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

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

During a recent interview with Elder Zwahlen, I asked whether he ever walked down the quiet streets of Luray with his companion and wondered how he’d ever ended up there, thousands of miles from Aloha Stadium. “Nope,” he said. “This is where I’m supposed to be.”

Before I could ask a follow-up, he looked at me and added, “This is better than Hawaii.”

We discussed at length the risks associated with taking two years away from the game and the uncertainty when he returns in the summer of 2015. We also chatted about his ultimate career dream of being drafted and playing in the NFL. “It’s pretty simple for me. It’s a risk I’m willing to take because I know no matter what, the Lord will take care of me.”

I wondered, “If you knew you were trading a football future for a mission, you would?”

“Of course,” he replied with a cool combination of confidence and humility. “Part of our job as missionaries is to invite people to make and keep their commitments. Doesn’t that mean I have to keep mine?”

Zwahlen described his family’s legacy of mission service from his father to his brothers and now, as the youngest, his own. “It’s not a sacrifice,” he insisted. “It’s an honor.”

Zwahlen’s parents, huge sports fans and supporters of their children’s dreams, said nothing about their son’s decision-making process surprised them. “Aaron had an unwavering commitment to serve, regardless of other opportunities he might be losing,” said his father, Lynn Zwahlen. He added gratitude at the outpouring of admiration by many of other faiths that supported his decision to forgo football for a mission.

“Rather than ridicule his choice,” said his mother, Sue Zwahlen, “they unanimously praised him. One friend, a pastor of another church, sent us a copy of a sermon he gave one Sunday almost entirely devoted to Aaron’s unselfish and courageous decision to serve a mission.”

Dreams sometimes come true for parents, too.

Because Elder Zwahlen serves adjacent to my branch in Woodstock and in the same stake — Winchester Virginia Stake — I’ve had the opportunity to interact with him several times and I always walk away impressed with his levelheaded attitude toward life, his obedience and commitment in serving the Lord. Isn’t it wonderful that most of the missionaries in his district and zone have no idea he’s a blue-chip athlete with a highlight reel on YouTube? They only know he’s an obedient missionary with a willing heart to do God’s work.

Before our final meeting, I asked Elder Zwahlen what he wants the people of Luray to think of him when he walks down the street. Surely few, if any, know the choices he’s made that led him to their cozy community.

“It’s a small sacrifice, really. I can certainly give two years of my life to bring families together for eternity.”

Those are big dreams, indeed.

Jason Wright is a New York Times best-selling author of 10 books, including "Christmas Jars," "The Wednesday Letters" and "The 96th Annual Apple Valley Barn Dance." He can be reached at jwright@deseretnews.com or jasonfwright.com.

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