When choosing where to play, Mormon recruits face unique issues
Two 2009 top recruits, LB Manti Te'o and OL Xavier Su'a Filo, are Mormons
The two-year mission many 19-year-old Mormons take can impact recruiting
Other concerns: backlash from LDS members, fitting in at a non-LDS school
Manti Te'o refrained from mincing words each time he met a college coach. Te'o, one of the nation's highest ranked linebacker prospects, told every coach who recruited him that, after his freshman season, he might leave the country for two years.
"I basically told them, 'This is me,'" said Te'o, from Laie, Hawaii. "I'm LDS. I'm thinking of serving a mission, and I want that to be available to me. If that's not in the cards for your university, I have to respect that, but I have to consider others."
Te'o is a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints -- more commonly referred to as the Mormon church. When male members of the church turn 19, they are encouraged to embark on a two-year mission to proselytize in parts of the world that may not have been exposed to the 189-year-old faith. Te'o would like to serve that mission, even if it means leaving college for two years. A pronouncement like Te'o's might end most players' recruitments, but Rivals.com ranks Te'o as the nation's No. 12 overall prospect. Because Te'o has so much potential, almost every coach who recruited him consented to the mission.
The mission question is just one of a set of issues LDS players face when they look outside the small group of schools that are accustomed to signing Mormons. LDS players also must consider how their faith will mesh with the campus environment at either a secular school or one run by a different faith, and they must prepare for a backlash from some in the LDS community should they choose a school other than Brigham Young, the Provo, Utah, university run by the Mormon church. Te'o and Provo offensive lineman Xavier Su'a Filo (No. 63 by Rivals) each have faced these issues during the past few months, and each will weigh them carefully in the next few days as they decide which school they'll sign with on Wednesday.
Te'o will sign either with a state university (UCLA), a secular private university (USC) or the nation's most prominent Catholic university (Notre Dame). While starring at Punahou -- President Barack Obama's alma mater and SI's No. 1 high school athletic program in 2008 -- Te'o piqued dozens of schools' interests. He had 29 scholarship offers before he stopped counting them. His sideline-to-sideline speed and penchant for gut-rattling hits brought recruiters in droves, and, somewhat to Te'o's surprise, his request that he be allowed to go on a mission didn't drive them all away.
Te'o worried especially about USC, which had a reputation for discouraging players from going on missions. He had good reason. DeAnn Longshore, whose son, Nate, just finished his career as a quarterback at Cal, said that when her son was being recruited for the class of 2004, USC coaches told Nate, an LDS member, that they would offer a scholarship only if he promised he wouldn't leave for a mission. So, in a phone conversation about a year ago, Te'o asked Trojans coach Pete Carroll pointblank if his scholarship would be waiting for him when he returned from his mission. Te'o's father, Brian, said Carroll explained how his opinion of mission trips has changed in recent years. Brian Te'o said Carroll answered all questions when he said, "Once a Trojan, always a Trojan."
Su'a Filo, who narrowed his finalists last week to BYU, LSU, UCLA, USC and Utah, also met with less resistance than he anticipated when he brought up the mission. "The coaches have been really good at understanding," he said. Two of Su'a Filo's finalists, BYU and Utah, are accustomed to signing future missionaries. BYU encourages the mission trip for all its students, so the coaching staff is adept at juggling scholarships and the depth chart as players depart and return. Ditto for Utah, a state school only a few miles from LDS headquarters in Salt Lake City. Utes coach Kyle Whittingham is an LDS member and BYU alumnus so familiar with the Book of Mormon that he has a standby passage to fire up Utes fans ("And the Lord shall be red in his apparel"). "See," Whittingham told Yahoo! Sports last month. "It was right there in the Doctrine and Covenants the whole time."