Terry Baker is now in good company.
A current instructor at the Salt Lake University LDS Institute of Religion and former college athlete, Baker spends one evening each week during the season with University of Utah football players. For the past two years, interested team members have gathered after practice with ice packs and bruises for a Book of Mormon class taught by Baker. Among those in attendance are players and coaches who, like Baker, have served missions for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
But when he left the University of Utah for a full-time mission back in the early 1960s, Baker was pretty much on his own. That's because at the time, collegiate athletes rarely served LDS missions, he said.
"Coaches in those days highly discouraged it," said Baker, a multisport athlete from Ontario, Ore., who also played basketball at the U. prior to his mission. "It was just kind of understood that if you were an athlete, you didn't go on a mission.
"People assumed that if you went out on a mission you'd lose your competitive edge."
But Baker went anyway.
He was sent to the Southern Australian Mission, which was presided over by then-President Bruce R. McConkie. After completing his mission, Baker disproved the skepticism about a missionary's ability to compete by returning to the football team as a starter.
Baker stayed in good physical condition in Australia by doing push-ups, riding his bicycle and playing basketball on an officially sanctioned mission basketball team. Although it's not something you'll find in a media guide, Baker believes he is the first player to start for a Division I football team upon his return from an LDS mission.
Baker, however, won't admit to opening any doors for future athletes.
"I think they would have opened anyway," he said. "I think that kind of was the Lord's plan ... I didn't see myself as a pioneer. I just wanted to go do it."
He calls his athletic experience a "means to an end," crediting sports with teaching him camaraderie, discipline and perseverance.
"Athletes and farmers usually make the best missionaries people who've learned how to work," he said.
After his playing career, Baker spent 30 years as a military chaplain, earned a master's and Ph.D. from Brigham Young University and began a career in the Church Educational System as a seminary teacher at Skyline High School. Seven years ago, he ended up teaching institute across the street from his alma mater and in recent years began working with athletes as the adviser of the Latter-day Saint Athlete Association.
From his unique vantage point, Baker can appreciate an era where LDS athletes routinely serve missions and have a positive influence on teammates whether or not they are of the same faith.
"I call them the Helaman's warriors," Baker said. "The LDS returned missionaries are extremely bright ... They're serious students. They're spiritual giants.
"It's enough to make me still feel young until I get out on the field with them."
In his various capacities, Baker has seen athletes intent on serving missions go out in the field. He's seen returned missionaries become role models for their less-active LDS teammates, some of whom have decided to serve missions. He's seen athletes baptized into the church.
One football player, who is not a member of the church, told Baker that teammates who strive to live balanced Christian lives influenced him to be a better person."Just watching the young men be examples to their friends ... It's been fun to watch the kids grow spiritually," Baker said.
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