Since returning from his LDS mission in November 2013, Will Hopoate's transition back into the life of an Australian rugby star has been fairly smooth.
According to NRL.com in August, the 22-year-old "started slow" but "quickly found his feet" before suffering a minor shoulder injury that required seven weeks of recovery time. Even so, Hopoate was recently named to a highly touted 21-member Australian squad that will compete in the prestigious Four Nations rugby league tournament and the Prime Minister's XIII match against Papua New Guinea, triplem.com.au reported.
"I put on a bit more weight, which helps with the contact," Hopoate told NRL.com. "But in saying that, each week comes a bit more confidence, and the coach has shown me video on areas I can improve on."
Hopoate created a media frenzy in 2011 when he declined a lucrative contract in order to serve a two-year mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. In a recent email interview with the Deseret News, Hopoate talked about how his mission has influenced his life.
"I've learned and experienced things that I never would have had I not served a mission," Hopoate wrote. "I've been blessed to see that when we put the Lord first, everything else seems to fall into place."
In April 2011, Elder Neil L. Andersen of the Quorum of the Twelve related in general conference the story of Sid Going. Elder Andersen described how Going put a promising rugby career on hold to serve a mission in Canada. Going returned to become one of the greatest halfbacks in New Zealand All Blacks history.
The talk inspired him, Hopoate said.
"The story about Sid helped increase my desire to want to serve. I hadn't met Sid before the talk but was blessed to meet him afterwards at a fireside during his time in Sydney as a senior missionary," Hopoate wrote. "I'm grateful to have met them (Sid and his wife) and for Sid's example."
Serving in Brisbane
Although only a short distance from his home in Sydney, Hopoate felt he was called to the Australia Brisbane mission because he could bring unique attention to the LDS Church there and associate with great people in his mission. Occasionally he was recognized and people would want to talk about the rugby league, but staying focused on the work wasn't a problem, Hopoate said.
One of the highlights of his mission was teaching a quadriplegic man who decided to join the church. Hopoate said the man had no feeling below his neck, and it required some special planning to immerse him in the baptismal font.
"The Lord did truly provide a way for this man to keep his commandments by being baptized," Hopoate wrote. "It took many prayers, different positions and tactics, along with many hands to help this brother be baptized."
Australia Brisbane Mission President Lon Henderson admired Hopoate's maturity, diligence and humility. He said Elder Hopoate was an exceptional leader and companion who inspired other missionaries with his example.
"There was much to do in the early days of my tenure and he quickly became a trusted and valuable warrior who never complained nor shirked the heavy load. I love him for his dedication and faithfulness," President Henderson said. "Although most marvel at his physical prowess, more impressive to me was his mental and spiritual tenacity. He would rise to every challenge I extended to him as I worked to engage various new initiatives in our mission."
Elder Alexandre Caby, of France, was a mission companion of Hopoate. He recalled one experience when they were knocking doors and a man decided to unload a mouthful of criticism about the LDS Church. While Caby lost his patience, he said, Hopoate listened calmly. When the man was finished, Hopoate apologized and the man softened. Hopoate then bore a strong testimony of the gospel, Caby said.
"The conversation didn't lead to a long spiritual conversation, but because of Elder Hopoate's incredible humility, the Spirit came back," Caby said. "I am convinced his reaction left a sense of peace, a positive impression on this old man which may influence his view on the church."
Hopoate said his mission service strengthened his testimony of the gospel and the power of the Book of Mormon. His mission also influenced his family members to increase their missionary efforts and hold family scripture study more consistently, Hopoate said.
"We weren't perfect at it before and still aren't, but we're improving," he wrote.
Hopoate's mission experiences have also helped him in rugby, he said.
"The mission has blessed my professional career by helping me to be mentally stronger in dealing with adversity," he wrote. "It has also helped me to be spiritually stronger in facing the many tempting challenges the adversary throws my way."
Many in the sport have been curious about Hopoate's mission, and their questions have led to some great missionary conversations.
"Teammates and friends can see that church means a lot to me, so they respect the standards which we as members strive to live, and I'm grateful for that," Hopoate said.
One New Zealand newspaper wrote about Hopoate knocking on the door of Queensland backrower Sam Thaiday, who recognized him and let him in.
"Yeah, he did knock on my door," Thaiday told stuff.co.nz. "He didn't watch any footy so I filled him in on how it was going. It's good to see someone like that go away from our game for a period of time and come back, still be a fantastic player."
Sister Carrie Henderson said that she and her husband, President Henderson, love keeping in touch with all their missionaries but admitted they have learned a lot about the sport of rugby, thanks to Hopoate. But that's not why they love him.
"Will Hopoate is an exceptional athlete on the field, but more impressive to us is that he is true to himself on and off the field; he is a man on a mission, even without a black missionary badge," she said. "He honors his parents and loves his family, he serves in the church and speaks in firesides and special meetings. He continues to be a missionary in every way he can, and he is an amazing example of keeping his standards high and staying true to the values he holds dear."
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