Faith, Family, Knowledge, Friends and Football— the five subjects BYU head coach Bronco Mendenhall has chosen to focus on for his team.
Two of this year’s senior defensive linemen are products of those teachings. Ian Dulan and Russell Tialavea, two of the most experienced players on this year’s roster, can both testify about the effect of Mendenhall’s coaching.
“Ever since I came to BYU, all the coaches have talked about faith, family, friends and school before football,” Dulan said.
Both Dulan and Tialavea were three-year starters and were expected to start again their senior years. The two players combined for 64 games played and 101 tackles during their first three years.
But just before their final year, both Tialavea and Dulan decided to forego the next football season and serve full-time missions for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
While many LDS young men serve after their first year of school, they are allowed to go at any age between 19 and 25.
“I always wanted to go on a mission since I was a kid but I kind of lost my path, so that’s why I left after my junior year,” Dulan said.
“I had an Alma the Younger experience where I remembered the words of my parents and it just burned into my soul. It just hit me and I started reading my scriptures every day, started going to church and talked to my bishop. Things fell into place and I left.”
The 6-foot-1 lineman from Hilo, Hawaii, also credits his older brother Paul who helped him grow spiritually and to be a “good boy.”
“My brother served a mission and I saw the changes in him,” Dulan said. “That instilled in me the desire to go out and serve. Even though it took a little while to get to that point, I still felt the need to serve because I’ve always been taught by my loving parents that if you serve God first, then everything will fall into place.”
Tialavea, a product of Oceanside, Calif., likewise faced a difficult decision. If he left for a mission, he might not get to play football again. He didn’t have an extra year of eligibility, which meant he would need to appeal to the NCAA to play his senior year upon returning home.
“But he didn’t hesitate, he didn’t care,” BYU defensive line coach Steve Kaufusi said. “The one thing for sure is Russell wanted to go on a mission.”
His strong desire came from studying the scriptures. His mom is a seminary teacher and encouraged him to read regularly. The two would read over the phone together.
“During my fourth year, I finally started reading the Book of Mormon,” Tialavea said.
“I finished it in three months and I knew I had to go. I actually knew I needed to go when I was halfway through the book.”
Both Dulan and Tialavea said the coaching staff played a big role in their decisions to serve.
“The best experience I had is when I was with coach Mendenhall,” Tialavea said.
“We were into summer and I was training hard, it was actually the best physical shape I’ve ever been in my life and that’s when I decided to go on my mission.
“I went to his office and I was so scared to tell him because I was supposed to start that year and he was counting on me. I sat down and I was nervous and I just started crying.
“I said I can’t do anything right now but serve my mission. Then he broke down crying, too, and you knew it was just pure love, from a coach to a player. That was one of my favorite moments I’ve ever had here at BYU, more than any football moment.”
Dulan also spent time with Mendenhall, discussing football, church and a potential mission.
“Coach Mendenhall helped me realize the path that I should go,” Dulan said. “I met with him a few times where we talked about my mission. He also gave me a few books to read, which I still hold close. It was just a great helping moment to me.”
Happy, excited, hopeful, faithful and glad are the words Dulan used to describe his coaches’ reactions when he announced his plans to serve a mission.
“I was so happy for them,” Kaufusi said. “I never thought, ‘Oh, I’m going to lose two starters.’ That was never in my mind. My happiness was when they made that change in their lives and they wanted to go because I knew what growth was going to take place in their life.”
The 6-foot-3, 265 pound Tialavea, who also lettered in basketball in high school and is a big Utah Jazz fan, served in the Chile Santiago West Mission from 2009-2011. The pair kept in touch during their two-year service, offering support to one another. Dulan even made a CD and sent it to Tialavea.
Dulan returned in 2011 from serving in the Illinois Peoria Mission and spent the football season as a redshirt in order to try to get back into football shape.
“Since coming back I have really felt a heightened sense of determination, ability, speed, quickness, mental capacity — all those types of things,” Dulan said. “I feel like I’ve been blessed by the Lord for serving.”
This year, Dulan, who credits his brother Barry for helping him become a great football player, plans to use those enhanced talents to achieve his senior year goals of getting healthy, getting at least one sack per game, loving and supporting the team, his family and the gospel.
“Then help the team win in every way possible,” Dulan said.
With six seniors anchoring the defensive line this year, there will be a variety of player combinations on the field at any given time.
“I understand my role this year, which is to just help out the first three guys,” Tialavea said. “If they get tired, if they’re injured or something, I can fill in and help out. I know what to do, I have a lot of experience so I just want to be a really good example and work hard and show what Coach Mendenhall wants as a player. After all these years I think I understand what he wants from us: to be disciplined, obedient and work as hard as we can.”
Kaufusi recognized a change in the two players when they returned from their missions. He said although they still enjoy football, their priorities in life seem to be much different.
“I noticed when they came back, they had grown so much and matured in every way,” Kaufusi said. “You can see the changes in their life. It’s not just about them, there are other purposes in their lives. It’s been great to watch them mature and to spiritually grow, just from serving their missions.”
Throughout fall camp, neither player talked much about football or had much to say about playing time, personal sports goals or for which games they were excited.
Instead, their focus was on how they could help others succeed. “I want to be a role model because I’m not the most outspoken guy on the team,” Tialavea said. “Riley [Nelson], [Brandon] Ogletree, those guys have a strong presence. I just want to be helpful to the younger kids, get them on their missions. I’ve just been hanging out with those younger players, giving them rides and inviting them to Family Home Evening.”
In just a few months, the football season will be over. The two senior linemen will have played their last down at BYU. Each will look to move forward to their next part of his life.
Tialavea graduated in August and wants to work as a youth counselor when the football season ends. He then plans to attend graduate school in a couple years.
Dulan, who got married to his wife Gabriel during the summer, said his ultimate goal is simply to provide for his family, whether he plays football professionally or through another avenue.
“It’s always been a goal to do my best and if my best gives me a chance to play at another level again, I’m fine with that,” Dulan said. “I’ve always had the idea that you need to do your best and if it comes, then it comes.”
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Although their futures are still undecided, they both feel their lives will be better because they served.
“We don’t have much different stories than someone who goes on their mission at 25 or 26,” Dulan said. “We’re just football players who happen to be at BYU which makes our story a little unique. I believe everybody out there who has a desire to serve a mission when they’re young, they should never forget [that desire] and keep on the right path.”
Aaron Sorenson is a sports information director at BYU.