After 22 months of knocking on doors in Canada, Ben Olson now has everyone knocking on his.
For the second time in four years Olson, 21, is the premier football recruit in the U.S., the darling of Division I. He is the quarterback from central casting, a 6'5" Zeus with a left arm that is good for unleashing precise passes downfield, a nimble mind that is good for deciphering coverages and 4.55 speed in the 40 that was good for escaping snarling dogs in the snow-flecked towns of Alberta and British Columbia, an occupational hazard of his calling as a missionary for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. "When a dog comes after you," Olson says with a deep-throated laugh, "you only have to be faster than your companion [missionary]."
The last time Olson was this hotly pursued--by colleges, not canines--he was a senior at Thousand Oaks ( Calif.) High, where he was named the best high school prospect of 2001 by SuperPrep magazine. That autumn Olson selected BYU. He redshirted his freshman season, then decided to begin his Mormon mission, which is not obligatory but is encouraged by the church.
Olson didn't realize when he left BYU that the mission would make him a sort of intercollegiate free agent. Because of the length of his time off, he won't have to sit out a year if he transfers, a perk he has taken full advantage of since returning home from Canada on Nov. 1. "This time around Benny isn't a high school kid with stars in his eyes," says Mike Sanders, his coach at Thousand Oaks. "With his maturity and what he's been through, he knows how to ask stronger questions of college coaches: 'What plans do you have for the quarterback position? How many quarterbacks are you recruiting?' Those kinds of things."
BYU is one of eight schools-- Florida, Michigan, Oregon, Stanford, Tennessee UCLA and USC are the others--he's considering. He expects to decide by mid-December and enroll for spring, when he'll start sanding off the rust that would afflict anyone whose only playbook for almost two years has been the Book of Mormon.
During his mission, Olson didn't have much time to toss a football. Typically he would arise at 6:30 a.m and study the Book of Mormon. By 10, Olson, in black suit and white shirt, would start his rounds, knocking on doors, talking to people on the streets, instructing whoever would listen about his church. There would be breaks for lunch and dinner, but proselytizing would continue until 9:30 every night. If one house in 50 let him in the door, he'd be having a decent day; a 2% completion rate will get you benched in any football program but is near AllAmerica caliber in the missionary business.
Olson's routine would be broken once a week by Preparation Day, a half-day respite given to all Mormon missionaries. He used a few hours of the break to work out or toss a football, though throwing post patterns to missionary companions could be an iffy proposition given that most didn't know a post from a pillar. Spreading a message of comfort and joy can be hell on your timing routes.
Of course, the lack of quality receivers is the least of a missionary's deprivations. Olson watched no TV, read no papers and had no Internet access. He was allowed two phone calls home per year, on Mother's Day and Christmas. The remuneration? Zero. In fact, like fellow missionaries, Olson paid for the privilege. During his Canadian sojourn Olson spent $10,000, which is not exactly living large for a quarterback who seems larger than life to recruiters.
"I missed football greatly," says Olson, who has reintegrated himself into a more secular routine with doses of SportsCenter and tapes of games. "It was tough to leave behind. But I think I will be a better man and a better player because of my mission. Certainly it gave me a thicker skin, made me mentally tougher."
Olson got used to hearing the word no during his mission. Within a month seven unlucky schools will see how that feels. ?