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`OK' GAME OF FOOTBALL STARTS SOCCER PLAYER ON A NEW ROAD

The last time most LDS football fans heard of Mo Elewonibi he was a non-Mormon BYU tackle who had just won the 1989 Outland Trophy as the nation's top college lineman.

But since his days at BYU, the 6-foot 4-inch, 282-pound native of Nigeria has worked his way into the Washington Redskins pro football offense, and has joined the Church.He was baptized in January 1990, a month after he won the Outland Trophy his senior year at BYU. Three months later, he heard he was picked to play for the Washington Redskins.

"Being a member of the Church has helped me, because right when I started to get `fame,' people in the Church helped me to keep it in perspective," Elewonibi said.

"When I joined the Church it helped me focus my life, and it helped me not to get too caught up in all of the glory of playing pro football."

Elewonibi, however, didn't get a lot of glory his first year with the Redskins, spending much of the time on the injured reserve list because of a bad shoulder that required five operations when he was at BYU.

"Next season I'll play. They didn't draft anybody, at least no offensive lineman. The coaches have told me I'll play a lot more this upcoming year," he reported.

Elewonibi said just being a member of the Redskins has given him a lot of great opportunities, one of which was to dispel through his example many of the "left-field ideas" that players on the team had about members of the LDS Church before he came.

The Redskin players "had all of these misconceptions about Mormons," related Elewonibi, who is the only LDS member on the team. "I dispelled a few of the myths they had."

Elewonibi, who moved to Canada from his native Nigeria when he was 11, did not grow up dreaming of someday playing in the National Football League.

"You see, I grew up playing soccer," explained Elewonibi, who was once even drafted by a professional soccer team in Canada.

He went to Snow College in Ephraim, Utah, in 1985 to be a goalie for its soccer team. But soccer was cancelled at the school that year.

The cancellation led him to finally give in to urging from a girlfriend and others to try out for the football team, although he had never touched a football in his life, Elewonibi related. Six years later he won the Outland and was drafted by the Redskins.

"The first time I played football I was pretty much just fooling around. I didn't have any pads and I still had my soccer cleats on," he remembered. "It wasn't as fun as soccer - even now it's still not as fun. . . But it was OK, pretty much," he said, referring to the first game of football he ever played.

But even after his success at Snow College, Elewonibi - who played his two years of football at Snow wearing soccer cleats - said he had no idea just what this "OK" game would have in store for him.

Transferring to BYU in 1987, he started playing football more seriously, which lead to his winning the Outland in December 1989 for protecting another famous non-Mormon (at least then) player at BYU - quarterback Ty Detmer.

The next month, on Jan. 9, 1990, he was baptized by one of his trainers and confirmed a member of the LDS Church by BYU Coach Lavell Edwards.

"It started off with friends asking me to go to Church with them, asking me over for dinner and then talking about the Church the whole time," he recalled.

"I've always had really personable coaches who have really taken an interest in me," he related.

For example, he said even though BYU Coach Edwards didn't necessarily emphasize the LDS Church, he did stress regular values, such as being a decent person, treating others with respect and trying to live up to certain standards.

Elewonibi said it took him awhile to adjust to the Redskins system. "Coming from BYU where all we do is pass the ball - we have 118 plays and 100 of them are passing plays - I came to the Washington Redskins where the big tradition is the running game and it was hard."

But change - and luck and drive to do it well - isn't exactly new for the Nigerian-turned-Canadian-soccer-goalie-turned-top-American-football-lineman.