Kaleb Hatch chose God before football, and it cost him a 2017 college scholarship.
Just like other LDS athletes before him and many who are yet to come, he’s comfortable with his choice and lifelong priority to go on a two-year church mission; he has enough faith in his athletic ability that some day beyond 2019, he’ll make it on the gridiron.
Hatch is a 6-2, 190-pound senior at Franklin High School in El Paso, Texas, who is expecting a letter from headquarters of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the next two weeks telling him in what part of the world he will spend the next two years.
Hatch was nicknamed “Leather Head” by coaches and teammates at Franklin for his love of football, dedication to workouts and stubborn devotion to practice. Before his senior year he was ranked the No. 26th pro-style quarterback in Texas by Lone Star Prospects. Last summer he was named the QB MVP of the annual Poly Camp in Utah and had similar MVP camp honors at Northern Arizona and New Mexico Max Prep camp.
His performance at the Poly Camp, which draws hundreds of college recruiters from across the country, brought phone calls, letters and texts from colleges in Arizona and New Mexico, at UCLA, Utah State and Dixie State College, a school he committed to and expected to visit until just two weeks before National Letter of Intent signing day in February.
Dixie State football coach Shay McClure said Hatch's mission plans did not play a part in Dixie State cancelling his recruiting visit. His staff signed another mission-bound quarterback in February.
His story is similar to Franklin High (Tennessee) BYU-bound QB Joe Critchlow, who had recruiters from the ACC and SEC back off once he told them of LDS mission plans. He will finish his mission to Montreal, Canada, this summer. His story was chronicled in the Deseret News earlier this week. Some LDS athletes hold back, go through the recruiting process, take trips and chalk up offers before announcing mission plans. Neither Hatch nor Critchlow used that tactic.
Hatch has excellent footwork. He has picture-perfect form, fashioned after thousands of hours of hard work finding his timing and fine-tuning his skills. It shows in his highlight films.
During his senior season at Franklin, he threw for 2,033 yards and 23 touchdowns with just four interceptions. He runs a 4.59 40-yard dash and bench presses 225 pounds with a 320 squat lift.
A Texas traditionalist, he is a “yes, sir” and “no, sir” guy, respectful as a Marine. When each recruiter approached him, he was upfront about his plans to go on a mission after high school. One by one, those recruiters told him their needs were immediate and they couldn’t sign him for 2019 and wait. Even BYU, very familiar with LDS missions, told Hatch they had committed to QBs in the program and on missions, didn’t have anything and couldn’t promise anything in 2019.
“I’m truly grateful for the opportunity to talk to all of them,” said Hatch. “It’s been a great experience, and I’m thankful they’ve taken the time to get to know me and hopefully they’ll talk to me when I get back.”
But in the meantime, it still hurts that Hatch didn’t have a signing day ceremony, that some coaches who were anxious to recruit him and promised to call, text and visit him, simply did none of those things after he declared his mission plans.
It was an issue of his personal duty and lifelong goals. And football was No. 2. This from a kid who spent the last two summers traveling to Arizona every other weekend to meet with QB coach Mike Giovando, return home and get up at 5:30 a.m. every day to work on QB skills, lift weights and throw passes. His parents, Trent and Anne Hatch, spent thousands of dollars and hours in his athletic preparation, investing in a personal coach and participation in summer camps all over the West.
But the mission thing hung in the air like a giant air balloon.
“My desire to go on a mission came at an early age,” said Hatch. “Both my grandfathers and all my uncles went on missions, and their stories inspired me and made me want to follow in their footsteps as a missionary.
“My mission will prepare me to be a man, to be an even better football player and help me later in life. That’s why I want to go.”
His father Trent is like any other dad. He’d love to see his son, who wears No. 12 and looks like former Miami Dolphin, Baltimore Raven and Washington Redskin QB John Beck, drop back and make plays.
Hatch has trained for that moment all his life. But he knows there are other moments, serving God, that’s also taken preparation and will never be over.
“I am so grateful for my parents for all they’ve done, all the time and money they’ve spent to help me reach my goals and potential as a football player,” said Hatch.
Trent Hatch said that for his son, there are two priorities that have dominated his life so far. “His first goal was a mission. His No. 2 priority was to be a scholarship athlete and play football. The mission will help him achieve the other, to be disciplined, to learn hard work, to be a better father, husband and man.”
Kaleb Hatch’s story is not unique. Every year in every sport, Mormon athletes are facing decisions on what to tell college recruiters. And in an increasing amount, those recruiters are backing off when they learn these LDS boys and girls will not be available for the next season.
A coach at Utah State told Hatch that he couldn’t commit a scholarship for 2019 because he didn’t even know if he’d be at that school that year. “But wherever I am, I want you to be my quarterback.”
And it is on those kinds of words that the Leather Head will disappear from the athletic scene for two years with faith it will all work out on the football field someday.
Choices come at a cost. But they also can pay big dividends.
Hatch is banking on it.