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Mormons in rugby: Answering the call

Published: Wednesday, July 1 2015 7:25 a.m. MDT

A decision made by a 19-year-old Mormon is making headlines in Australia these days.

Will Hopoate, a fullback for the Manly-Warrinagh Sea Eagles, recently announced his decision to leave professional rugby at the end of the season to serve a two-year mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. In so doing, he is forsaking millions.

“At the end of the day it was all my decision. This is what I want to do,” Hopoate told the media in a press conference.

To be a professional rugby player in Australia would be comparable to playing in the NFL. And like in the NFL, when a rugby player does something — positive or negative — it makes national headlines.

Hopoate’s decision to serve a Mormon mission has been covered extensively in the past week.

His contract with Manly expires at the end of the season (this fall). Many are struggling to understand why Hopoate, a hot commodity in the National Rugby League, is choosing this moment to forgo the wealthy, celebrity life of a pro athlete and serve a mission.

Hopoate's father, John, a former Manly and Test winger, mentioned in the media conference that at least one club had made an offer to his son worth $1.5 million, according to the Sydney Morning Herald’s David Beniuk.

"The money that he's walked away from is massive. It would have done him and the family well," John Hopoate said. "But, in saying that, we're more than happy that he's made this decision because it's such a massive decision for a kid to walk away from that kind of money. … That just goes to show what kind of person this kid is."

Will Hopoate said the decision to go on a mission is something he has always considered. His family supports his choice to serve, he said.

Hopoate is in the process of filling out his mission paperwork. Teammates and Sea Eagles’ management wish Hopoate well and hope the fullback returns to the club following his mission.

Hopoate emphasized to reporters that serving a mission has been 100 percent his decision. It is not something the church forces its young men to do.

“I was brought up in the Mormon faith. This is who I am and what I want to do,” the young rugby star said.

Hopoate is one of several Mormon rugby players in the NRL. He joins his uncle, Albert Hopoate, and Jordan Rapana of Gold Coast Titans in electing to serve a mission. Albert left the Sydney Roosters in 2005 to fulfill mission duties. He told Brent Read of “The Australian” that the decision was tough at the time, but it turned out to be a great blessing.

"At the time for me it was a tough decision because I loved football," Albert Hopoate said. "That was basically what I did for a job. It's what I breathed before I went on my mission. When I went on the mission, I guess it opened my eyes to life in general.

"It just helps you grow to love people in general. A lot of 19-year- olds are secluded. They take varied paths. Some of them take the wrong path and start drinking. … At his age, this is a chance for Will to go and build his character and become a man."

Rapana served his mission in England. The Sydney Morning Herald expects Rapana to return to the Titans very soon.

Lagi Setu is another rugby player who served a mission. Chris Cooper, a member of the church in Australia who follows LDS rugby players, wrote that contracts and sponsorship deals were on the table when Setu announced that he would be signing his mission papers instead.

“My religion has been everything to me. Without it I would not be where I am,” the Brisbane Bronco told the media before he left in 2010. “I want to spread … my religion to other places so it can help others like it has helped me. I will put my sporting blessings on hold to honor my religion for two years.”

Setu is currently preaching the gospel in England. His family told the Queensland Times in late April that his mission is going well.

Cooper reports that several players with ties to the Brisbane Broncos have served missions. Tevita Folau served a mission in Hong Kong. Fraser Anderson, who played for the Broncos, served in the Philippines and is now playing rugby in Japan.

Ben Hannant has played for Brisbane and is a member of the church.

One of the most popular players in Australia right now is Israel Folau, who also plays for the Broncos. He is a lifelong member of the church but has not yet decided to serve a mission.

Elder Neil L. Andersen of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles recently highlighted the story of Sid Going, a Mormon and one of the greatest-ever running halfbacks to play for the New Zealand All Blacks, in his talk in the April general conference priesthood session. Elder Andersen met the rugby legend recently on a trip to Sydney because Going and his wife are serving a mission as a couple. They talked about Super Sid’s decision to serve a mission to Canada as a young man instead of accepting a roster spot with the All Blacks.

“The blessing of (bringing others) into the gospel far outweighs anything (you) will ever sacrifice,” Going told Elder Andersen.

Going also recently met with Australia’s up-and-coming LDS rugby players and told them the most important things in life are not material possessions.

“The most important step right now is for you to surround yourself with good friends who will not influence you away from your standards and family values,” Going said.

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