Photo: Bronco Mendenhall signs autographs after attending and participating in a special "fireside" (a short hour long meeting with a spiritual message) put on by BYU football players and coaches.
BYU, the flagship university of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, has always encouraged its students to go on missions for the church.
But what about football players? Is it helpful or hurtful (from a football standpoint) for them to go on missions? Does it help or hurt us when going against conference rivals Utah or TCU?
Going on a mission, is like taking a break from everything you've done for your entire life and joining "God's Army."
Your daily schedule is incessantly planned out for two years. There isn't real time for daily practice/conditioning for a sport like football.
Missionaries proselyte full-time and they are disallowed from having direct contact with immediate family or friends. Proselyting takes up 60-plus hours a week and the rest of their time is spent studying, eating, and sleeping. They do get one "preparation day" where they are allowed to write letters, shop for food, and enjoy simple recreational activities.
Surprisingly (at least to some), missionaries are required to pay their own way.
It is a very difficult and demanding period for anyone who chooses to serve, but those who do often say it was the best two years of their life.
Most schools (besides BYU) almost always pressure their LDS players to avoid going on missions. For one thing, once a player is back from a mission, they can change schools without having to sit a year, because they have already sat two.
We saw that with Ben Olson, who is an interesting test case. He was the No. 1 overall recruit in the country. He committed to BYU, redshirted his first year, went on a mission and then transfered to UCLA.
Injuries completely derailed his career and he has faded into insignificance (much to the chagrin of BYU fans).
Only two QB's from BYU who have gone on missions have won conference titles: Max Hall and John Beck. And Beck, even though had a ton of success at BYU, flamed out in the pros, after being selected early in the second round.
Famous BYU QB's, Marc Wilson, Jim McMahon, Steve Young, Ty Detmer and Steve Sarkisian all have one thing in common: they did not serve missions.
For other positions, there does not seem to be a very negative effect.
BYU almost always has the oldest and one of the largest offensive lines in all of college football and they are usually one of the best too.
Austin Collie went on a mission, came back, and picked up right were he left off; leading the nation in receiving just one year removed from his mission. Now he's one of Peyton Manning's favorite targets.
Having older, more (life) experienced, more mature players, usually helps, not hurts BYU.
Although, it can make coordinating recruiting classes a small nightmare. Every year BYU usually loses and gains 40 players due to graduation, those leaving on missions, those coming home from missions, and new signees.
The thing that really hurts BYU football (as much as it pains me to say it) is its honor code and its demographics. If a player wants to play at BYU, he has to pledge not to party, drink alcohol, be intimate with their girlfriends, have a beard, and drink coffee.
Not to mention, they have to take religion classes and live in a campus culture that is 99 percent LDS and much less racially diverse than the typical college campus.
This prevents BYU from competing for many elite recruits in the country. Regardless of these facts, BYU does on occasion get commitments from recruits that are complete outsiders to Mormon culture.
Jim McMahon, came and went, and in the end said, "Happiness, was seeing Provo in the rearview mirror."
Ty Detmer, on the other hand, followed a route many football players at BYU have, he joined the LDS church.
Overall, I love BYU's honor code (even if some rules are a hassle sometimes) and BYU has a big advantage when it comes to recruiting any LDS player in the country.
BYU is in an interesting position. Head coach Bronco Mendenhall has brought the program to the point where they are a bonafide lock to compete for a conference championship year in and year out and win double digit games every single year.
But there seems to be a ceiling that is tough for BYU to break though. They are consistently good, but have not exhibited true greatness by finishing in the top 10, or getting a BCS bowl berth.
The last two years, they have had so much promise, being ranked in the top 10 early in the season, only to get blown out against TCU (twice), Florida State, and Utah.
If BYU wins 9-10 games every year and consistently plays top 25 football, I'm perfectly fine with that; I'd be ungrateful not to be.
But I would be lying if told you I'm not envious of Utah's two undefeated seasons, BCS bowl victories, and top five finishes in the last five years.
Because of it's LDS tie-in, BYU has a natural, very large, national fan base. BYU gets national fan support similar (although on a much smaller scale and concentrated in the West) to a religious school like Notre Dame.
BYU does have a very good recruiting class coming in this year, probably a top 25 one. Including Jake Heaps, the consensus No. 1 QB (when all the scouting services are taken into account).
If BYU's standards have a limiting effect on its athletics, that's ok. BYU's mission is not to win football games, but to bring it's students and the world closer to Jesus Christ and the university has made that very clear.
At new student orientation every year, freshman are taught not to boo opposing teams (or BYU for that matter), but to show respect. Fortunately, (or unfortunately, depending on your perspective) BYU students and fans always ignore this lesson.
There is no doubt that missions and the LDS church have had a staggering effect on BYU football and I'm inclined to say it's a tremendously positive one.