Aaron Zwahlen of Modesto, Calif., is a big man with even bigger dreams. Born into a family full of superstars — including a father who played football at BYU — and blessed with uncommon athletic ability, Zwahlen has excelled on every field he’s ever graced.
The 6-foot-3, 205-pound quarterback dreamt of becoming the starter at Downey High School in Modesto. Done.
He wanted to beat Central Catholic, a powerhouse private school, in the biggest game of his career. Zwahlen led his squad to a 45-42 upset victory. Ditto.
He imagined owning the record books both at Downey and in the Modesto Metro Conference. Check.
Like any all-star, he pictured himself accepting a full-ride scholarship to a major university to play the sport he loves. But not even Zwahlen could have dreamt up this script.
While on a spring break trip to Hawaii during his junior year, Zwahlen’s father, Lynn, arranged for the family to watch a University of Hawaii football practice led by head coach Norm Chow. Lynn had played for Chow and called to arrange a quick meet and greet on the field for the family and Aaron's best friend, John.
Standing on a Hawaiian sun-baked practice field in shorts and tugging on a whistle, Chow offered Zwahlen a scholarship on the spot. He admitted that he’d scouted him at several high school camps and saw a future for him in the green and white of UH.
Who wouldn’t want to play for one of the all-time great quarterback mentors — the man who coached quarterbacks Jim McMahon, Steve Young, Ty Detmer, Vince Young, Philip Rivers, Carson Palmer and others?
And, by the way, you get to do it in Hawaii.
While Zwahlen considered the offer and launched his wildly successful senior year, his stock rose almost as fast as his touchdown passes piled up. He made ESPN’s vaunted top 300 list, coming in as the 153rd ranked football player in the country and the 10th best quarterback.
Duke, Northwestern, Texas Tech, Oregon State, Brigham Young University and a particularly hard-charging Washington State recruited him. But when national signing day arrived on Feb. 6, his heart and mind were committed to coach Chow and Hawaii.
The experience was another dream come true — a reality born of hard work and determination. There was nothing left to do but put on his uniform and step onto the field.
Only this time, it wasn’t painted with white lines and he didn’t have on shoulder pads.
The man with dreams had one more — bigger than all the rest — and it wouldn’t come to pass with long passes and play-calling. It could only be realized on the most important field he would ever know — the mission field. Zwahlen opted to defer the scholarship offer and serve a full-time, two-year mission for The Church of Jesus of Christ of Latter-day Saints. It was the very reason several top-flight schools had pulled out of the recruitment running.
Football fans familiar with programs like BYU might find it unremarkable that a Mormon athlete would make such a sacrifice and set aside the free-ride scholarship for two years. Many of BYU’s quarterback recruits have served missions and returned to compete for the starting job. But for Zwahlen at UH, nothing is guaranteed.
In the months after committing to Hawaii, Zwahlen was called to serve in the Maryland Baltimore Mission. He’s still in his first area, a branch in lovely Luray, Va., with a population of just 4,800 — not much bigger than his high school. Together with his companion — Elder Jacob Wilding of Lima, Mont. — they meet with the faithful, mighty members in a tiny remodeled optometrist office. Sacrament meeting attendance averages 20-30 people.
During a recent interview with Elder Zwahlen, I asked whether he ever walked down the quiet streets of Luray with his companion and wondered how he’d ever ended up there, thousands of miles from Aloha Stadium. “Nope,” he said. “This is where I’m supposed to be.”
Before I could ask a follow-up, he looked at me and added, “This is better than Hawaii.”
We discussed at length the risks associated with taking two years away from the game and the uncertainty when he returns in the summer of 2015. We also chatted about his ultimate career dream of being drafted and playing in the NFL. “It’s pretty simple for me. It’s a risk I’m willing to take because I know no matter what, the Lord will take care of me.”
I wondered, “If you knew you were trading a football future for a mission, you would?”
“Of course,” he replied with a cool combination of confidence and humility. “Part of our job as missionaries is to invite people to make and keep their commitments. Doesn’t that mean I have to keep mine?”
Zwahlen described his family’s legacy of mission service from his father to his brothers and now, as the youngest, his own. “It’s not a sacrifice,” he insisted. “It’s an honor.”
Zwahlen’s parents, huge sports fans and supporters of their children’s dreams, said nothing about their son’s decision-making process surprised them. “Aaron had an unwavering commitment to serve, regardless of other opportunities he might be losing,” said his father, Lynn Zwahlen. He added gratitude at the outpouring of admiration by many of other faiths that supported his decision to forgo football for a mission.
“Rather than ridicule his choice,” said his mother, Sue Zwahlen, “they unanimously praised him. One friend, a pastor of another church, sent us a copy of a sermon he gave one Sunday almost entirely devoted to Aaron’s unselfish and courageous decision to serve a mission.”
Dreams sometimes come true for parents, too.
Because Elder Zwahlen serves adjacent to my branch in Woodstock and in the same stake — Winchester Virginia Stake — I’ve had the opportunity to interact with him several times and I always walk away impressed with his levelheaded attitude toward life, his obedience and commitment in serving the Lord. Isn’t it wonderful that most of the missionaries in his district and zone have no idea he’s a blue-chip athlete with a highlight reel on YouTube? They only know he’s an obedient missionary with a willing heart to do God’s work.
Before our final meeting, I asked Elder Zwahlen what he wants the people of Luray to think of him when he walks down the street. Surely few, if any, know the choices he’s made that led him to their cozy community.
“It’s a small sacrifice, really. I can certainly give two years of my life to bring families together for eternity.”
Those are big dreams, indeed.
Jason Wright is a New York Times best-selling author of 10 books, including "Christmas Jars," "The Wednesday Letters" and "The 96th Annual Apple Valley Barn Dance." He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or jasonfwright.com.
Copyright 2016, Deseret News Publishing Company