UCLA quarterback Ben Olson was living on $130 a week, rising at 6:30 a.m. to get ready for work. There was one hour for lunch, then the nose went back to the grindstone until he returned home at 9:30 p.m.
This was his life during a two-year Mormon mission that took him from the football field to Sparwood, Canada. The only “sack” he knew during that period was welcomed, the one he fell into after a long day on the job.
“It’s a very disciplined life,” Olson said. “Your mom’s not there to do things. You’re responsible for yourself.”
“I’d be lucky if I tossed a football around once a week,” Olson said.
Max Hall, who will be playing quarterback for Brigham Young on Saturday against UCLA at the Rose Bowl, experienced similar lessons during his two years of missionary work in Iowa.
“I learned it is a lot different than home,” said Hall, who grew up in Mesa, Ariz., and transferred from Arizona State. “I served in areas that had small towns and farms with dirt roads. People would hang out on the porch every afternoon. There were a lot of good experiences and I was able to bring the gospel to a lot of people, with a fair amount of success.”
“In high school, I felt I could run all day and never get tired,” Hall said. “That took a lot of hard work when I came back.”
Although mission work is not required by the Mormon Church, it is strongly suggested, and many followers serve for two years sometime during their college years. No matter what the timing is among quarterbacks, it seems their football life is more difficult when they return.
Olson and Hall are only the latest case studies, though both have an opportunity to alter history.
BYU, the university most associated with Mormon athletes, has won 22 conference championships, but only two with a starting quarterback who had gone on a mission.
While the assignment can be beneficial for some football players, particularly linemen who can grow and mature, the two-year timeout seems especially tough for a quarterback.
“The experiences I had, they don’t come back ready to go,” said Tennessee Titans offensive coordinator Norm Chow, who spent 27 seasons on the football staff at BYU. “It is awfully rare if they come back and have a lot of success. You’re away, you don’t get a chance to work out, and for two years your focus is not on football.”
That theory is disputed by BYU Coach Bronco Mendenhall, who said, “We encourage our kids to go. We make it the right priority in their life and, secondly, we think they will be blessed when they return, that’s regardless of position.”
Yet, even quarterbacks who experienced success said the return flight was bumpy.
Brad Otton spent two years on a mission in Italy, then transferred from Weber State to USC when he returned. He led the Trojans to a Rose Bowl victory over Northwestern in 1996, but he said the road back wasn’t as simple as crossing the Rubicon.
“Quarterback is such a mental thing and, if you miss that mental progression as a college kid, it is going to be hard when you come back,” said Otton, who now owns pizzerias in Henderson, Nev., and Salt Lake City.
“I was fortunate, being the son of a high school coach I was raised to look at football mentally. My dad mailed me a football and I had a mission president who would let me go throw the football a couple times a week.”
Still, Otton said, “If you take two years off, when you try to come back, you’re mentally behind that kid who is a redshirt freshman.”
Olson learned that quickly. He transferred to UCLA from BYU after returning from Canada and found the going tough. He was backup to Drew Olson in 2005. Then, after opening last season with a solid game against Utah, he struggled with consistency before suffering a knee injury in the fifth game.
“When you don’t do something for that long, everything is foreign to you,” said Olson, a 24-year old junior. “You basically have to learn how to play football again.”
The BYU football media guide does not list the birth dates of players, but Mendenhall said that 73 of his players have been on missions. Hall, a sophomore, will turn 22 next month.
The advantage two years away can have for those playing meat-and-potato positions is a disadvantage for athletes where physical strength is secondary. And that even shows up in sports other than football.
Chow said his son, Carter, was “a pretty good high school tennis player. He only lost a couple matches.”
Carter Chow played tennis at BYU after returning from a mission in Japan, but his father said, “for two years, he didn’t pick up a racket. He wasn’t the same player.”
Quarterbacks are in a different racket, but the same theory applies.
“So many aspects of playing quarterback are about timing,” said television analyst David Norrie, a former UCLA quarterback. “The decision-making, the execution on a very physical level, keeping the arm in good throwing shape; those things all have to be fine tuned. You just can’t flip the light switch on after being away a couple years.”
BYU has a blue-blood linage when it comes to quarterbacks -- Steve Young and Jim McMahon each won Super Bowls, Robbie Bosco led the Cougars to a national title, and Ty Detmer won the Heisman Trophy. But while all had connections to the Mormon religion -- Young is the great-great-great grandson of Brigham Young, one of the church’s early leaders; McMahon’s mother was Mormon; and both Bosco and Detmer converted to Mormonism in college -- none went on a two-year mission during college.
In fact, no BYU quarterback who went on a mission won a conference title until Brandon Doman took the Cougars to the Mountain West title in 2001. John Beck made it two for this century last season.
“A lot of linemen take a couple years and get bigger, more physical,” Chow said. “But a quarterback loses sharpness. Of course, if they weren’t good when they left, they won’t be very good when they come back. But I don’t know many in that ‘good’ category who had a lot of success. Look at the history.”
Hall said Arizona State coaches tried to use that history to keep him after the 2004 season.
“They kept telling me I had a shot to start the next year, and that after two years I would lose my physical condition,” Hall said. “It was a difficult decision. But there is nothing better than serving a mission. I’d make the same choice again today.”
Success is not completely foreign to those returning from a mission.
Darrell Bevell, who served his mission in the Cleveland area, led Wisconsin to two Big Ten titles and a Rose Bowl in 1994. Paul Peterson, who served in Nicaragua, was 12-2 as a starter at Boston College in 2003-04.
“Almost every young man who comes back ends up exceeding where they were before,” Mendenhall said.
Still, Beck told the Deseret News last November that, “being away from football for three years takes a toll on a player, there is no way around it. . . . The quarterback position, with the leadership skills you have to have and the decision-making on the field, even on running plays and check-offs, is tough to get back.”
Olson and Hall are looking to buck the odds. Olson threw for 286 yards and five touchdowns in the 13th-ranked Bruins’ victory over Stanford last Saturday. Hall passed for 288 yards and two touchdowns in a victory over Arizona the same day.
Both choose to see the glass as half full.
“Mentally, I’m a better player after being on a mission,” Hall said. “I matured, I learned to study, I made tough decisions. How does that not help me on the football field?”
Olson was philosophical. “The way I look at it, I was doing what God wanted me to do,” he said. “I don’t feel like I’m going to be penalized for it.”
No. 13 UCLA vs. BYU
Saturday, Rose Bowl