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To serve or not to serve: BYU star athletes discuss the role of missionary service

By Sarah Ballard

For the Deseret News

Published: Monday, April 21 2014 10:40 p.m. MDT

Brigham Young Cougars quarterback Taysom Hill (4) warms up prior to the start of the Idaho State game at LaVell Edwards Stadium on Saturday, November 16, 2013.

Matt Gade, Deseret News

The decision to serve a mission is one faced by many members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints around the world. For athletes with opportunities of going professional, the decision has more consequences than the average teen, as they often worry about their prospects and abilities upon their return.

Former BYU player Jimmer Fredette, as well as current BYU stars Tyler Haws, Taysom Hill and Taylor Sander, weigh-in on their decisions to serve or not to serve LDS missions.

Star quarterback Taysom Hill served his mission in Sydney, Australia. After originally committing to Stanford, Hill found out that Stanford did not allow incoming freshmen to start school midyear, and Hill didn’t want to come home early. That, along with coach Jim Harbaugh leaving for the San Francisco 49ers, forced Hill to reconsider his options. Hill committed to BYU when he returned from his mission and began school in January 2012.

For Hill, the decision to serve was easy.

“When I was faced with that decision — do I go play college football right now or do I go serve a mission — it was easy for me because I made the decision to serve a long time before,” he said. “I also had realized that I had been extremely blessed in my life to have the opportunity to play at a university and I would have felt really ungrateful if I hadn’t served.”

But that isn’t to say there weren’t challenges in his departure.

“The hardest thing was just leaving everyday life as I knew it. For my entire life I was with my family, I was able to go play football, able to play basketball, do all those things and it was just such a drastic change in my life,” Hill said. “After awhile I would say that the hardest thing was not being able to compete, obviously I was going to go compete in football. So not being able to workout and do various things like that, it just starts to wear on you a little bit. Towards the end of the mission that was the hardest thing. That being said, it wasn’t that difficult. I was thoroughly enjoying myself and saw my life change as well as others. My life has been extremely blessed since.”

Hill left the football field for the mission field four years ago and believes it has made him a better player.

“My advice would be to serve a mission. If you’re worried about not being able to be as good as you were when you left, I don’t agree with that. I would say again that I am a better football player because of my experience there,” Hill said.

Point guard Tyler Haws also explained that serving a mission was a choice that he made in his youth.

“I made that decision a long time ago, when I was a little kid in Primary. I always saw myself serving a mission and so when that time came, when we needed to start doing my papers, it was an easy decision to drop basketball and be like, ‘I’m going on a mission.’ As it got closer, I felt the importance of serving the Lord and felt like it was something I needed to do. I felt like there were people out there who needed my service and needed my help. It was an easy decision to drop everything and leave.”

Haws served his mission in the Philippines. Since his return, he has led the BYU basketball team with career highs in points and free throws. This season, Haws scored 20-plus points 21 times, 30-plus points seven times and a career-best 48 points at Portland.

In addition to sharing the title “All-American,” fellow BYU athletes Haws and Sander also received Male Athlete of the Year for their work in the 2013-2014 season.

Sander plans on playing professional volleyball in Europe later this year and will be with the U.S. men’s national team this summer. After helping the U.S. men’s volleyball team win gold at the 2012 Pan American Cup, Sander hopes to compete for the United States at the upcoming Olympics.

Sander’s decision to not serve an LDS mission was one that he put a lot of thought and prayer into.

“It was hard. It was something I prayed about and I just kept getting so many good offers from USA volleyball and you know, it was hard to leave all of that stuff. I wasn’t able to sacrifice it and I felt at ease with my decision.”

Sander has had other opportunities to discuss his faith through his volleyball career.

“I’ve had so many different opportunities to serve from being well-known in the volleyball world and get asked questions all the time. I feel like I’m serving a mission even though I’m not wearing a name badge,” Sander said.

At BYU, it is more of a rarity to find a young man who has not served a mission. According to a BYU survey in 2013, of the approximate 16,000 male students attending BYU, 14,000 had served missions. Sander makes up a part of the small percentage of those who have not served.

“Some people are super surprised because it is so expected here. But I don’t feel like I’m a bad person, I don’t want people to think that I’m a bad person because I didn’t serve a mission,” Sander said. “It was just something that was better for me and something that I made the decision to do. I don’t want people to judge me because of something I did for myself.”

BYU men’s volleyball coach Chris McGown explained the adverse effects of a two-year mission on athletes.

“The guys that choose not to go on a mission, they stay within the continuity of their sport — skills don’t degrade, there is no disruption in play and skill development,” McGown said. “From that perspective, it’s good in terms of your sport. From a short-term perspective, I think those guys that choose to go, there is a big drop off in their performance from when they get back — there’s no denying that they’re not in shape, that they’re not in rhythm, and that they’ve lost timing and just a kind of sharpness for the game.”

However, McGown advises all of his players to go out and serve.

“We talk about it all the time, the kind of intangible things that a mission does for an athlete that you get as an experience. I think you end up with a lot more humility, a lot of gratitude and you end up with a work ethic,” McGown said. “We’ve been encouraging all the guys to serve missions and to do it early.”

In October 2012, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints lowered the missionary age to 18 for young men and 19 for young women. This change saw a jump fro 58,000 full-time missionaries in 2012 to more than 85,000 today. For athletes, this means the opportunity to serve after high school and not break up their collegiate careers — something that McGown advises.

“Especially with the age change we want to get them out and get them back and train them for four or five years,” McGown said. “If there is ever any question of whether I think they should go or not I am always leaning on the side of serving based on my own experience as a missionary and the athletes that I’ve seen go and come back.”

In response to criticism of players not serving, McGown emphasized the complexity of the decision.

“I’ll catch drifts of (criticism) here and there from people outside the program. But I’ll always discount that to them being outside of the program — they don’t understand the heart and the intent of our athletes and the decision process that’s gone on. They just see the end result,” McGown said. “I think some people make assumptions about things that they don’t understand from a personal level. This isn’t an easy thing to choose.”

Former BYU player Fredette has encountered his fair share of criticism. During his time at BYU, Fredette was the nation’s leading scorer and received every major national player of the year award. Earlier this year, Fredette signed with the Chicago Bulls for the rest of the 2014 NBA season.

Like Sander, Fredette’s decision to not serve a mission also involved a lot of prayer.

“I definitely thought and prayed about it a ton when I was turning 19. I never got a strong feeling or inclination that it was something I needed to do,” Fredette explained. “Now looking back, I have had the opportunity to speak with several general authorities who have assured me that I have a different path on spreading the gospel without being a full-time missionary, which I try to do as much as I can.”

Fredette was raised in a part-member family, his father a member of the LDS Church and his mother a Catholic. His family was supportive of his decision.

“They were always 100 percent behind me, and wanted me to do what I thought was best,” Fredette said.

In making the transition from BYU to the NBA, Fredette has had many chances to share his beliefs.

“I have had many opportunities to talk about the gospel with my teammates and coaches all around the league,” Fredette said. “I've had many more opportunities to just reach out to normal people while playing in the NBA, not just players and coaches. Fans, neighbors, and just anyone who knows me will ask me about being LDS.”

For those looking to play professional sports, Fredette encourages that players stay true to who they are.

“Be yourself. Don’t change for anyone or anything,” Fredette said.

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