LOS ANGELES Walking across UCLA's sprawling Westwood campus, it does not take long to realize that Ben Olson is different from other freshmen.
One by one, strangers walk up to the 6-foot-5 redhead with the inviting smile and thank him for coming to their school. They look at him in admiration, as if standing in front of their savior.
In a sense, they are.
The future of UCLA's football program could rest on the shoulders of a 22-year-old who has never thrown a college pass and is taking freshman-level classes two years later than his peers. Olson, with his UCLA football backpack thrown over his shoulder, smiles and shrugs it off.
Wherever Olson goes, there are whispers that he is the man who will resurrect a program teetering near futility. Olson has been here before. The last time, though, he walked away in what he calls the best decision of his life.
Once a California prep legend and dubbed the next great BYU quarterback, Olson ditched his playbook for a book that meant so much more. He gave up the pageantry and glory of college football to serve a two-year Mormon mission with no guarantee his dream would ever be fulfilled.
"I always knew that whatever happened to me in football, I would always regret it if I didn't go on the mission," Olson said. "I didn't want to live with that regret."
By his senior year at Thousand Oaks High in California, he was the No. 1 recruit in the country after throwing for 2,989 yards and 32 touchdowns. Boxed away inside the Olson home in Ventura, Calif., are letters from nearly every major college program recruiting the first-team All-American, who was selected the top quarterback at the Elite 11 Camp.
"You name them, they wanted him," said Olson's high school coach, Mike Sanders. "There was tons of pressure."
UCLA, USC and BYU were the front-runners, and Olson committed early to BYU. The Cougars had gone 10-2 in 2001 and Olson was immediately tabbed as the next great BYU passer.
With a long family history of Mormon missions, Olson's decision wasn't easy. He agonized over it while in the midst of BYU's 2002 season, when the Cougars struggled to a 5-7 record.
"Ben struggled with the thought and feeling that he was given this talent for a reason, and he could be an example as a football player and not serve a traditional mission, and reach more people that way," Olson's father, Rick, said.
Frustrated with redshirting and with a coaching change looming, Olson announced his decision before the season finale against Utah. He informed his family and filed the necessary paperwork with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Salt Lake City.
"I wanted someplace foreign, but not too foreign," Olson said. "I didn't want to camp in a jungle for two years, and I was scared of going to Russia."
Olson got his wish when his packet arrived: His assignment was in Canada.
For the Olsons, weekly e-mails were their only form of communication. Ben was cut off from the world, unable to watch TV, read a newspaper or participate in anything pop culture. Half-hour phone calls were permitted on Mother's Day and Christmas, and both parents readily admit crying each time they heard their son's voice.
But with the Mormon community tightly knit, he was still unable to fully escape the pressure of being Ben Olson. Other missionaries asked if he planned to return to BYU, and senior members of the church would talk football. Even among strangers, he was recognized a handful of times.
"You are supposed to forget about yourself and figure out who you are, and what you are," Olson said. "How can you forget about yourself if everyone recognizes you?"
That's how much time passed between when Olson landed in Los Angeles and the phone rang, a reporter asking where he would be playing football and what his immediate plans were. Olson had decided not to return to BYU for several reasons, including his desire to be closer to home.
Within days, the phone was ringing as often as it had a few years earlier, when Olson was the nation's top recruit.
"I was thrown back into this world that I hadn't lived in for two years," Olson said. "It was scary to wake up and not be a missionary. It happened so fast."
Cal, UCLA, USC, South Carolina, Notre Dame, Arizona State. They all wanted Olson.
"He had the attitude that when he came back, God would take him to the place he needs to be," Sanders said.
The week he returned, Olson was on the sidelines of UCLA's 31-29 loss to Washington State on Nov. 6, 2004. He strolled through the locker room after the game, shaking hands and giving interviews to reporters outside the locker room. Olson, who was a UCLA fan growing up, indicated that the Bruins were the clear favorites.
If a coach were to create a physically perfect quarterback from the ground up, he might end up with a clone of Olson. He is quick, mobile in the pocket and possesses strong legs. His chest is strong, chiseled and broad; his arms are long and powerful and his hands engulf yours as though you were an infant.
At 6-foot-5, Olson's steely blue eyes can gaze over UCLA's offensive line, and his left-handed throws are as captivating as his frame. The ball leaves his hand with a finger-numbing zip, sailing to wide receivers with a tight, counter-clockwise spin in a laser-steady path.
Once labeled the best California prep quarterback since John Elway, it's easy to see why many consider Olson the savior of a rising program. He is the most important recruit since DeShaun Foster, and his commitment on Dec. 20 instantly created a positive buzz on message boards about the future of the program.
He will likely back up good friend Drew Olson this season before taking the reins in 2006. He has not played in a game since November 2001, and how quickly he can learn the West Coast Offense is a concern.
"I can't stress this enough: it will take some time," Biggins said. "But his upside is off the charts."
Olson knows there have been very few Mormon quarterbacks who have been successful after a mission. His work ethic and talent will make him different, he says confidently. Then, smiling, he says the decision was the proper one, even if it means the ultimate dream never becoming a reality.
"Certain decisions we make in life, we really can't count the consequences of them," he says. "If me going on a mission for two years means I never play in the NFL, it was worth it."