Five years ago, Tanner McKee was striding through the streets of southern Brazil, wearing a white shirt, tie and black name badge representing The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as one of thousands of missionaries serving around the world.

While he dedicated two years of his life to helping Brazilians, the former four-star quarterback from Corona, California, also harbored dreams of someday playing in the NFL, though during that time, he lost about 15 pounds of weight and muscle from his 6-foot-6 frame. 

After returning home from the Brazil Curitiba Mission in spring 2020, McKee enrolled at Stanford and became the starting quarterback for two seasons, serving as team captain in 2022, before being drafted in the sixth round by the Philadelphia Eagles last April. 

This fall, his mission world and his professional world could be colliding in a serendipitous way. 

Last week, not long after McKee completed his rookie season as a backup QB for the Eagles, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell announced in his annual meeting with the media prior to the Super Bowl in Las Vegas that the Eagles will kick off the 2024 regular season with the NFL’s first-ever game in South America. 

That season opener will be held Friday, Sept. 6, at Corinthians Arena in São Paulo, Brazil, about 345 miles north of Curitiba. 

McKee is looking forward to returning to the country he loves so much to be part of a historic event while wearing an Eagles jersey and helmet. 

Not even Frank Capra could have scripted this. 

Observers might see this as a mere coincidence. But McKee sees a bigger picture. 

“There’s definitely some divine intervention, for sure,” he said.

McKee, 23, doesn’t know all that went into the NFL selecting the Eagles to travel to Brazil for this game — but he couldn’t be happier that it’s happening.

“I’m really excited to go back to Brazil and see a bunch of people there, speak the language and be part of that culture again,” he said. “I’ve already had some teammates hit me up, saying, ‘You’re going to be the ones taking us around and showing us things in Brazil.’

“I’m fired up to go back. I haven’t been back since my mission. It’s always been a goal for me and my wife, Lauren, to go back at some point and do a football camp there. Obviously, this will be a perfect (situation); the first time back since the mission. I’m excited.”

McKee, and those closest to him, ascribe this latest unexpected chapter of his life to the blessings he’s received because of his decision to serve a mission. 

‘Now it’s becoming reality’

McKee’s mission president, Elder Corey Cuvelier, is planning to travel to Brazil for this game between the Eagles and a yet-to-be-announced opponent. 

Cuvelier presided over the Brazil Curitiba Mission from 2016-19, and he is currently serving as an Area Seventy in Katy, Texas. Elder Cuvelier is also the director of U.S. retail operations with Shell Oil Company. 

Elder Cuvelier and McKee have remained close since they finished their missionary service. Aside from the bond that formed while serving together, McKee’s sister, Kayla, is married to Elder Cuvelier’s son, Cameron.

In December, the NFL announced that Brazil would be hosting a regular-season game but it didn’t specify which teams would be playing in it. 

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Yet even months before that, “Tanner and I had talked about the possibility of the Eagles playing in Brazil at some point in time. We just didn’t think it would happen this soon. We had actually dreamed about it,” Elder Cuvelier said. “What would we do if somehow the NFL had a game in Brazil featuring the Philadelphia Eagles? How cool would that be? And now, it’s becoming a reality.”

McKee was at home in Corona, eating lunch, when he heard the news. First, his dad, Jeremie, heard that the Eagles were going to play in Brazil. From the other side of the room, he shouted, “Oh my gosh!” 

“What? Did something bad happen?” Tanner asked.

“The Eagles are playing in Brazil!” Jeremie replied.

At that point, “we all started freaking out,” Tanner said. “Then my phone was blowing up with a bunch of people talking about it.”

For Cuvelier, it was “pure excitement” learning that the Eagles would be going to South America.

“I called Tanner immediately,” he said. “He picked up and said, ‘We’re going to Brazil!’”

Elder Cuvelier has already been in contact with the Area Presidency in Brazil to discuss the possibilities of what McKee might be able to do for the church while he’s in São Paulo, such as participating in a multistake youth devotional that could be broadcast throughout the country. 

“We’re working on something. I don’t know the details yet,” Elder Cuvelier said. “I can tell you that in Curitiba, this would be a big deal. Everybody in the church knows who he is from his service there. He had the opportunity to serve in just about every corner of the mission. This will be a great opportunity.”

During his service in Brazil, McKee received permission to participate in a couple of practices with a professional Brazilian American football team, the Curitiba Crocodiles. The team was founded by a group of friends that watched NFL games together. 

“Tanner’s garnered quite a following,” Elder Cuvelier said. “From the two times he practiced with the team, those players continue to keep in touch with him. They comment on his social media all of the time.”

McKee said he keeps in touch on social media with the Brazilians he met and became friends with during his mission. Now that the Eagles are going to Brazil, those conversations have increased.

“A ton of Brazilians were hitting me up,” he said. “One of the guys from the Crocodiles that I knew was like, ‘Tanner’s going to be playing a home game when he comes down here.’ All those guys are fired up. Hopefully, a couple of those guys will be able to go to the game and I’ll be able to see them again. Just having a game in Brazil is going to be great.”

Elder Cuvelier has encouraged McKee to talk to NFL officials and Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie to let them know he’s willing to use his Portuguese language skills to conduct interviews and promote the NFL in Brazil. He’ll likely be a media darling in São Paulo that week for that reason alone. 

“Tanner could do something similar to what Chad Lewis did in China,” Elder Cuvelier said. 

Chad Lewis and building bridges around the world

Before starring as a tight end at BYU in the mid-1990s, Lewis served a mission to Taiwan. While he was playing for the Philadelphia Eagles, the NFL utilized Lewis as an ambassador for the league in China, capitalizing on his ability to speak Mandarin. 

As part of his duties with the NFL, Lewis also visited South Korea, Thailand, Taiwan, Singapore and the continent of Africa. 

“I’m grateful for all of those opportunities to share the game, to make friendships and  relationships,” he said. “It’s difficult to go visit other places and not have more respect and more compassion for other people once you see where they live and how they live.”

Because of those experiences, Lewis understands what awaits McKee. 

“How cool is that, that Tanner has that appreciation for it. How cool would it be when those people hear him in interviews, speaking their own language. What a great asset for the Eagles, for himself and his family, for the church, for everything good,” he said. “What an incredible opportunity for Tanner to be an ambassador, to speak another language, to go to a country where he’s already served for two years as a missionary and loves the people, understands the culture, he’s just going to have a great time.

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“Sports, in its purest form, is a bridge-builder with people. It’s a bridge-builder with families. It’s a bridge-builder with cultures. You don’t have to have a translator working the game to understand what’s going on. You see the competition and it brings you together. That’s what a ball does. It brings people together. It’s part of the beauty of the Olympics. It brings us all together as a global family.”

What makes this even more special for Lewis is his connection with the Eagles. He credits Lurie, the Eagles owner, for putting the organization in this position. 

“The fact that the Eagles are going to start their year, their opening game of the ’24 season is going to be for the first time in South America — to me, that’s a landmark decision and the NFL is doing a great job to share the game with the rest of the world,” Lewis said. “I love the fact that the Eagles are the first ones playing down there. It’s very cool.

“They’ve worked hard to build a great brand. They’ve worked hard in marketing, to be open and share and grow. They’ve done that ever since Jeffrey Lurie has been the owner. He’s never been afraid of distance, language or culture or growing. That’s a pretty cool leadership trait to have.”

Lewis is grateful for the opportunities he had to represent the NFL, and his faith, while traveling abroad. 

“The platform of the NFL provides a great opportunity to share good ideas. The messages of hope and peace and strength with other people, they’re listening. You have a platform. As long as you prepare in your mind before you go, you can make great use of that platform. It’s not a selfish platform. It doesn’t work that way,” he said. “When you use it to benefit others or lift others or share the greatest messages in life, which is hope, faith, friendship and peace — those are great messages.

Philadelphia Eagles tight end Chad Lewis (89) holds onto a two-yard touchdown pass against Washington Sunday, Nov. 21, 2004, in Philadelphia. | Miles Kennedy, Associated Press

“Those can be shared through football, naturally. Jeffrey Lurie has always been willing to expand and share. I was with him in China and I got to see his willingness as an NFL owner to expand the game to other places. He’s got an open mind, both in business and in sport. That’s good for all of us to be a part of all of it.”

The Eagles’ trip to Brazil is part of the NFL’s mission to expand the game’s popularity around the world.  

“Bringing the NFL to new continents, countries and cities around the world is a critical element of our plan to continue to grow the game globally,“ Goodell said during the winter meetings in Dallas in December. “Brazil has established itself as a key market for the NFL and we are excited to be playing in Brazil and São Paulo for the first time in 2024.

“We look forward to working with the city of São Paulo, SP Turis and Corinthians Arena to deliver a world-class game-day experience for this passionate and growing fan base.”

According to the NFL, there are 38 million football fans in Brazil, second only to Mexico among the NFL’s international fan base. 

São Paulo has a population of more than 12 million people. 

“The National Football League’s decision to bring a regular-season game to São Paulo is significant and exciting for the city, consolidating São Paulo and Brazil at the center of the global sporting stage,” São Paulo Mayor Ricardo Nunes said at the Dallas meetings. “Through our hard work, we will now be able to welcome the NFL to our city, hosting this historic game that will have a positive impact on tourism, employment and the city’s economy.”

Besides São Paulo, the NFL’s 2024 International Series will also feature games in London and Munich. It will mark the first time the NFL has held regular-season contests on three continents in the same campaign. 

The Britain Covey connection

While McKee has ties to Brazil, he’s not the only member of the Eagles that has served a mission in South America. 

Wide receiver/punt return specialist Britain Covey, who will be entering his third NFL season this fall, served in Chile from 2016-18. 

He’s just as excited as McKee is about the prospect of playing the first NFL game on that continent. 

“I’m ecstatic. I told my wife and my family that I was hoping for an international game so much. I didn’t care where. I love to go to Europe and all those places,” said the former Utah Utes star. “When we got the Brazil game, I was stoked. I’m sure I’ll have quite a few Spanish interviews that week. I’ll lean on Tanner for the Portuguese. I’ve got a couple of (former missionary) companions that will be coming as well.”

The Eagles also have other Latter-day Saints in the organization — tight end Noah Togiai and newly hired offensive coordinator Kellen Moore. 

Covey can’t wait to help the NFL promote its brand in South America. 

“I love the international program to expand football. Some people say the Super Bowl is the biggest game in the world,” he said. “Those of us that have been outside of the country know it’s definitely not. It’s the biggest game in America. I’m excited. Growing the game is important. It’s what I want to do. With my ties to South America, it’s just really special for me.”

As part of an NFL initiative that started in 2022, players are encouraged to wear the flag of an international country, in which either they lived for more than two years or relatives have been born, on the back of their helmets, along with the American flag. According to the NFL, more than 330 players have participated. The purpose of the initiative is to “represent the ever-growing pool of various nationalities and cultures that make up the league.”

Covey wore a Chilean flag on the back of his helmet while McKee donned a Brazilian flag on his. 

“Since I’ve worn that Chilean flag, I’ve probably gotten 1,000 people on Instagram, Chileans, that have messaged me once or twice throughout the season. They message me after every game,” Covey said. “Even though I’m not Chilean, they like to claim me.

“It’s really sweet because I’m not claiming Chilean heritage by wearing that flag but I just want to represent the country that I served in. A lot of the people have really started to like American football down there.”

Philadelphia Eagles’ Britain Covey returns a punt 54 yards against the New York Giants Monday, Dec. 25, 2023, in Philadelphia. | Rich Schultz, Associated Press

ESPN Brazil conducted an extended interview with McKee, in Portuguese, last season to talk to him about the Brazilian flag and why he put it on his helmet. 

“Tanner was able to say that he had been a missionary and he conducted the interview in Portuguese. It was great,” Elder Cuvelier said. “He talked about how he loves the people of Brazil and how he loved his time there and served a mission. People from all over Brazil, especially (American) football fans, saw that and were commenting on it.” 

Covey would love to participate with McKee in a youth devotional when they go to Brazil. 

“I’ll for sure do it. I might need a translator, though,” he said. “My whole football career I’ve seen as an opportunity to share God with the world. It’s a blessing from God, opportunities to spread the gospel and the message of Jesus Christ. I still don’t really know how much impact, if any, God has directly with sports, you know? But I do think that he cares about all of his children. Being a professional athlete, you have a platform that won’t last long but it can be very impactful and influential on young kids. I’ll use that however I can.”

‘He was just a missionary’

Recently, a Brazilian Latter-day Saint interviewed people that knew McKee while he was serving his mission. They talked about the positive influence he had on their lives. The interviews were posted on social media. 

“I don’t think those people really appreciate that Tanner was a top-level quarterback with all this potential and he didn’t play it off that he was on his mission,” Elder Cuvelier said. “He was just a missionary — a humble young man who wanted to serve the Lord and serve the people and be completely engaged in the work and embrace the culture.

“So they loved him for it. Now they see the success and they realize that, oh, wait, he was a pretty good football player. But they didn’t see him as a football player. They just saw him as this amazing young man with a love of the Lord and the people and the gospel.”

Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Jalen Hurts (1) takes the field with quarterback Marcus Mariota (8) and quarterback Tanner McKee (19) prior to the a game against the San Francisco 49ers, Sunday, Dec. 3, 2023, in Philadelphia. | Chris Szagola, Associated Press

For McKee, the blessings continue to multiply — and many of those blessings can be traced directly to serving a mission. Before he left, some people told him he was crazy to leave the sport for two years because of his potential on the football field.

But look at what McKee’s sacrifice, to serve in the mission field, has produced. 

“I was talking to Tanner’s dad, Jeremie. He’s blown away by everything, how everything has just worked out. The way everything just connects,” Elder Cuvelier said. “You look back on it and you think, ‘Wow, all because of one decision, to serve a mission, this is happening.’” 

As McKee served, he put his faith and his service to the Brazilian people above his football dreams. Now his football dreams are being realized in ways he couldn’t have imagined. 

“This couldn’t have been scripted any better,” Elder Cuvelier said. “It’s been amazing.”

Even before this chance to be part of the NFL’s first game in South America arose, McKee had been talking to his agent and to the Eagles organization about holding a football camp in Curitiba. That’s still in the works, of course. He’s also talking to NFL Brazil and NFL International about doing that at some point. 

“I’d love to give back as much as I can,” he said. 

What are the odds that McKee would get drafted by the Philadelphia Eagles, one of 32 teams in the NFL, and that the Eagles would be the first team to play a game in South America — let alone in Brazil?

To McKee, this is not a random occurrence. 

“There’s definitely a plan. Some things are coincidences. I don’t know how much of a coincidence this is,” he said. “I really don’t think it’s a coincidence. I’m just super excited. I honestly have no idea if I had any influence at all. But I’m happy that it worked out.”

Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Tanner McKee walks off the field after the Eagles defeated the Dallas Cowboys Sunday, Nov. 5, 2023, in Philadelphia. | Rich Schultz, Associated Press