Faith over Football: 4-Star QB Tanner McKee Delays CFB Dream for 2-Year Mission

Adam Kramer@kegsneggsNational College Football Lead WriterJanuary 26, 2018

Courtesy of the McKee family

CORONA, Calif. — Tanner McKee didn't see it happen. Didn't watch the true freshman quarterback create magic and become a national champion. Didn't know a star was born that night in January.       

Instead, McKee—a 6'6", 220-pound senior quarterback from Centennial High who has driven Nick Saban's boat and exchanged pleasantries with Condoleezza Rice during his recruitment—was sitting 37,000 feet in the air, his long legs stuffed under the commercial airline seat in front of him.

The nation's top uncommitted high school quarterback was returning to his home in Corona after spending a week at the U.S. Army All-American Bowl in San Antonio while Tua Tagovailoa showed the nation just how quickly superstardom can come, carrying Alabama to the national championship a year to the night after he had arrived in Tuscaloosa.

Less than 24 hours after the game, McKee is resting on a leather couch in his family room, wearing a black Nike sweatshirt and red gym shorts. His legs stretch out on a beanbag chair in the center of the room.

In a few days, he will visit Stanford. A day after that, Washington head coach Chris Petersen will stop by his family's home. Texas, Texas A&M, Alabama and many others have delivered their pitches.

On national signing day, one of these schools will secure the commitment of 247 Sports' No. 3 pro-style quarterback in the country. But no matter what program McKee signs with, it won't have his services for more than two years.

(Editor's note: McKee committed to Stanford on Wednesday)

McKee is a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He and his family are practicing Mormons. He doesn't drink coffee. He doesn't drink alcohol. He doesn't smoke.

Four days a week, he attends seminary (Bible study) early in the morning before school. And as part of his commitment to his faith, he will go on a mission—a two-year trip to a destination still unknown—as soon as his senior year ends.

Communication with his family and friends will be limited. His body, tuned to take on the rigors of football, will fall out of game shape. All that he has worked toward these past few years will be put on hold.

"To me, it's about being dedicated to what you believe in," McKee says. "Other people are going to think I'm nuts for going out for two years, but I feel like this will help me in the long run. You don't have to just pick football or your faith. You can balance them and have both."

Courtesy of the McKee family

A simple thought lingers in the air with Alabama's freshman-led triumph still fresh. McKee could be the next Tagovailoa one year from now in the right situation.

He laughs at the notion of it. Not because the thought hasn't crossed his mind, but because he's already moved past this. His mind was made up long ago.

On national signing day, McKee will end his recruitment, choosing between a list he has narrowed to Alabama, Texas, Texas A&M, Washington and Stanford and signing a national letter of intent. It will look and feel and sound like any other college football announcement—like the ones that will take place in thousands of high schools on Wednesday, February 7.

While this part of the arrangement will feel familiar, though, the recruitment of McKee has been anything but.

It began by trying to get noticed. With recruiting camps seemingly taking over the high school football landscape, McKee had to be selective in which he attended.

The Sabbath, a holy day for LDS members and a day McKee honors, prevents him from competing on Sundays. Even at The Opening, Elite 11's biggest recruiting event of the year, featuring the nation's best players, McKee made the difficult decision not to throw on Sunday.

"We would have totally supported his choice and the decision he made," Jeremie McKee, Tanner's father, says. "These are choices he's making, and it makes me feel proud of who he is. We live by a simple principle: Teach your kids the right way, and let them govern themselves.

"He didn't blink an eye about not playing. I probably would have caved."

Pitches from college programs started arriving during McKee's junior season. In every conversation, the family made it a point to discuss the mission with the coach and school, getting it out in the open early on.

Both McKee and interested schools are projecting what their situations will look like two years from now. At a time when the sport has never felt more volatile and job security has never felt more unstable, this can be a lot to ask.

"Coaches are huge, but they bounce around," McKee says. "Even college programs in general are up and down. You have to judge it all together—the program, coaches and players—to make a decision, and you have to envision being there for four years."

For the most part, coaches and programs have embraced the idea of signing McKee. In some ways, securing his signature would be something of a luxury. It would allow a school the flexibility of not signing a quarterback next year—something McKee has talked with teams about—knowing help is on the horizon.

But not everyone has been comfortable with the idea. Some might have assumed he would eventually change his mind. An SEC assistant recently checked in to see if McKee was still going—hoping that was not the case.

"I think his mission trip probably has steered some schools away as a whole," Centennial head coach Matt Logan says. "You're projecting the student-athlete two years out, and I think that's hard for some."

Courtesy of Student Sports

Ty Detmer, a former Heisman winner and a member of the LDS Church, recruited McKee when he was the offensive coordinator at BYU.

No school is more accustomed to recruiting players planning mission trips than BYU—a private university owned by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Enrollees are predominantly Mormon.

Detmer, who was let go by BYU in November 2017, got to know McKee and the family throughout his recruitment on visits and through text messages and calls.

"It was hard to tell him that I'd be here two years from now," Detmer says of the process. "Coaches really can't do that. For him, this is tough. Coaches change, guys leave and you come back and you might be playing for someone else."

Although McKee will sign his NLI before his mission begins, he'll still have some flexibility.

That agreement will be good for one year, meaning he'll be required to sign another letter of intent. According to the family, which has spoken to the NCAA regarding his eligibility, the next NLI will be binding when he returns in 2020.

So the option exists. But McKee has no plans to reevaluate his recruitment while on his mission.

"If a head coach leaves or there are major changes in program, then maybe I re-evaluate," McKee says. "But I'm not halfway in, halfway out unless something drastic happens."

Jeremie McKee dries off the lawn chairs in the backyard of his Corona home following a rare day of rain. The clouds blanketing the San Gorgonio and Big Bear Mountains slowly disintegrate as the sun breaks free.

Six months from now, Jeremie's son will leave for two years. As his father, it's a moment he has been preparing for his entire life—having done his own mission in New Zealand—but one he's not ready for just yet.

"It's going to be hard for me," Jeremie says. "We've been joined at the hip since he was born. But I know that this is what he wants to do, and I know it's what is best for him. He's going to grow in amazing ways and give back to God."

Part of the anxiety that comes with McKee's mission is he has no idea where he'll end up. The process begins by submitting paperwork to the church, highlighting the date that you'll be available to leave.

McKee could leave two days or two months after the date provided, depending on where the church assigns him. Timing, in his instance, is the most important unknown.

The hope is that he will be able to leave in June not long after his high school graduation, meaning he would return in 2020 before his first fall camp. Once he leaves, what happens next depends in large part on where McKee spends his time.

He might be asked to build shelters or churches. He might spend two years helping and communicating with others, spreading the gospel of the church.

During this time, he will be allowed to email his family one day a week and FaceTime with them twice a year—Mother's Day and Christmas. He'll have no regular access to the internet or his cellphone.

Courtesy of the McKee family

"It's a big sacrifice," McKee says. "You leave your family, your friends and your girlfriend. I'm going to be two years behind in school, and I'll probably come back out of shape and skinny. I'm not coming back a huge football star, but I feel like it's for the good."

McKee and his father have had multiple conversations with athletes who went on missions, focusing on how they maintained their bodies.

Some who did their missions in the United States had regular access to weight rooms. Others who traveled to third-world countries had no access to gyms, so they created makeshift weights by filling jugs with water.

"It just all depends where you'll be," McKee says.

Having returned home from the Atacama Desert in Chile less than three months prior, another Tanner—Tanner Mangum—found himself at midfield of Memorial Stadium, no time left on the clock, down a point to Nebraska in the first game of the 2015 season.

Inserted after starter Taysom Hill went down with an injury earlier in the game, Mangum didn't expect to play. His body was out of shape. His arm strength was nowhere close to what it once was.

But there he was, back at BYU after a two-year mission, uncorking, of all things, a Hail Mary.

His throw landed in the arms of wideout Mitch Mathews, who fell over the goal line, giving BYU a 33-28 victory. Just like that, he was back.

While on his mission in Chile, Mangum threw a football maybe 20 times total, often with natives who had never seen an American football before.

"While you're gone, you're not focused on working out," Mangum says. "That's really not your purpose while you're there. So when you come back, you're really out of shape. Two years is a long time."

Unlike McKee, Mangum's mission began after he enrolled at BYU. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints only recently lowered its minimum age for male recruits to serve a mission from 19 to 18, precluding Mangum from going early.

Mangum, like McKee, was a highly regarded recruit coming out of high school—the No. 3 pro-style quarterback in the class of 2012, according to 247Sports. With potential stardom not far off, he dropped everything to serve.

Courtesy of Student Sports

"It's a challenge, but when you understand what you're doing and the importance of being out and serving, the positives outweigh the sacrifices," he says. "I am a football player, and I love to play the game. But that's not all that I am."

Dallas Lloyd also spent his mission in Chile, although his path to Stanford and experiences while away were unique.

A 3-star quarterback out of Pleasant Grove, Utah, Lloyd knew that finding a gym would be difficult. So before he left for Vina del Mar, he packed bands, a pull-up bar and his Perfect Pushup. When he arrived and attempted cardio on the streets, oftentimes he was chased by stray dogs.

Because of internet restrictions, Lloyd would receive college football scores from his father, notifying him who won from the previous weekend.

"I would be a liar if I said I didn't break the mission rules every now and then," Lloyd says. "Usually to jump on YouTube and watch an Andrew Luck highlight."

Lloyd signed his letter of intent with Jim Harbaugh at Stanford before he left. Some coaches didn't like the idea of his leaving for two years, but Harbaugh wasn't one of them.

"He told me that I should always put God first in my life," Lloyd says. "That was something I have always taken with me. Faith and football actually go hand in hand."

Then Harbaugh left for the NFL and David Shaw took over at Stanford while Lloyd was on his mission. Despite the change, Lloyd's interest in the school didn't waver.

He committed to Stanford when he returned, eventually becoming a team captain and starting at safety his final two seasons.

After graduating following the 2016 season, Lloyd has since connected with the McKee family—offering guidance on what these next two years might look like for him.

Many of the top high school seniors in the country are already enrolled in their universities—forgoing their final semesters in high school to become more familiar with life as a college student, a new playbook and their team's strength coach.

Even high school juniors are fast-tracking their way to college, hoping for a quicker pathway to the NFL and potential fortune.

Bucking this trend is not something McKee takes particular pride in. The family has never hoped this would convince others to serve. If anything, McKee's decision transcends their faith and the sport he plays.

"It's not about us being Mormon," Jeremie McKee says. "This is someone who made a commitment and is sticking to it. I want Tanner to play in the NFL, and the hope is that he'll make it one day. But football is Plan B, and I'm so proud of him for that."

Much has changed in the two years of McKee's recruitment given the sudden deluge of requests and pathways to stardom, but his mind hasn't. As tempting as it might be to make the kind of splash recent football history suggests is possible, it's not tempting enough. Even if it means not being the next Tagovailoa.

"This is something I've planned on doing my whole life," McKee says. "I've been blessed, and this is my way of giving back."


Adam Kramer covers college football for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @KegsnEggs


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