From the mission field to the playing field: How the experience shaped Stanford QB Tanner McKee
Stanford QB spent two years in Brazil serving as a missionary for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. What he learned during that time helped him become who he is today — and how to overcome adversity
But McKee experienced plenty of adversity, both large and small, while serving a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Brazil. And he’s a cancer survivor. He’s well-equipped to handle such situations. This is when he thrives.
His mission is never far from his mind — and sometimes he’s reminded of it in the most unusual ways.
During that Oregon game, McKee noticed that in the Stanford student section a couple of students were waving Brazilian flags.
“It was pretty funny to see that,” he said.
Still, by the time the Cardinal got the ball back, at their own 13-yard line with 1:59 remaining, things looked bleak for the red-clad fans at Stanford Stadium, which included 1970 Heisman winner Jim Plunkett, a former Stanford quarterback.
No pressure, right?
After a couple of false start penalties by the offense, McKee was facing third-and-19 when he completed a pass for a first down. But things would get worse.
While dropping back to pass, the 6-foot-6, 225-pound, 21-year-old sophomore was sandwiched violently by Oregon All-America defensive end Kayvon Thibodeaux and another Duck defender. Thibodeaux was whistled for targeting, and ejected, because he drilled McKee with his helmet.
McKee lay on the turf for several minutes while being attended to by trainers. He was helped off the field. For a moment on the turf, he couldn’t breathe.
“I took a pretty good shot to my ribs,” he said. “In the moment, I got the wind knocked out of me. It didn’t feel great, laying there.”
It appeared his day was done as his backup, Jack West, entered the game.
But one play later, to the surprise of many observers, McKee, after being checked out by a doctor, trotted back onto the field.
“I started to feel better so I was like, ‘I need to go back into the game,’” McKee said.
Showing calmness and moxie, he drove the Cardinal down the field.
“He’s very consistent with his energy. Every time we start a drive, Tanner’s always, ‘All right, let’s go!’ He’s also poised,” Stanford fullback and team captain Houston Heimuli said later. “No matter what happened on the drive before, I’ve never seen him look fazed. I’ve never seen him doubting this or that. He knows what his job is.”
On fourth-and-goal from the four-yard line, with five seconds remaining in regulation, Oregon was penalized for pass interference, giving Stanford one more chance. With no time remaining on the clock, McKee connected with Elijah Higgins on a two-yard touchdown pass and the subsequent PAT sent the game into overtime.
In OT, McKee completed a 14-yard touchdown pass to John Humphreys to put the Cardinal ahead 31-24. Then defense held the Ducks.
Utes on the air
Utah (5-3, 4-1)
at Stanford (3-5, 2-4)
Friday, 8:30 p.m. MDT
Radio: ESPN 700
And that’s how Stanford upset then-No. 3 Oregon, as McKee stamped his name in Stanford football lore.
Cardinal coach David Shaw was impressed by McKee, but not surprised.
“That’s one of those things that we take zero credit for. That’s what he brings to the table as a person,” he said. “That’s his upbringing. It’s a combination of nature and nurture. He’s a positive, positive human being. Things are going great, he’s positive. Things are going bad, he’s positive, and the guys feed off of that. It’s not for show, it’s genuine; it’s just who he is. His ability to stay calm but still be excited, that’s infectious on our offense.”
McKee, who completed 20 of 36 passes for 230 yards and three touchdowns, was proud of his teammates.
“We have a team covenant and one of the words on it is ‘relentless.’ The guys were pushing me,” he recalled. “To be able to execute that two-minute drive, and everyone doing their part, was great for us and our confidence in ourselves to continue the season.”
Since that monumental upset of Oregon, adversity has returned. As Stanford prepares to host Utah Friday night (8:30 p.m. MDT, FS1), the Cardinal are in the throes of a three-game losing streak. Shaw said Tuesday that McKee is questionable for this week’s game due to an injury.
But McKee remains undeterred. His attitude can be partly attributed to his two years away from home, teaching the gospel of Jesus Christ in Brazil. It’s helped prepare him for situations like the final moments of the Oregon game.
“Being a missionary, there’s a ton of adversity. Maybe you walk into a lesson expecting it to go one way and someone says something and you have to ‘call an audible’ and completely change what you were going to do,” he said. “... As far as the maturity perspective, the ‘just make it happen’ mentality has really helped me from being a missionary to now being a quarterback.”
The return to football
McKee came home from the Brazil Curitiba South Mission in the spring of 2020, a couple of months earlier than anticipated due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
He had lost weight and muscle during his mission. In Brazil, McKee worked out only early in the mornings and only threw a football occasionally.
When he returned home to Corona, California, he was ready for the next chapter in his life.
“I was super excited to be back playing football again after taking two years off,” McKee said. “Two years is a really long time away from the sport you love.”
But returning to football shape was a process. During the quarantine, he threw the football with his dad, his brother and his sister’s husband.
“I felt accurate throwing the ball. I felt like my arm strength was there,” he said. “Endurance wasn’t there too great. After 15 minutes throwing the ball, my arm was super tired.”
With time on his hands, McKee took advantage by running at the nearby park and working out.
“It took some time to gain that weight and muscle back and the endurance back. It took a decent amount of months,” he said. “I felt like I was able to get back in shape quicker than normal. But it was definitely a process.”
During the height of COVID-19, former Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck, who starred in the NFL from 2012-18, appeared on a Zoom call for a quarterbacks meeting.
Luck ran the meeting and talked about the process of being a quarterback. McKee learned a lot from Stanford quarterback Davis Mills and has a good relationship with another former Stanford QB, K.J. Costello.
“It’s great talking to guys that have been in my shoes and the advice they have, going through the same things I’m going through right now,” McKee said. “It’s cool to hear their perspectives.”
Due to COVID-19, McKee’s first experience in college football produced a truncated season. Stanford finished 4-2 in 2020 — with only one home game — and McKee took 12 total snaps, throwing seven passes, while playing behind starter Mills, who now plays in the NFL.
“It was a good learning experience for me, learning from a guy like Davis,” McKee said, “and getting more reps under my belt with the offense. Knowing what coach Shaw likes and what (offensive coordinator Tavita Pritchard) likes. How I can add my personality to the offense as well.”
During the spring, McKee and senior Jack West battled for the starting job heading into the 2021 season.
The jump from high school to college, let alone with a two-year hiatus from football in between, isn’t easy to manage.
“You realize that everybody on the defensive side is a lot bigger, a little taller, a lot faster than high school,” McKee said. “You look on your side of the ball and realize your guys are a lot bigger, faster and taller as well. It’s great. Obviously, the speed of the game is faster.”
The biggest challenge is recognizing disguises orchestrated by the defense at this level.
“In high school, pre-snap, I could tell you pretty much what the defense was going to do,” he said. “But in college, and I bet it’s even more so in the NFL, people disguise coverages. Post-snap rotations. You have to see where the defenders are going to be and see lanes and know your progressions. It’s been a great learning and growing process for me.”
Off the field, McKee is enjoying his time at Stanford. He’s taking “a pretty hard” economics class. He’s planning on majoring in economics. And his girlfriend, who’s also from Corona, recently visited him at Stanford.
He loves the brotherhood with his teammates.
“These guys on the team are super special so being able to spend time with them is honestly one of the best parts about being on this team,” he said. “So many guys at Stanford are so accomplished. They’re great people with great aspirations to change the world and do great things. It’s really impressive to be around these guys and surround yourself with people with those aspirations.”
First start — at USC
While West was named the starter going into the season, McKee prepared for his opportunity. In the season opener against Kansas State, Stanford struggled. But McKee engineered a touchdown-scoring drive late in the game, which prevented the Cardinal from being shut out.
After that, Shaw named McKee the starter, which was a big moment.
“I’ve dreamed about this and thought about being the starter and taking the reins and leading the team for a long time,” McKee said. “So now I’m actually in that position, I’m trying to take advantage of every opportunity that I can. I’m trying to be the best leader, the best quarterback, the best teammate that I can be.
“It’s been a great experience for me, just trying to be a leader and helping my team be the best it can be. There’s a lot more that goes into being a quarterback than just throwing touchdowns or calling the right plays. It’s really making sure everyone’s on the same page. It’s having confidence in your guys and they have confidence in you in being able to trust each other. It’s been a great experience for me.”
Fittingly, his first career start came not far from his hometown of Corona, California — at historic Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum against USC, the team he cheered for as a kid.
“I actually grew up an SC fan. So walking into the Coliseum, I felt like I had seen a ton of different games there,” McKee said. “It was pretty neat, walking in and knowing that I was going to play and it was going to be my first start. I was super excited. The team was fired up.”
McKee led Stanford to a dominating 42-28 victory over the Trojans. And he did it in front of family and friends, some who traveled from Utah, at a place that holds a special place in his heart.
Heimuli marvels at McKee’s ability to command the huddle and be a leader.
“I’m not saying I’m surprised, but it’s really cool to see, especially out of Tanner just coming back from a mission and really stepping up in that role, a very young guy,” he said. “It’s just phenomenal. I love his energy and I love him taking charge with no fear.”
Then, against Oregon, McKee led the Cardinal to an unforgettable upset.
“For us, that win means that when we execute, we can beat anybody. I felt like a few times this season we’ve beaten ourselves. We’ve been fixing those little mistakes,” McKee said. “When we really execute and we know our assignments, we can go out and score on everybody and our defense can stop everybody. It was great for our confidence and it showed our potential as a team.”
For the season, McKee has completed 160 of 247 passes for 1,916 yards with 14 touchdowns and five interceptions.
“From where he was, probably the biggest growth would be from the first quarter of Game No. 1 to the halftime of Game No. 2. The first quarter of Game No. 1, he was still getting his feet wet and getting comfortable,” Shaw said. “That last drive against Kansas State, you really saw, as I like to say, his shoulders drop. It’s the personification of ‘Hey, I can kind of do this thing.’ He got very comfortable.
“Against USC, he played great. He has played extremely well. Not perfect — nobody plays perfect, but he’s gotten better every single week. His anticipation and recognition, his accuracy, his game plan adjustments from week to week, have gotten so much better. Coach Pritchard has done a great job shepherding his growth.”
The mission continues
Before his mission, plenty of people wondered why he would set aside football, and his scholarship at Stanford, for two years to serve a mission.
Now that he’s back, he’s frequently asked about how he was able to perform at such a high level after that prolonged break from the sport. And people are curious about missions in general.
McKee welcomes the questions and he enjoys talking about his mission.
“It’s pretty neat. I feel like I’m always talking about my mission, which is nice. People are pretty curious about why I left for two years,” he said. “The media is always asking about my mission, what I was doing for two years. It’s been a great experience for me to share what the mission’s about, what we do. It’s been a great experience for me.”
So, in a different way, his mission continues.
Some have misconceptions about missionary work but McKee is happy to kindly let them know what it’s really like.
“People come with different backgrounds and ideas about what a mission is about. Some are pretty spot-on. I’ve had people think it’s a vacation you take for two years and I was training for two years,” he said. “Being able to explain what a missionary does, how we help people come unto Christ, we’re really there to serve people in any way possible, help them move or build a fence or help with an alcohol problem. It’s fun to be able to explain that.”
Meanwhile, he stays in touch with the friends he made in Brazil through Facebook and WhatsApp while keeping his Portuguese skills sharp. Those Brazilians that have access are keeping up with McKee’s exploits on the football field at Stanford and they congratulate him on big wins.
Stanford players enjoy McKee’s easy-going demeanor and sense of humor. But when they get in a competitive situation, they see a different side of him.
“Tanner’s a very nice guy and hilarious. But he’s very competitive,” Heimuli said. “He’s nicely competitive.”
When they play pingpong, “that guy’s nasty,” Heimuli said.
Heimuli, the son of former BYU running back Lakei Heimuli, hails from Woods Cross and also served a two-year mission, to Indianapolis.
“We talk about our stuff because we’re both members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. So we have that in common,” he said. “He’s pretty easy to get along with. He can talk about any topic — sports, music, movies. But you can only sense, especially when it comes to games, he’s very competitive. … He kind of knows when to bring out whatever competitive streak he needs at certain moments, which I like. He’s good at choosing when and where to bring out that very competitive Tanner, especially during games. It comes out a lot. You see it in his eyes and in his leadership.”
From Shaw’s perspective, McKee’s maturity and confidence make him special.
“He doesn’t shy away from the moment. But he doesn’t try to make the moment be something that it’s not. I think his teammates appreciate that. We’re in a tight spot, you get the same Tanner. We’re up by a couple of scores, you get the same Tanner. That’s the comfort that he has in his own skin.
“The genuine way he communicates with his teammates,” he continued. “The positive pushing and striving that he gives I think has been great. When he makes a mistake, he owns it. He doesn’t try to hide it or explain it away. ‘Hey, I messed that up. I’m not going to make that mistake again. What’s the next play?’ I think his teammates really appreciate that.”
Shaw said McKee just needs more experience, more games, more snaps as part of his development.
“I think you put the film on now and he doesn’t look like a guy who’s in the first half of his first year starting. He looks like a veteran. Dare I say he looks like one of the best, if not the best, quarterback in our conference from time to time. He can reach those heights.” — Stanford coach David Shaw on Tanner McKee
“I think you put the film on now and he doesn’t look like a guy who’s in the first half of his first year starting. He looks like a veteran. Dare I say he looks like one of the best, if not the best, quarterback in our conference from time to time. He can reach those heights,” he said. “I’m looking forward to that continued growth. ... He’s striving to get better. He works really well. He’s a great listener and a great learner. He learns from experience and he learns from the room. I’m excited to see this second half of the year being better than the first half.”
Serving a mission didn’t soften McKee’s desire to be a college quarterback. But during his mission, he was 100% focused on serving the people of Brazil.
In a similar way, McKee “absolutely” wants to play in the NFL someday but that’s not obscuring the task at hand at Stanford.
“Right now, in the middle of the season, what’s going to help me and my NFL aspirations is playing well right now. Playing good football in college football right now,” he said. “You can’t be too worried about the draft process or when I’m going to try to leave. Right now, I’m 100% focused on me, on the team, winning football games here at Stanford. Maybe in the offseason I’ll give it a little bit more thought. As of right now, I’m 100% Stanford football.”
When asked what he’s learned about himself since returning home from his mission, McKee paused to consider the question.
“The first thing that comes to mind for me is, put your head down and go to work. I never want to look back and be like, ‘That didn’t happen. I didn’t get the starting job because this happened.’ Or ‘I wish I would have studied more film.’ It’s looking back and having a ‘no regrets’ mentality.
“I’m going to do my best and if things don’t go my way, it definitely wasn’t because I didn’t train hard enough or put in the extra work or didn’t watch enough film. For me, something learned was, give it all you’ve got and control what you can control.”
For McKee, lessons from missionary service, like handling adversity, are translating to the football field — and to his life.