SALT LAKE CITY – It was compelling news when Glen Coffee said no to the NFL in August. Passing up a lucrative football career for religious reasons — who ever heard of such a thing?
Eli Herring, for one.
Fifteen years ago, he did the same.
"Playing football is a very public thing. That's one reason it's fun to play, is because so many people take an interest," said Herring, a former BYU offensive lineman. "So when you decide not to play, people take an interest in that, too."
Coffee, a running back for the San Francisco 49ers, quit football after one season, saying he had a higher calling and "there's a lot of people out there who need to be saved."
A Christian who was baptized in 2008, he said his decision may even lead to a call in the ministry.
"A lot of people aren't going to understand and realize because they don't have the wisdom to understand. Their eyes aren't open like mine are open," Coffee said in an interview with WJOX-FM in Alabama. "True happiness is glorifying God and glorifying Christ. That's what true happiness is ... and for me, that wasn't the NFL. That wasn't where I needed to be."
It must have been a frightful decision to walk away from millions of dollars, as well as millions of NFL fans. But for Herring, the decision was perhaps even more complicated. Selected by the Oakland Raiders in the sixth round of the 1995 draft, the 6-foot-8, 335-pound Herring didn't want to play on the Sabbath. But unlike Coffee, his decision was no surprise. He had contacted all NFL teams the previous winter, asking them not to draft him. Still, teams figured once the money became apparent, he'd concede.
Even after the season began, the Raiders persisted. Stories said Herring could have played considerable time as a rookie.
Instead, he became a math teacher and assistant football coach, first at Springville High and currently at Mountain View.
Further muddying the issue was that not all LDS athletes avoid Sunday play. Sports jobs are often considered similar to being a nurse, cop or truck driver — they sometimes require Sunday work.
While the Pittsburgh Pirates' Vernon Law eschewed competing on Sunday in the 1960s, that was a fairly easy accommodation. There were six other days to play, and starting pitchers aren't utilized daily, anyway.
But other LDS athletes such as Dale Murphy, Vance Law, Steve Young, Chad Lewis, Gifford Nielsen, Ty Detmer, John Beck, Austin Collie, Danny Ainge, Fred Roberts, Mark Madsen, Andy Toolson and Shawn Bradley all played on Sunday.
LDS Church leaders have been careful advising athletes, often telling them it's a personal decision. Murphy went on to become a mission president, while Nielsen is an Area Seventy.
Herring has maintained a low profile since graduating, and this week sounded like he wanted to remain that way, perhaps because he didn't want to appear judgmental. It was a choice he maintains was right for him.
"I figured out what I wanted to do and that's what I did," Herring said. "A lot of people thought a lot of things, but it's my life and I had to make that choice."
Herring didn't offer any advice to Coffee, saying he hadn't heard of the story until contacted this week.
"I know I'm happy," he said, "and I hope his decision will make him happy."
He said he still gets asked about his career choices by students, though few request advice on what they should do. He pointed out that most of them won't have to make that decision because they aren't NFL caliber.
"The Lord has been true to his promises to me," he said, when asked if he had regrets, "and I've always been happy with the decision."
Similarly, Coffee has said his was the right choice for him.
"I'm happy because I'm following His will," he told the Birmingham News.
Circumstances and reasons vary among athletes, but in the cases of Herring and Coffee, there are a couple of things almost anyone can admire. First, that they have convictions beyond monetary ones, and second, that someone dares say no to the biggest religion in America — the Church of the NFL.