Quarterback Tanner McKee interrupted his football career for two years when he served a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Curitiba, Brazil.

One of his goals was to play in the NFL, but he put his faith first.

“We think he’s a great decision-maker, has a big arm, and we think he’s accurate.” — Eagles coach Nick Sirianni on Tanner McKee

Last Saturday, McKee, who started for Stanford in 2021 and 2022, saw a childhood dream come true when he was selected in the sixth round of the NFL draft, No. 188 overall, by the Philadelphia Eagles. 

“We think he’s a great decision-maker, has a big arm, and we think he’s accurate,” Eagles coach Nick Sirianni said about McKee. “The things you look at with a quarterback, the first couple things that ever come to your mind when evaluating a quarterback are those three things I said, and then ability to extend plays. He definitely has those first three things, and we’re excited to work with him.”

Philadelphia’s starting quarterback is Jalen Hurts, who helped lead the Eagles to the Super Bowl last season. So where will McKee fit in?

“He’s certainly a long-term project and a developmental quarterback, but when you’re picking in the sixth round and you just gave your starting quarterback a quarter of a billion dollars, there’s certainly value in finding a late-round project to try and develop,” wrote Reuben Frank of NBCSports.com. “The Eagles signed veteran Marcus Mariota last month to back up Jalen Hurts. The only other quarterback on the roster is former Notre Dame star Ian Book, who was No. 3 last year behind Hurts and Gardner Minshew.”

When McKee was in high school, some questioned his decision to take a two-year break from football by serving a mission. 

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Looking back, how has his missionary service impacted his life and his football career?

McKee’s mission president, B. Corey Cuvelier, is now an Area Seventy for the church in Texas. Elder Cuvelier holds devotionals for youth and he has invited McKee and his wife to participate. 

A few weeks ago, McKee was involved in a devotional via Zoom. 

“The kids ask great questions. They ask, ‘Where do you think you’d be if you didn’t serve a mission?’ I have no idea where I could have been,” he said. “Would have I been a better athlete? No, I don’t think I would have been a better athlete. We don’t really know. The answer is, when you put Heavenly Father first, you know that he’ll allow you to reach your potential. I think that’s something that’s important.”

McKee can count many blessings that have resulted from his missionary service. 

“When I think of direct blessings that come from a mission, on the football side, there’s learning a culture and being able to talk with people from a complete variety of backgrounds and bring them together for a common purpose, which is a lot like a football team,” he said. “You have guys that are from different economic backgrounds and different parts of the country. You bring them together as a team and you have to bring them together to beat other teams.”

Elders Tanner McKee and Pedro Cabral, missionaries for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, walk a narrow street in Paranaguá, Brazil, on Saturday, June 1, 2019. | Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

Of course, McKee is grateful for all of the Brazilians that he met, befriended, served and taught during his mission. 

Then there were the unexpected, unforeseen blessings from his mission. 

“I set up my sister on a blind date with my mission president’s son. So that’s how my sister met her husband,” McKee said. “My wife came home from her mission at the same time that I came home from my mission because of COVID. We started to get serious in our dating. We had gone on a few dates but we didn’t know how it was going to work out. The mission allowed that to happen.”

McKee believes the blessings will continue after his football career. 

“Who knows? Maybe I’ll get a job in the future that will allow me to use my Portuguese and be able to affect other people doing firesides and helping kids realize that missions are super important and Heavenly Father will bless them,” he said. “Maybe more kids will go on missions because I served. There are so many blessings that are direct and so many blessings that we don’t even realize that are pretty cool.”

The first returned missionary quarterback to start a game in the NFL was John Beck, who played for the Miami Dolphins in 2007. McKee has had many conversations with Beck about what it’s like as a Latter-day Saint to play in the NFL, with the vast majority of games played on Sundays. 

“It’s definitely something I’ve tried to balance,” he said. “How am I going to do my part on Sundays to keep the Sabbath Day holy?”

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One former NFL player that balanced faith and football is former Utah star Eric Weddle, a second-round draft pick. He played in the league for 13 seasons and earned six Pro Bowl selections. 

Weddle, who joined the church during his time with the Utes, capped off his career by leading the Los Angeles Rams to a victory in Super Bowl LVI.  

Recently, Weddle held a fireside in Southern California to share his faith and his experiences in the NFL. 

“I couldn’t go to it, but my sister and brother-in-law did,” McKee said. “They said he tried to find the earliest sacrament meeting, even just to take the sacrament. I definitely feel the influence and I’m trying to get different ideas from different guys. John has told me, ‘It’s weird to do the sacrament by yourself in your hotel room every week. Then going back to church after the season, it feels like it’s been six months since I’d been to church. I try to feel active but coming back after six months feels different. It feels so good to be back in a church building.’”

McKee is looking forward to the next chapter of his football career and he’s determined to remember what helped him get there — primarily, his faith. 

“I’m excited to have my routine,” he said, “and do my best to live up to the commandments.”

It appears Philadelphia is a good landing spot for McKee. There’s another returned missionary on the roster — wide receiver/punt return specialist Britain Covey, who just completed his rookie season with the Eagles.

Meanwhile, the Eagles have proven to be adept at developing quarterbacks over the years. 

“McKee is the seventh quarterback (general manager) Howie Roseman has drafted. Three have contributed to Super Bowl teams — Nick Foles (third round in 2012), Carson Wentz (first round in 2016) and Hurts (second round in 2020). The others are Mike Kafka (fourth round in 2010), Matt Barkley (fourth round in 2013) and Clayton Thorson (fifth round in 2019),” according to NBCSports.com. “McKee is the first quarterback the Eagles have taken this late in a draft since Delaware’s Andy Hall, a sixth-round pick and No. 185 overall in 2004 … Hall and Thorson are the only quarterbacks the Eagles have drafted in the last 25 years that never got into an NFL game.”

McKee is undaunted by the odds and he’s relying on his faith. He is embracing this new challenge.

“Wherever I go, I’m excited to go out and display what I can do on the field, in the locker room and being a teammate and a leader,” McKee said prior to the draft. “I’m very excited to take advantage of whatever opportunity comes.”

Tanner McKee rides his electric scooter through the Stanford University campus on the way to class in Stanford, California, on Monday, Nov. 8, 2021. | Spenser Heaps, Deseret News