SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Chris Badger faced armed robbers twice on his LDS mission in Ecuador — a world away from the life he lives today as a redshirt safety for the University of Notre Dame, where many believe he is the first and only football player to have served a Mormon mission.
One wonders if Fighting Irish coach Brian Kelly understands what Badger has been through and how to deal with a player who has been away for two years serving his church.
Kelly certainly will be in the thick of mission guys when BYU visits on Saturday. He's gotta know missions aren't trips where players go to spas or Gold's Gym.
The first time Badger was robbed on his mission, he and his companion, a native of Ecuador, were in a poor part of the city of Guayaquil at night. A couple of guys approached them, pulled out a gun and asked for all their money and cellphones. He only had a couple of bucks in his pocket, and he gave them up. "I don't have a cellphone, but I do have a book that is about God," Badger said he told one of the robbers. The man gave him back the money.
The second stickup occurred later when Badger and his companion were doing yard work as a service project. He was wearing Notre Dame gear and some brand-new Adidas shoes. "That's a no-no to wear new athletic shoes," he said. The bandits pulled out a gun and demanded money and his shoes. "I walked all the way home in my socks," he said.
While Badger is redshirting this season in South Bend, he's still been a focal point of many questions from his teammates. "They want to know what players I know on BYU's team." And, of course, he's always fielding questions about being a Mormon.
Working on Notre Dame's scout team this week, he's played the part of BYU safety Daniel Sorensen. "I've tried to give our offense a good look at what to expect from BYU," said Badger.
Badger was an all-state safety at Timpview and a key part of their state championship teams. He chose to go to Notre Dame because during his visit he was struck by the "Rudy" story and the hallowed football tradition, the Golden Dome and the legendary program.
His older brother Troy has been a mainstay in his development and helping him sort through recruiting. It was a process that included many camps; one was at Louisiana State University, where former BYU coach Gary Crowton was offensive coordinator and looking at Timpview teammate Xavier Suafilo. Crowton's interest in Suafilo widened to include Badger. That turned into an LSU offer, and Chris tucked that away with others from Notre Dame, Florida State University, University of Oregon, University of California and Stanford University.
"Even without off-the-chart numbers or natural talent, he showed that a kid that played hard, physical and smart could get a spot anywhere in the country," Troy Badger said.
"Chris was successful in high school because of his work ethic," continued his brother, who pushed him and supported him from his start at Park City, then at Timpview, where he played with BYU's Michael Alisa and Craig Bills.
His father, Dr. Rodney Badger, director of the Cardiac Catheterization Lab at the University of Utah, got former Utah safety Steve Tate involved with Chris at Timpview, and he's been a mentor ever since.
"Steve is cool. He's been where I want to be. He served a mission, started for three years at Utah, he's a playmaker and he's done a lot of great things," said Badger.
Tate calls Badger a blue-collar football player who works tremendously hard and isn't afraid of putting his nose in the fray. "He's got a great work ethic, good footwork. You can play him in the box and, like me, he likes to mix it up, blitz and make plays on the ball. He's a coachable guy, and you don't find that too much in high school these days, where many think they're entitled."
Tate also knows from firsthand experience with Urban Meyer that coaches in Big Ten territory are not familiar with working with players returned from missions.
"I can only imagine what it's like at Notre Dame. You've got to be patient with guys off missions. You kind of feel like you are on an island, and as everyone knows at Utah and BYU, its difficult to get back in shape."
When Tate got back, Eric Weddle told him he looked out of shape. "Well," he replied, "I've been in a third-world country (Argentina) for two years." That Badger is redshirting this year will make a big difference, said Tate.
"It's been great; the ward here is really strong," Badger said. "I definitely get a lot of opportunities every day to answer questions about the church. It's a lot of fun; some people have come to church and one friend, who is 29, joined the church. I've had experiences here I couldn't have had at BYU, had I stayed close to home."
Troy said his brother has an uphill battle at Notre Dame. He was recruited by Charlie Weis, not Kelly. While Chris was in Ecuador, the Fighting Irish recruited over him because they had to.
"In an elite program, they don't juggle their recruiting or numbers around returned missionaries," Troy said. "Notre Dame and Kelly were great when Chris wanted to go on a mission."
At the time, Notre Dame had only three safeties on the roster. When Badger returned, Notre Dame recruited that position heavily and this fall had six freshman safeties — seven including Chris.
Said Troy, "When you look at it, there haven't been many (if any) successful returned missionaries at the big-time programs that recruit nationally. Most LDS athletes haven't interrupted their careers to do it. For Chris, his chances were better if he stayed. But he really felt like he needed to go and he had a great experience in Ecuador. Now he's back, it will take some work as well as luck to get that opportunity."
Chris says Notre Dame's defense is legitimate. "It is as good as the numbers show. They've been dominant and expect to dominate every game."
Cougars on the air
BYU (4-2) at No. 5 Notre Dame (6-0)
Saturday, 1:30 p.m. MDT
Notre Dame Stadium, South Bend, Ind.
TV: NBC Radio: 1160 AM, 102.7 FM
Copyright 2016, Deseret News Publishing Company