The unexpected return to college football for Latter-day Saint missionaries
These student-athletes are not only regaining their football form but also navigating the sport during a pandemic
In all honesty, Stanford quarterback Tanner McKee said strapping on his football pads for the first time this season initially felt “weird.”
“It was kind of like coming home from a long trip,” the freshman told the Deseret News. “I kind of forgot a few things. ... But once you start playing football, it all comes back.”
In McKee’s case, he had been on a long trip and the circumstances of his return were highly unusual.
The 6-foot-6 prized football recruit from Corona, California, flew home in late March after serving a 21-month mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Curitiba, Brazil. The end of his missionary service was expedited due to the spread of COVID-19, and he was one of thousands of missionaries sent home early.
With his mission honorably concluded, McKee was free to turn his attention to higher education and college football, albeit under the uncertain circumstances of a global pandemic, which has not been easy.
McKee is one of more than 130 returned missionaries on Football Bowl Subdivision rosters for the 2020 season. He and two other returned missionaries — BYU’s Ryan Rehkow and Arizona State’s Case Hatch — are among many who have benefited from their missionary service and are having a positive impact for their respective teams this season.
While COVID-19 ended McKee’s mission a little early, spending more than three months at home provided him with a necessary head start on training and learning the playbook.
“Getting back in shape was definitely pretty hard,” he said. “I felt pretty good throwing the ball, I was accurate and everything, but my arm would get tired and be pretty sore the next day. So just getting back into a routine of working out every day and running and stuff like that was I think the hardest for me.”
During that time, McKee had multiple Zoom calls with his coaches to learn the Cardinal offense.
Through a roller coaster fall that saw some conferences start playing games in August and others, like the Pac-12, waiting until November, practicing under new COVID-19 protocols and fitting in as a freshman, McKee ended up as the Cardinal’s third-string quarterback.
His first action came in the team’s season opener at Oregon on Nov. 7. He played a few series and went 3 for 7 for 62 yards, including a 46-yard completion. It’s only one of the highlights of returning to the sport he loves.
“I feel like there’s been a lot of highlights,” he said. “I think the whole process of getting back in shape and getting back with the guys and just talking football again. Obviously, football is not a huge thing in Brazil, we’re just drawing up plays on the football or in the grass and trying to run around on P-day. So it’s fun to actually get back into it.”
McKee is one of seven returned missionaries playing for Stanford with the other six all from Utah. When the team first returned to campus to prepare for the season, the players stayed in a hotel for more than a month. The returned missionaries arranged to meet in someone’s room and hold church worship services together. Those experiences, along with fun activities like playing pickleball or going to the beach, have bonded the small group together in Latter-day Saint brotherhood, McKee said.
“They are great guys and we obviously have a lot in common,” he said. “It’s super easy to get along with those guys.”
It’s not uncommon for someone to approach one of the seven with questions about his mission or the church in general.
“It comes up pretty quickly that I was in Brazil for two years,” McKee said. “It’s definitely a conversation starter.”
As the Cardinals continue to navigate the shortened and unpredictable season, McKee is grateful for lessons learned from his mission that taught him how to deal with all kinds of difficulties and hardships.
“One of our team mottos is to adapt,” he said. “In the mission, obviously you have to always adapt. ... I feel like what helped me a lot here with the whole pandemic was everything was kind of crazy, but nothing really changed from the mission. The mission prepared me super well.”
Rehkow had more time to adjust back to football following his missionary service in London. He returned home in August 2019, too late for fall camp, so he opted to grayshirt and join the team in the spring. Rehkow said he appreciated the chance to ease back into the sport.
The freshman, one of the bigger punters in college football at 6-foot-5 and 240 pounds, was ready to go when spring practices started but was greatly disappointed a week or so later when the COVID-19 pandemic canceled everything until further notice.
“Everyone was so excited to get back into things,” Rehkow said. “Then for it to be put on hold, we didn’t have any idea when it was going to start back up again. There was a lot of uncertainty around the whole thing.”
Rehkow returned home to Spokane, Washington, in April and stayed through most of the summer until workouts started again. The returned missionary took advantage of the chance to be mentored and coached by his father and older brother, Austin Rehkow, a former All-American kicker/punter at the University of Idaho who had preseason stints with the New York Giants and Buffalo Bills, among other professional opportunities.
The brothers Rehkow started out playing soccer before learning to kick the pigskin in high school. Ryan said the time at home with his family was a “blessing.”
“We’ve grown up competing our whole lives. My brother was able to give me a ‘pressure-look’ so when I get into games, it’s like I’ve already been under pressure. The worst thing you can do is start to overthink things and try to do too much,” Rehkow said. “He and my dad helped me learn to stay calm, stay focused.”
When Rehkow arrived at BYU last fall, it didn’t take long to secure the punting job. He said Ed Lamb, the assistant head coach who oversees special teams, designated Jake Oldroyd as the placekicker and Rehkow as the punter so they could each focus on one area of kicking.
This season, Rehkow is averaging 45.1 yards per punt. It’s a number that should have him listed among the NCAA leaders, but with only 27 punts in 11 games, he falls short of the required minimum number of attempts. Twice this season he has recorded punts of 60 or more yards. Rehkow also serves as Oldroyd’s holder on field goals and extra points.
Despite all that’s happened this year, Rehkow is grateful for how his mission prepared him to play college football, as well as the opportunities he’s received this season.
“No complaints from anyone on our end,” he said. “We don’t want to take anything for granted. After each game, I’m just so thankful for the opportunity to play.”
Another returned missionary grateful to be playing is Case Hatch, a sophomore from Gilbert, Arizona.
Hatch was featured in an article by 247sports.com last June, in which he talked about his family life and missionary service in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Although he had several options to play college football out of high school, serving a mission was nonnegotiable.
“My dad always saw it as, if we put God first in our lives, everything else would be taken care of,” Case said in the article. “So he reminded me of that my senior year, I took that risk, I took the chance with our Heavenly Father, put it all on him, basically, to go serve him for two years with all my heart and hope that something was going to be here.”
Upon his return, Hatch turned down a scholarship from Southern Utah University for a walk-on opportunity at Arizona State. The Arizona native quickly caught the attention of the ASU coaching staff during 2019 spring practice, according to 247sports.com.
“There’s a lot of positive energy about him,” said former ASU defensive coordinator Danny Gonzales, now the head coach at the University of New Mexico. “This young man looks better than anybody I’ve ever seen coming off a mission, so I’m really excited for him.”
As a freshman willing to play multiple positions, the 6-foot-2, 225-pound Hatch impressed his coaches as a special teams player, a reserve linebacker and lead-blocking fullback, even catching a 26-yard pass in the Sun Devils’ Sun Bowl victory over Florida State in 2019
At the end of the 2019 season, while being honored as the special teams player of the week, ASU head coach Herm Edwards surprised Hatch with a second gift — a full scholarship. The moment was captured on video and shared on Twitter and Arizonasports.com.
“Because you’re so good — You know what? You get two presents,” Edwards said as he turned Hatch around to show him the screen that then read “awarded a full scholarship.”
When asked about his first-year success, Hatch told Azfamily.com he was only looking for opportunities to improve.
“My big thing was always to look for a way to progress, to be better,” Hatch said. “Every game, I would go through film and see how I could have gone quicker down the field, how could I have made the tackle. All that built up on itself. I did not expect it to happen, but when I got it, it was amazing.”
Arizona State has seen its fair share of adversity this season. The Sun Devils didn’t play their first game until November, and after dropping a tight 28-27 opening game to USC, issues related to COVID-19 resulted in ASU not playing its following three scheduled games. ASU rebounded with a 70-7 thrashing of rival Arizona for its first win of the year on Dec. 11.
Despite the challenges, Hatch was surprised and honored to be selected as a team captain.
“I was super excited for the opportunity, didn’t think it was going to come this soon. It definitely was something I was shooting for because I’m always looking for an opportunity to help kids around me to grow. I’m always looking for an opportunity to lead,” Hatch told reporters in an October video interview. “It’s been a crazy ride — crazy to think I would come in as a walk-on, that I would earn a scholarship, earn my spot and then get honored as a captain. It’s pretty amazing.”