Mormons in the NFL: Headed to the Super Bowl

Published: Monday, Jan. 31 2011 6:00 a.m. MST

Like a little troublemaker, Brady Poppinga has been grounded.

That’s how the injured linebacker describes watching his team, the Green Bay Packers, advance through the playoffs to Super Bowl XLV.

“It’s like you are looking out the window and watching your friends play pick-up football in the street,” said Poppinga, a former BYU star now in his sixth year with the Packers. “I love to see the team play well, but to not be part of it is tough.”

Poppinga is one of three Mormons taking part in the Super Bowl. Come Super Sunday, Feb. 6, Poppinga will be on the sidelines in Dallas, just not in uniform. Last October the Wyoming native pulled himself from an Oct. 17 game against Miami because something didn’t feel right in his knee. Further examination revealed a partially torn ACL and resulted in season-ending arthroscopic surgery. He says he could have played on but felt surgery was his best option.

He finished the season with 14 tackles and one sack.

Despite sitting out of the biggest game of the year, Poppinga is upbeat about his recovery and said the procedure was like putting on a new tire.

The 31-year-old is also looking forward to reconnecting with a couple of BYU alums on the opposing team – Pittsburgh’s defensive linemen Chris Hoke and Brett Keisel.

Poppinga was a freshman at BYU when Keisel, a.k.a. “The Beard,” was a senior. He has developed a friendship with Hoke over the years.

“They are typical Steeler guys, hard-working, tough, team players," Poppinga said. "They are the glue of that Pittsburgh defense and part of the reason the Steelers are in the Super Bowl."

Hoke lamented Poppinga’s injury.

“Brady is a great guy and a good football player,” Hoke said. “It’s too bad he is on injured reserve, but it will be really fun to see him.”

When asked what impressed them about Keisel’s Grizzly Adams beard, Poppinga and Hoke chuckled heartily.

“It’s big and burly," Poppinga said. "He looks like a lumberjack who has lived in the mountains for several years."

Hoke said Keisel started growing the beard during the summer.

“It’s crazy and out of control, but you’ve got to give it to him for sticking with it,” Hoke said. “We tape our jerseys down to our pads and his beard would get stuck and pull out of his chin during the game. You have to give it to him for his dedication.”

Keisel, a nine-year defensive end, has registered 33 tackles this year, along with three sacks, two forced fumbles and one 79-yard interception return for a touchdown.

Hoke, a nine-year veteran defensive lineman, suffered an MCL tear in September against Tampa Bay but returned weeks later. The 34-year-old has recorded 12 tackles this season.

The three players carry the distinction of being members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Hoke was raised in the church and served an LDS mission to Belgium. His wife is currently the ward Primary president, and he serves as a Cub Scout leader for a den of 11-year-old boys.

“I lean a lot on faith, my testimony and relationship with my Father in Heaven. It’s been a driving force for me,” Hoke said. “The NFL season is not an easy one. You have a lot of highs and lows over several grueling months. I like the perspective I have gained from being raised in the church and having many experiences I can draw back on to get me through tough times. I appreciate having the knowledge that Father in Heaven is only a prayer away.”

Poppinga, 31, served his mission in Uruguay. Being the only Mormon on the Packers has led to some “insightful and engaging discussions,” he said.

“It’s not about the label or religion you belong to, it’s the uniqueness of the lifestyle," Poppinga said. "It’s an adventure in terms of how guys look at you. I wear that badge of honor with pride.”

Since coming into the league, Poppinga has been asked to learn new positions and has had to work for playing time. He learned to see adversity as a blessing and his goals revolve around self-improvement. He is in the process of writing a book about the principles he has discovered over his career and is considering as a title “The True Spirit of Competition.”

“The church is an unbelievable organization in the sense it guides you and gives you the tools to handle every situation. In an adverse situation without those tools, you might want to give up,” said Poppinga, who has had many opportunities to teach the gospel in his ward. “The church arms us with a number of lessons, tools, resources, principles, stories, experiences that have really been impactful in every aspect of my life. Without the church, there is no way I would be able to play at this high level.”

Mormons in the NFL

Al Afalava, DB, Colts, Oregon State

John Beck, QB, Redskins, BYU

*Austin Collie, WR, Colts, BYU

Chris Cooley, TE, Redskins, Utah State

Kevin Curtis, WR, Chiefs, Utah State

Stewart Bradley, LB, Eagles, Nebraska

John Denney, LS, Dolphins, BYU

*Jonathan Fanene, DL, Bengals, Utah

Aaron Francisco, DB, Colts, BYU

*Max Hall, QB, Cardinals, BYU

Todd Heap, TE, Ravens, Arizona State

*Eric Heitmann, OL, 49ers, Stanford

Chris Hoke, DL, Steelers, BYU

Bryan Kehl, LB, Rams, BYU

Brett Keisel, DL, Steelers, BYU

*Maake Kemoeatu, DL, Redskins, Utah

Paul Kruger, DL, Ravens, Utah

*Spencer Larsen, FB, Broncos, Arizona

Deuce Lutui, OL, Cardinals, Southern California

*Marcus Mailei, FB, Saints, Weber State

Brandon Manumaleuna, TE, Bears, Arizona

Garrett Mills, TE, Bengals, Tulsa

Fili Moala, DL, Colts, Southern California

Tony Moeaki, TE, Chiefs, Iowa

Haloti Ngata, DL, Ravens, Oregon

David Nixon, LB, Rams, BYU

Dennis Pitta, TE, Ravens, BYU

*Brady Poppinga, LB, Packers, BYU

Sione Pouha, DT, Jets, Utah

Naufahu Tahi, FB, Vikings, BYU

*Harvey Unga, RB, Bears, BYU

*Fui Vakapuna, RB, Bengals, BYU

Eric Weddle, DB, Chargers, Utah

*Injured reserve

Practice squad players

Dallas Reynolds, C, Eagles, BYU

Tim Toone, WR, Lions, Weber State

Travis Bright, OL, Cowboys, BYU

Manase Tonga, RB, Raiders, BYU

J.D. Folsom, LB, Buccaneers, Weber State

Shawn Murphy, OL, Broncos, Utah State

Fenuki Tupou, OL, Eagles, Oregon

e-mail: ttoone@desnews.com

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