on when he returned from his mission in Japan.

Ottesen, a fifth-round draft pick of the Los Angeles Dodgers last month, returned from his mission in June 2015. The right-hander hadn't picked up a baseball for two years. While overseas, he tried to stay in shape through a daily regimen of getting up about 5:30 a.m. for more than an hour of jumping rope and running.

"You hear about missionaries coming back from their mission and pretty much losing everything, losing their ability to play sports," Ottesen said. "That was definitely on my mind. I guess you kind of just have to have faith and you have to stick with the process, and stay strong with what you've got going. Hopefully, everything works out for you when you come back from a mission. Fortunately, I was blessed."

Ottesen still recalls his first throwing session -- a mess of wildly high side-arm throws, out-of-whack mechanics, a feeling of weakness and scary thoughts.

"I felt like I wasn't going to throw hard again. I got pretty scared," he said. "For the first month or so, I was pretty nervous about how my results would turn out."

Pitching coach Mike Crawford put together a throwing program that started with throws from short distances, and slowly built up Ottesen's workload. Ottesen didn't throw off a mound until October, but he went into the season feeling strong. After some early struggles, he did most of his work out of the bullpen his freshman season and posted the second most appearances of anyone on the staff during the Utes' Pac-12 championship run in 2016.

This past season, after a full year of training, Ottesen earned a spot in the Utes starting rotation.

"Sometimes you're compelled to be humble, and that's OK," Ottesen said. "You learn from it. You become a stronger pitcher and a stronger baseball player from that."

You never know ...

Tim Duryea served as an assistant under Stew Morrill at Utah State for 14 years before taking over as head coach two seasons ago. His approach with returned missionaries is simple: Don't assume anything, start slow and let players dictate their own progress.

"I've been doing it long enough now to know that even if a kid is doing his mission right across the street from the Gold's Gym, that doesn't mean that his mission president and the type of mission and the type of work and all those things that he's doing is going to allow him to have access to that at all," Duryea said. "I don't think you can really judge it by where a kid goes on his mission.

"Jaycee Carroll did his mission in a remote part of Chile, and you would think he would come back and have absolutely no prayer of being ready to play, yet he ran a lot on his mission -- I think sometimes in the case where I think he was being chased -- but he got a lot of running in one way or the other. When he came back, athletically, he really didn't miss a beat."

Carroll graduated in 2008 as USU's all-time leading scorer, a two-time AP honorable mention All-American and the WAC Player of the Year in 2007-08.

For football players, the process is a different beast. At BYU, which is owned by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Sitake's primary concerns are about players being able to withstand the rigors of a season.

Timing often works against football players being able to get on the field right away; most will return in the summer and have a short period before the season starts. That's why the default for BYU has been to redshirt returned missionaries.

But there are times when players have been called into the fray immediately.

"It happened for Tanner Mangum when he came home from his mission and he was kind of thrown in the spotlight after Taysom Hill got hurt his freshman year," Sitake said. "Tanner's freshman year was that exact thing. He got home in June and was the starting quarterback in Week 2, and then played the entire year as the starting quarterback."

Position does factor into the decision to redshirt players. Last season, BYU redshirted four linemen who had returned from missions to allow them to build their bodies. Sitake, who served a mission himself as a player, stressed the importance of allowing each player to progress at his own rate. Returned missionaries are separate from the rest of the group when it comes to workouts, so their individual development can be closely monitored.

Mangum's case proves that decisions made about redshirting missionaries can be crucial. Sitake takes advantage of the program's resources -- they will have five strength coaches working with football -- by having the strength and conditioning staff focus its attention on returned missionaries as a separate group.

"I believe it needs that much attention," Sitake said. "For a person that's just got home from two years of nonactivity, it's important that we give them that much attention, that we give them that much coaching so that we can make the right decision.

"As we go forward, if there is a question at all -- then we redshirt them. For the most part, players want to play. If it was up to them, they'd play. They don't want to redshirt. As a coach, it's our job to protect them and do the redshirt."

lworthy@sltrib.com

Twitter: @LWorthySports 

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July 11, 2017
 
 
 

 

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