Wright Words: Highly touted quarterback sacrifices football field for Mormon mission field

Published: Tuesday, Sept. 10 2013 7:25 a.m. MDT

Aaron Zwahlen was highly recruited out of high school and chose to serve a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He is currently assigned to a branch in lovely Luray, Va., in the Maryland Baltimore Mission.

Provided by the Zwahlen family

Aaron Zwahlen of Modesto, Calif., is a big man with even bigger dreams. Born into a family full of superstars — including a father who played football at BYU — and blessed with uncommon athletic ability, Zwahlen has excelled on every field he’s ever graced.

The 6-foot-3, 205-pound quarterback dreamt of becoming the starter at Downey High School in Modesto. Done.

He wanted to beat Central Catholic, a powerhouse private school, in the biggest game of his career. Zwahlen led his squad to a 45-42 upset victory. Ditto.

He imagined owning the record books both at Downey and in the Modesto Metro Conference. Check.

Like any all-star, he pictured himself accepting a full-ride scholarship to a major university to play the sport he loves. But not even Zwahlen could have dreamt up this script.

While on a spring break trip to Hawaii during his junior year, Zwahlen’s father, Lynn, arranged for the family to watch a University of Hawaii football practice led by head coach Norm Chow. Lynn had played for Chow and called to arrange a quick meet and greet on the field for the family and Aaron's best friend, John.

Standing on a Hawaiian sun-baked practice field in shorts and tugging on a whistle, Chow offered Zwahlen a scholarship on the spot. He admitted that he’d scouted him at several high school camps and saw a future for him in the green and white of UH.

Who wouldn’t want to play for one of the all-time great quarterback mentors — the man who coached quarterbacks Jim McMahon, Steve Young, Ty Detmer, Vince Young, Philip Rivers, Carson Palmer and others?

And, by the way, you get to do it in Hawaii.

While Zwahlen considered the offer and launched his wildly successful senior year, his stock rose almost as fast as his touchdown passes piled up. He made ESPN’s vaunted top 300 list, coming in as the 153rd ranked football player in the country and the 10th best quarterback.

Duke, Northwestern, Texas Tech, Oregon State, Brigham Young University and a particularly hard-charging Washington State recruited him. But when national signing day arrived on Feb. 6, his heart and mind were committed to coach Chow and Hawaii.

The experience was another dream come true — a reality born of hard work and determination. There was nothing left to do but put on his uniform and step onto the field.

Only this time, it wasn’t painted with white lines and he didn’t have on shoulder pads.

The man with dreams had one more — bigger than all the rest — and it wouldn’t come to pass with long passes and play-calling. It could only be realized on the most important field he would ever know — the mission field. Zwahlen opted to defer the scholarship offer and serve a full-time, two-year mission for The Church of Jesus of Christ of Latter-day Saints. It was the very reason several top-flight schools had pulled out of the recruitment running.

Football fans familiar with programs like BYU might find it unremarkable that a Mormon athlete would make such a sacrifice and set aside the free-ride scholarship for two years. Many of BYU’s quarterback recruits have served missions and returned to compete for the starting job. But for Zwahlen at UH, nothing is guaranteed.

In the months after committing to Hawaii, Zwahlen was called to serve in the Maryland Baltimore Mission. He’s still in his first area, a branch in lovely Luray, Va., with a population of just 4,800 — not much bigger than his high school. Together with his companion — Elder Jacob Wilding of Lima, Mont. — they meet with the faithful, mighty members in a tiny remodeled optometrist office. Sacrament meeting attendance averages 20-30 people.

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