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Michael Alisa
Michael Alisa, center, his LDS mission in San Juan West, Puerto Rico.

This past spring practice session at BYU saw an amazing number of returned missionaries join the team. For some, it was their first practice session while most of them were rejoining the team after having played for a year or two prior to their mission service. All-in-all, the 2011 spring practice session welcomed 10 recently returned missionaries into the football program.

A lot of those returning, such as Spencer Hadley, Justin Sorensen, Daniel Sorensen, Michael Alisa and Kaneakua Friel, had regular roles on the football team before their mission service. They are anxious to reprise and improve upon those previous roles.

A player’s athletic ability is up in the air post-mission. Some never regain their pre-mission form, while others return to what they were and even improve on what they’re able to do on the practice field.

Fortunately, those who returned this past offseason have picked up where they left off. Daniel Sorensen is the player to beat at the KAT safety position, Spencer Hadley is a lock to be on the two-deep roster at inside linebacker and Michael Alisa could break the two-deep at running back among other successes.

“I feel I did well and I feel even more able athletically and mentally than I did before my mission even,” said Hadley, who served in the Roseville, Calif., mission. “I’ve improved on all of my numbers as far as speed and strength and I definitely feel better able to help the team now than I did before my mission.”

Hadley and others believe they are better able to compete on the football field and in the classroom after having served missions. In turn, they feel being in the BYU football program helped prepare them for a mission.

BYU employs a so-called “big brother” program, which sees senior members of the football team acting as mentors to one of the new players.

“It’s seriously a lot like what we do in the mission with junior and senior companions,” Hadley said. “The big brother even writes a weekly letter to Coach Mendenhall on how they’re progressing, which is just like what senior companions do on the mission when they write to the mission president.”

Running back Michael Alisa roomed with Coleby Clawson on the team’s road trips and said Clawson was a big help in preparing him for his mission.

“Coleby was great,” Alisa said. “Just listening to him share his mission experiences, it really prepared me and made me even more excited to serve a mission for sure. I wanted those same experiences and I’m thankful to have guys like Coleby in the program at the time when I was a true freshman.”

Alisa served in the San Juan, Puerto Rico, mission, a place with which he wasn’t familiar before receiving his call.

“Daniel Sorensen got his call to Costa Rica like four days before I got my call,” Alisa said. “So when I opened my call and read that I was going to Puerto Rico, I called up Daniel and said, ‘Hey, we‘re going to the same mission!’ Daniel then told me that I was going to Puerto Rico which isn‘t even that close to Costa Rica so that was kind of funny. I obviously had no idea where Puerto Rico was or anything about it.”

Alisa found Puerto Rico’s climate to be similar to Hawaii, where he grew up. In other ways, it was different.

“You see some shocking things being out there serving in the areas we did,” he said. “Seeing people drunk all the time, even some murders with all the drug problems, it was shocking to see how people just took it as an everyday type of thing. It just motivates you because you see how badly the people of Puerto Rico need the gospel.”

Hadley didn’t serve far from his home in Connell, Wash., so the cultural changes weren’t as stark for him as they were for others. He did, however, have to make adjustments and learned life lessons in the process.

“One of the best things I learned on my mission was how important it is to plan.” he said. “Planning constantly helps you keep your focus on why you’re out there and what your goals are. You have to plan constantly because if you don’t, you won’t be as able to accomplish your goals and you’ll be left not knowing what to do with your time.”

Alisa also applied lessons from the football field to his mission.

“In playing football, I was used to and sort of knew how to give my all there and see results from it,” he said. “That was one of my biggest challenges, just figuring out how to do the same on my mission. Once I did learn that, how to come home exhausted every day, knowing that I gave it my all, I was happier and saw more success. It’s definitely helped me now with things other than football, such as school. I wasn’t the best student before my mission, but now I’ve learned how to apply myself better there.”

Alisa and Hadley both had many spiritual experiences and had a hard time choosing just one to share. Alisa said teaching one woman, Evelyn, ended up bringing many people to the gospel.

“When we were teaching her, her daughter came in, so we were able to teach her as well,” he said. “Evelyn stopped progressing, but her daughter did great, started coming to church, reading the Book of Mormon and eventually got baptized.”

From there, Evelyn’s daughter told them missionaries about a friend, who was eventually baptized. That friend introduced the missionaries to a family of five.

“I remember when I was about to leave the area, their 15-year old son comes up to us and says that we needed more teachers,” Alisa said. “We asked him what he meant and he said that we needed more teachers, more priesthood holders, ‘so I want to get baptized, so I can help with that.’ So he got baptized and the family got baptized and that was definitely one of my best experiences.”

Hadley experienced a similar chain of events sprouting from finding and teaching just one person.

“The first girl we baptized was the girlfriend of a less-active guy and it just went on from there,” he said. “We ended up teaching her sister and then her family. They all came out to this last general conference and we spent the weekend together, so that’s definitely one of my most-treasured experiences.”

Both Hadley and Alisa said they wouldn’t trade their mission experiences for anything. Hadley’s advice for anyone deciding whether to serve a mission would simply be to “go.”

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“It’s an experience and lifestyle development that you can’t get anywhere else,” he said. “You can’t even fathom at the time, I don’t think I can even fathom all the blessings that come because of having served a mission. I know that my life has been blessed beyond where I’d be if I had not served a mission. My advice to those choosing to serve a mission or not would simply be that you can’t afford not to.”

Alisa said he’s learned there is a higher power directing his life.

“I’ve learned to just trust in the Lord and to try my hardest to be worthy of the sprit,” he said. “Having those experiences I had on my mission, I’ve come to realize that there’s just no other way. There’s no other way than living the gospel to its fullest to receive the guidance we need to become the best person I can be.”

The following scholarship players participated in spring practices:

  • Michael Alisa served in San Juan West, Puerto Rico
  • Kevan Bills served in Mendoza, Argentina
  • Cameron Comer served in Richmond, Va.
  • Kaneakua Friel served in Durban, South Africa
  • Spencer Hadley Roseville, Calif.
  • Daniel Sorensen served in San Jose, Costa Rica
  • Justin Sorensen Macon, Ga.
  • Brock Stringham served in Tocloban, Philippines
  • Manaaki Vaitai served in Las Vegas, Nev.
  • Michael Yeck served in Birmingham, Ala.