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Vai's View: Vai's View: Mission could open doors for young hoops phenom

Published: Saturday, July 4 2015 11:36 a.m. MDT

Sports Illustrated cover (Sports Illustrated ) Sports Illustrated cover (Sports Illustrated )

Related top list: All-time list of returned LDS missionaries in professional sports

Related top list: High school athletes who have appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated

Related article: Mormon prep basketball phenom Jabari Parker makes the cover of Sports Illustrated

Related article: Sports Illustrated writer Jeff Benedict grateful for the opportunity to share Jabari Parker story with the world

After reading my buddy Jeff Benedict's Sports Illustrated cover story on high school phenom Jabari Parker, I noted that his Tongan mother, Lola, served her mission in Tonga in the early to mid-'80s before marrying Jabari's father, Sonny. My younger sister Lynette served in Tonga about the same time, so I texted her and asked if she remembers a Lola Finau from her mission. She responded, "Yes. I remember her as Sister Falola Finau from Salt Lake City."

Sensing Lynette hadn't read the SI story or knew anything of what had become of her fellow sister missionary, I asked, "What kind of person and missionary was she?" She texted back, "Tongan sisters from the States didn't have a great reputation because they were often prideful that they could speak English or had things. She was different. I worked in the office and trained her and her companion on various things. She was always humble and respectful. She worked hard. She was unique in that she was a Tongan from the States who wasn't cocky."

I thought, the apple doesn't fall far from the tree.

I asked Lynette, "Do you know where Sis. Finau is or what's become of her?"

She texted back, "Last I heard, she married an African-American man who wasn't LDS and moved away. R U in touch with her?"

No. But a WHOLE lot of people have been. Including my friend Jeff Benedict, author and senior writer at SI. When I informed my sister of what has become of Sister Finau, who is now Sister Parker, she responded, "Doesn't surprise me. Good for her."

Last week, I got a call from my friend Benedict, whom I met about five years ago in Connecticut at a book signing/press conference for the debut of his book, "The Mormon Way of Doing Business." A month later, Jeff came through Philly to promote his book and I arranged for him to be a guest on our morning magazine show at my TV station. We've been friends ever since.

Jeff called to tell me he was working on a story for SI about Chicago schoolboy phenom Jabari Parker. He had finished the feature piece but was working on a sidebar story about the effect missionary service had on the professional sports careers of those who served, and of course on those who didn't, like Danny Ainge and Steve Young, who nonetheless enjoyed successful pro careers. Jeff wondered if I knew someone whose athletic career didn't take off until AFTER their mission. I suggested Chad Lewis and connected them. A few days later, Jeff emailed me back with a few simple questions for his sidebar piece.

Though he loved my response as did his editors, Jeff informed me that it was an issue of time and space — including me was an afterthought, so by the time I responded his piece has already been submitted. He was just holding out hope that I might be included. I wasn't. No biggie. I was flattered that he considered me and tried to include me in his piece.

Here's our email exchange:

Vai,

Where and when did you serve your mission?

Did you play football at BYU prior to your mission?

Did the mission help or hinder your football career?

Jeff

1) Served in the South Dakota Rapid City Mission

2) Played 2 yrs at BYU before my mission.

3) For me, I don't think the mission played a significant role in my college football career, one way or the other. I'm among the minority whose NFL career exceeded my college career. I was primarily a backup running back at BYU and returned kicks. I was as surprised as the BYU coaches that the Cardinals drafted me in the 10th round (12 rounds at that time). Even more shocked when I was one of two rookies named to the Pro Bowl and made All Pro. I also went to the Pro Bowl my second year. I attribute much of that to my missionary experiences. I learned to work with a single-minded focus without regard for my personal status or circumstances — I didn't care that I was a 10th rd draft choice or that I didn't come to the NFL with a stellar college pedigree or highly decorated. A Mormon mission is among the hardest things a 19-21 yr old can do. I knew I had experiences that would've wilted 99% of my competitors, despite their size, speed, agility and strength. A Mormon missionary feels a certain sense of personal, providential protection that gives him a sense of invincibility — not the reckless, teenage kind — but an air of self-confidence and certainty about yourself and of your purpose. I had it in spades after my mission and to some extent, still do.

My mission is what gave me the sense of purpose to concentrate on a ball hanging in the air while 11, very fast men converged on me with ill intentions, yet calmly snatched the ball from the air and elude them.

It allowed me to transition seamlessly into TV. To write a weekly column. To render service in my church, raise good children and be a good husband.

Frankly, I don't think that often of my BYU experience. But not a single day has passed in the nearly 30 yrs since I returned home, that I don't think of an experience or a lesson learned on my mission. I played in the BYU Miracle Bowl vs SMU as a freshman, even scored an 83-yd punt return in it. Played in the national championship game in 1984. I couldn't tell you the dates those games were played.

But I remember I entered the MTC on Feb. 25, 1982. Left the MTC for South Dakota on Mar 26, 1982. A week later, on April 3, Pres. Hinckley announced missions for elders would be shortened to 18 months. So I returned home on Aug. 18, 1983. To this day, I speak frequently to my mission president's wife and always try to see her when in Utah (her husband died last year). My closest confidant is my convert, Bob Dull, whom I found in Rapid City, taught and baptized. He's now an engineer with Sinclair Oil and lives in SLC. His two daughters, who were babies in South Dakota, are BYU graduates, mothers and happily married (temple marriages). All three of my sons served missions but didn't play football, partly because of the emphasis I placed on missions and so little on football.

That, in a nutshell, is what my mission did for me and the difference it made in my professional and personal life.

Vai

Jabari Parker is wading into uncharted territory as a possible lottery pick considering a mission. Shawn Bradley was a lottery pick AFTER his mission but wasn't beforehand. McKay Christensen held Major League Baseball teams at bay before his mission in the mid-'90s with a letter that he intended to serve a mission, yet was still taken with the sixth overall selection. Most recently, David Archuleta put his music career on hold while he serves in South America.

In the end, it's just a matter of faith. If a young man has sufficient faith, he'll opt to go. But should he decide to stay, I think as an LDS society, we can be awfully hard on our young men who don't. Many still do outstanding things. What's difficult is straddling the line between encouragement and disappointment if they don't go. It's tricky because of how adamant LDS Church leadership is and has been about young men's priesthood duty and obligation.

In my opinion, church leaders leave no wiggle room. It's that crystal clear to me. So, I don't subscribe to Danny Ainge's comment: "I don't believe a mission is for everybody. I believe every young man should prepare for a mission but I don't believe every young man should serve a mission." I've known Danny since our BYU days. I love the guy. Respect and admire him, for his athletic talent, enormous professional success and his commitment to live his faith. I texted him to seek clarity on his quote, but he didn't respond. All I can go on is what is printed. I couldn't disagree more.

Of course LDS young men should prepare, and it's true that many don't pan out as missionaries. But allow the process to dictate that. His quote leaves room for young men to justify not going. And I'm uncomfortable with that.

Hey, if a kid submits his papers and his health or other circumstances keep him from going, then in my mind they are honorably discharged from their duty. But let those who have the stewardship determine that. Through Church leadership, the Lord says it's a "priesthood duty" and an "obligation" that he "expects of us."

My favorite quote from the sidebar piece is from Chad Lewis, who said of his mission, "It did not shut doors. It opened them." And I loved the quote from Jabari's older brother Christian, who encourages him to serve because "nothing can replace a mission." It's obvious to me what kind of missionary Christian was in the Georgia Atlanta Mission.

One of the reasons I served was because of my father. He had drifted from the faith. I had a strong impression that my service would soften his heart and bring him back. My mission wasn't just for me or the Lord; it was for my father and, by extension, my mother. A year out, a Tongan branch was formed in Mesa, Ariz., and the branch president was inspired to call Dad as his counselor. He responded positively, I'm convinced, because of my service in South Dakota. It changed his life, the dynamics of their marriage, our home life and how my life would unfold.

Jabari Parker can possibly have that kind of effect on his own family circumstances — something neither money nor fame can buy.

Related top list: All-time list of returned LDS missionaries in professional sports

Related top list: High school athletes who have appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated

Related article: Mormon prep basketball phenom Jabari Parker makes the cover of Sports Illustrated

Related article: Sports Illustrated writer Jeff Benedict grateful for the opportunity to share Jabari Parker story with the world

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