PROVO In the world of LDS returned missionaries, John Beck is a pioneer of sorts.
Last fall, the former Brigham Young University quarterback, and current member of the Miami Dolphins, became the first returned missionary to start a game at quarterback in the National Football League.
For years, observers have noted that no returned missionary had ever started at quarterback in the NFL, but not anymore. Beck has broken that barrier, having started three games in 2007.
It's little wonder why it's taken so long for that milestone to happen. It's been said that quarterback is the toughest position to play in all of team sports especially at the NFL level. Imagine taking two years off from football to proclaim the gospel, which Beck did when, out of high school, he served a mission to Portugal from 2000 to 2002.
Other returned missionary quarterbacks have played in the NFL, such as Ohio State's Joe Germaine and BYU's Brandon Doman, but no returned missionary had ever started an NFL game before Beck came along.
From a young age, Beck wanted to play in the NFL, but he also decided to serve a mission. While those appear to be conflicting goals, he managed to accomplish both. Yet serving a mission took precedence over everything else, including football.
"From the beginning, it was all about going on a mission," Beck said. "One of the reasons was, I want my kids to go. I don't want, down the road, for my kid to say, 'Dad, why didn't you go on a mission?' I felt like it was important for me to go, no matter what."
As it turned out, Beck's mission prepared him for the rigors of both major-college football and the NFL. Beck, a second-round draft pick in 2007, started three games as a rookie, and his team posted a dismal 1-15 season last year. At BYU, Beck's team suffered three straight nonwinning seasons before breaking through with an 11-2 record and Mountain West Conference championship in 2006, Beck's senior year.
Currently, Beck is participating in Dolphins training camp, battling to become the full-time starter for a struggling franchise in search of a turnaround.
"There's another obstacle in front of me," Beck said. "I always think, had I gone to BYU and had things gone great, with conference champions the whole time I was there, would I be able to stand in this situation I'm in with the Dolphins and say, 'I know how to do this?' Maybe not. Now I look in front of me, I see another obstacle and say, 'I know what to do.'
"To me, I feel like going on a mission was an advantage. From a spiritual aspect, a mission is not easy. You have to go through obstacles on your mission. My faith was important to me when I was going through everything. I was taught, and I learned on my mission, that if you want things to go well, you have to stay on a path that helps you stay focused. If I'm doing things I'm not supposed to be doing, I'm not going to be able to stay focused on football."
Despite his resolve to serve a mission from the outset, Beck found others trying to persuade him to take a different path. While in high school, Beck was being recruited heavily by Pac-10 schools like Oregon, Washington, UCLA and Stanford.
"My high school football coach came to me and said, 'Listen, if you tell them you're going on a mission, they're all going to pull their scholarships. They won't give them to you because they don't like missionaries. You need to tell them you're not going and then go to their school. Then if you really want to go, tell them you changed your mind and leave.' I thought, 'I'm not going to do that because I told myself my whole life I was going to go. I'm not going to tell someone I'm not going to go and then decide to go."'
Had Beck not gone on a mission, he believes he still would have had the opportunity to play in the NFL. "But I don't know, after the experiences I had (on a mission), if I would be the same person," he said. "There are experiences I had on my mission that made me who I was when I got back.
"If I hadn't gone on a mission, who's to say if I would have gone to BYU? I don't know. At that time, they had a bunch of quarterbacks. All I know is, the decision to go on a mission felt right. The decision to go to BYU felt right. Since then, despite all of the tough times, things have worked out."
Indeed, while Beck stands as an example of a returned missionary who eventually returned to the top of his game, the road to becoming the starting quarterback at BYU certainly didn't go smoothly.
"Obviously, when you take time away for a mission, it affects you," he said. "There's nobody that comes back from a mission better (athletically) than before they left. For me, sometimes my freshman year, I felt like I wasn't even back where I was in high school and yet I was playing in games. It was a little frustrating."
Beck worked tirelessly to get back in shape, to learn the offense and keep up on schoolwork. At one point during his BYU career, Beck learned about the physical toll going on a mission can take as he wore down and contracted mononucleosis.
"My body couldn't keep up," he said. "The doctor told me, 'You're beating yourself to the ground. You have to take a break.' It was all because I felt like I had so much catching up to do to get back into it. But that's why it takes so much work. One of the best pieces of advice I got was from (former BYU and Philadelphia Eagles star) Chad Lewis. I was throwing with him the summer after my sophomore year. I told him, 'I'm giving this everything I've got. I try to work as hard as I can all the time and for whatever reason, we're just not winning games.' He said, 'John, you've got a mountain in front of you and you've just got to keep climbing. You only won't reach the top when you decide to stop climbing. As long as you keep moving those feet forward, you're going to keep moving upward and reach the top.' It was good advice."
What advice does Beck have for a youngster who is contemplating a mission?
"Any kid who doesn't know if he should go on a mission, the mission is way more important than football or anything else," Beck said. "I'm only a football player for the next 10-12 years at best. But I'm going to be a dad for the rest of my life. That's what matters the most."
Now, as an NFL player, Beck has plenty of opportunities to be a missionary. And Beck isn't the only LDS returned missionary on the Dolphins' roster. There are three others: Shawn Murphy, a rookie offensive lineman who was a fourth-round draft pick out of Utah State, and the son of former Major League Baseball star Dale Murphy; former Cougar John Denney, a defensive lineman and long-snapper; and undrafted free agent Kelly Poppinga, a linebacker also from BYU.
Beck and his fellow returned missionaries on the Dolphins find themselves clearing up misunderstandings about the church on a regular basis.
"We get heckled quite a bit by a lot of the guys," he said. "The whole, 'How many wives do you have?' I've heard it I don't know how many times. Then there are people who actually believe it. I introduced my wife to someone one day and the next day they said, 'Hey, I know your wife, but is that your first one? Do you have more?' And they really believe it. Some guys think we're Amish. They say, 'How come you don't have a beard? I thought you weren't allowed to live with electricity.' A lot of guys, especially during lunch breaks, ask us questions, 'Hey, why don't you drink?' It's definitely a missionary opportunity when you're there. Sometimes, you have to be careful because you don't know if they're asking because they want to battle you and try to prove you wrong."
Beck has attended Bible study classes with the team chaplain and players from different faiths. "I've had quite a few guys ask about the church, to find out what it is. How many really want to know? I don't know. But I've had a pretty good opportunity to talk about our church to them."
How difficult is it to be LDS and a quarterback a prominent position that requires respect from teammates when players go out together socially after practices to bars and drink?
"I go out with them, I just don't get (a beer)," he said. "The quarterbacks, when we'd get done with our nightly meetings in training camp, we'd jump in (former Miami quarterback) Trent Green's car and go to TGI Friday's and grab dinner. They'd grab their drinks. For me, I think it's an advantage because it helps me maintain focus. Some may say, 'A little drink helps me relax.' To each their own. For me, I choose not to."
Beck adds that maintaining his standards has not been a hindrance in terms of maintaining camaraderie with his teammates.
"Regardless of somebody's background, their religion or whether they drink or not, what it comes down to is, people want you on the field if you're making plays," he said. "If you're not making plays, they don't want you on the field. You can be the most social guy on the team and have everybody like you. But if you go out in the game and you're not making plays, come critical times, they're not going to want you on the field. So I think as a quarterback, being in the situation I'm in, to me, I want to be able to interact socially with everybody on my team, but at the same time I'm not worried about being everybody's best friend. I want to be their quarterback."
The values he espouses are similar to the ones the NFL wants in its players, Beck said.
"The things I learned at BYU, and the principles that are taught in the football program, regardless if you're of our faith or not, there are things that are preached at the NFL level," he said. "They don't want guys who go out and party every night. They don't want guys who are going to get into trouble. Does that mean only Mormons are guys who don't get into trouble? No. There are a ton of good people in the world. All they're asking for is, live your life in such a way that come game day, you're not worrying about getting thrown in jail for something you did in a bar two days ago or doing stuff at night where you're not preparing. The things I learned at BYU helped me a lot."
Beck appreciates the support he receives from members of the church, particularly in his new home in Florida.
"It's funny because I joke around about, 'Let's make our elders quorum activity this Sunday going to the game,'" he said. "It's been fun because only at BYU would people still recognize me and follow me. Had I gone anywhere else, I don't know if that would have happened. You're not going to go to Arizona State and then go to Florida and have a bunch of ASU fans out there. What you do when you go to BYU, you're going to have members of the church to support you and help you. One of the best things for me is, the people who help my wife. It's hurricane season and I could be at a football game somewhere else. If there weren't members of my ward there helping to put up hurricane shutters, my house would get ripped apart. That's one of the nice things. I've got people watching over my house and my family."
While Beck enjoys the opportunities he's had to do firesides and speak to Boy Scout groups, not being able to go to church on game days has been a difficult adjustment. "I was so used to being able to go to church during the season. At BYU, I had a calling in the bishopric," he said. "The sacrifice was, you get in late, you still wake up and go. In the pros, there's not a chance. It's not like I can go to church before games or anything. It's definitely different."
Beck's biggest support, of course, comes from his wife, Barbara, and his 15-month-old son, Ty.
"Family Home Evening becomes very important," he said. "My wife goes to church with my son, then goes to the game afterward. When I come home from practice, that's my time to play with my little boy throw balls with him. We give him a bath in the tub. After that, it was time for being with my wife for a little bit, then back to studying again. It's great. My wife never would come up to me and say, 'You're always studying. Why are you doing that?' Instead, she'd say, 'Hey, you're making flashcards. Can I help cut them?' She's a huge support for me."At BYU, people didn't understand what it was like to be somebody who was used to only winning, then to be in a situation where you're working harder than you ever have in your life and yet your team's losing. Not many people could understand that. She did, because she saw all that I put into it, going over plays. In the NFL, I've given her a play list and say, 'You say the play' and I have to tell her all the coverages. She sits on the floor and goes through everything with me. Nobody knows how much she supports me, but I will. And that's why I'm grateful for her."